We often excuse a person’s behaviors when drinking alcohol as, “he normally doesn’t get belligerent like that, it’s just he hadn’t eaten anything all day,” or “she’s really a great mom – just has a bit too much to drink sometimes and forgets to pick up her kids,” or “all teens drink too much now and again – it wasn’t his fault he sexually assaulted her – they both were drunk.”
We go to great lengths to rationalize these normally unacceptable behaviors (being belligerent, forgetting to pick up one’s children or sexual assault) as somehow acceptable because the person had too much to drink. We forget entirely about the ripple effect – the feelings experienced by the person on the receiving end of the belligerent behaviors, the children whose mom forgot to pick them up or the outcomes for both the boy and the girl in the case of the sexual assault. These are examples of Secondhand Drinking (SHD). These are the ripple effects of a person’s alcohol misuse, which includes: binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
Secondhand Drinking (SHD) is a term to describe the impacts on a person who is on the receiving end of a person’s drinking behaviors. When secondhand drinking is chronic, it can change a person’s brain, which in turn can change the very quality of their life.
Drinking Behaviors are the behaviors a person engages in as a result of excessive alcohol changing brain function. These behaviors include:
- drunken arguments
- physical fights
- verbal, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, bullying
- driving while impaired, riding in a car with an impaired driver, getting a DUI
- unprotected, unwanted, unplanned sex, sexual assault
- problems at work or in school
- domestic violence.
If chronic, SHD can cause brain changes for family members and close friends as they wire in coping skills to respond to the drinking behaviors or the lifetime outcomes of those behaviors (being the victim of drunk driving accident, for example). Coping skills examples include: retreating inside one’s mind or physically exiting the room when confronted with abusive or scary drinking behaviors; carrying pent-up, explosive rage that spills out in other situations because it cannot be expressed to the person abusively drinking/drugging for safety reasons; attempts to be especially “good” to make up for or “fix” the problem; excusing or accommodating unacceptable behaviors as somehow acceptable and carrying that behavior into other relationships, as well.
These brain changes are caused by the repetitive activation of the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response system, a system that engages when confronted with stress – danger – fear – anxiety. As a result of these brain and physical changes, family members and close friends repeatedly exposed to SHD often suffer anxiety, depression, stomach ailments, skin problems, obesity, sleep difficulties, migraines and a whole host of other conditions. They experience quality-of-life changes that are beyond a “healthy” person’s comprehension. Not only this but the consequential physical and emotional impairments a person repeatedly exposed to SHD experiences changes them in ways that extends SHD impacts to those within their sphere of influence. This can include their co-workers, fellow students and relatives of family members. As will become apparent, SHD’s influence can touch most of us in one form or another.
Secondhand drinking is what happens to the husband whose wife repeatedly promises to stop or cut down but every night can’t keep her promise. When he confronts her, she starts her offensive attacks on something he has or has not done as the reason for her drinking, causing him to go on the defensive and engage in the crazy, convoluted arguments that ensue. He rehashes these arguments over and over in his mind the next day while at work, unable to complete the task at hand, which holds up the next stage of the project on which his team is working.
Secondhand drinking is what happens to the boss whose life and the life of his daughter and the lives of every member of his immediate and extended family are shattered when his daughter is paralyzed in a head-on collision caused by a drunk driver. As you can see, SHD can be a one-time event, but its ripple effects will last a lifetime causing physical and emotional outcomes unfathomable to most.
Secondhand drinking is what happens to the college roommate whose Friday and Saturday nights are spent watching out for her best friend who always gets drunk – making sure she doesn’t wander off with some guy, wrestling her car keys from her under a barrage of expletives, and once again holding her hair while she pukes, between sobs of, “I’m so sorry….”
Secondhand drinking is real. It hurts. And it changes lives.
What Can a Person Do to Minimize the Impacts of Secondhand Drinking?
Consider these three suggestions:
1. Learn as much as you can about “At-Risk drinking,” which is a drinking pattern than puts a person at risk for causing Secondhand Drinking. Check out At-Risk Drinking Identified With a Single Question.
2. Find out more about SHD and its impacts on the person experiencing it. Check out The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking.
3. Understand why alcohol abuse is not alcoholism and why a person who abuses alcohol can learn to re-drink, whereas a person with a alcoholism my not drink any amount. Watch the short video, “Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.”
Photo Credit: www.addicthelp.org