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Living with an alcoholic partner or family member often means being caught in the undertow of their disease. In one way or another, as a “concerned other,” you become part of that alcohol use disorder’s collateral damage. It can be incredibly stressful, and carrying that stress can have many negative impacts on your own life.

This damage could be from emotional neglect, as drinking and recovering from hangovers make the alcoholic in your life less and less available. There’s the burden of “caretaker” status as you clean up the social or financial messes created by your loved one’s drinking behaviors. Your suppressed resentments over the unfairness of all this can spill out in unrelated situations, jeopardizing your own career. Your safety could be at risk, such as when you’re in the passenger’s seat, or as the focus of a drunken rage when you plea for your loved one get help.

What is Secondhand Drinking?

Author Lisa Frederiksen coined a useful term for these ripple effects created by someone’s alcohol use disorder: secondhand drinking (SHD). Frederiksen defines secondhand drinking as “the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others.”

The notion of a “secondhand” vice has an obvious precedent. Health risks — from cancer to emphysema — associated with secondhand smoking led to bans against lighting up in airplanes, restaurants, and other public spaces. In close proximity to smoking, repeated exposure to carcinogens in tobacco smoke can lead to a litany of ills over time, even for non-smokers. Recent studies have shown the toxic chemicals in secondhand smoke can cling to surfaces and pollute interior air for years after initial exposure.

The idea behind the concept of secondhand drinking is similar. Repeated exposure to an alcoholic’s chronic drinking behaviors (such as verbal abuse or domestic violence) creates a stressful environment which puts the non-alcoholic’s health at risk. The initial damage reverberates through the non-alcoholic’s life. When living with an alcoholic, one’s home is no refuge.

Living With an Alcoholic Rewires Your Brain

The confrontational situations we face with an addicted loved one trigger our “fight or flight” response. But for modern-day humans in general, neither instinct may be practical. This is true in many close-conflict relationships at school, work, or at home. The incredible strain from living with an alcoholic especially runs counter to our evolutionary programming. Suppressed anger and resentment held toward the alcoholic partner manifests itself in damaging fashion. Frederiksen writes:

The physical health consequences of regularly activating the FFRS [Fight or Flight response System], but not carrying it through to RUN or FIGHT, are many. They include: headaches, stomach problems, skin rashes, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, muscle aches, migraines, sleep problems, changes in eating habits (causing obesity or weight loss) and dizziness . . .

The mental health consequences of regularly activating the FFSRS are equally troubling. These include: feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating or a desperate need to be in control. As importantly, they change our behaviors.

Just as the alcoholic brain is rewired by its addiction to ethyl alcohol, brain scans demonstrate that secondhand drinking causes the victim’s neural network to be reprogrammed. Like a frightened animal, our brains become fixed in the reactive mode, blocking rational, reflective thought. Anxiety ratchets up, and we may lash out at innocent parties, like our children or our co-workers. And so the ripples widen, and toward ever more distant shores.

Stop this vicious cycle before more damage is done by helping your loved one find effective treatment. If you are suffering from secondhand drinking due to living with an alcoholic, we would like to hear from you. Please use the response form below or call now. We can help!

External Sources

Frederiksen, Lisa. A Quick Guide to Secondhand Drinking. Menlo Park, CA: KLJ Publishing, 2014

Fox, Maggie. “HVAC systems spread thirdhand smoke,” NBC, 9 May 2018.