“When he wasn’t drinking, he was a sweet, docile person,” Ron Blake, a social justice activist and public speaker, tells me. His partner of ten years had a problem with alcohol and, when he drank, he was like Jekyl and Hyde.
“He was my best friend. He was everything to me,” says Blake of his former partner. But, “he was one of the most dangerous people I’ve ever met in my life.”
When he drank, his partner became an unrecognizable version of himself. He would drink and drive. He would become aggressive. He once threw a metal bike lock at Blake’s head. And then one night, while Blake was asleep at his home, his partner let in two friends. All three were drunk and that night Blake was brutally assaulted. He called the cops and he nearly took his own life while standing on the balcony waiting for the police to arrive.
We know alcohol can lead to harmful behavior, but why is it so much easier to blame domestic abuse on alcohol rather than the abuser?
In the days following, his partner said “I was drunk, I’m sorry,” and Blake believed him, which is why he didn’t immediately leave the relationship. Though he’s been criticized for this, Blake knows now that domestic abuse is complicated. At the time, Blake wanted to protect his partner. He wanted to help his partner through an addiction.
We know alcohol can lead to harmful behavior, but why is it so much easier to blame domestic abuse on alcohol rather than the abuser? Alcohol, a commonly used drug, has devastating consequences, and very often it leads to violence. However, abuse is still abuse. Separately, both are a problem, and together, they can be deadly.
The Dangers of Drinking
Alcohol kills nearly 90,000 Americans annually, the majority of whom are male. In 2016, alcohol was a leading cause in nearly three million deaths and was the leading risk factor for premature death and disability among 15-49-year-olds.
Alcohol is a socially-accepted, media-friendly drug that often conjures up images of beachside bars, tailgates, celebratory speeches, and relaxing evenings at home, and not the blackouts, bad decisions, dangerous driving, or abuse, but these incidents occur far too often to be ignored.
“Alcohol never solves a problem,” says Aaron Weiner, Ph.D., ABPP, Director of Addiction Services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health. “At best, alcohol [offers] momentary relief. At worst, alcohol becomes a chronic syndrome that can completely upend your life.”
“I know that forcing someone into recovery is a recipe for failure. And I know going through it without support is, too.”
For Robin Kavanagh, alcohol was the elephant in her relationship. Her partner needed a beer to sleep. He had a job, he paid his bills, but he would bring a cooler of beer with him anywhere they went. Although his drinking was near-constant, she almost never saw him drunk.
“He supported me through all kinds of decisions, mistakes, hardships, and victories,” says Kavanagh, but she knew he had an addiction, and eventually, he landed in the hospital with a diagnosis of alcohol hepatitis. The doctors told him if he didn’t quit drinking alcohol, he would die.
So he stopped. Then he started again. He refused to go to counseling, or try medicine. He refused AA. He also suffered from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. He used alcohol to cope and sadly, he ended up dying from the drug.
“Having to accept that you’re helpless to keep someone you love from harm, especially self-harm, is incredibly hard,” says Kavanaugh. “I know that forcing someone into recovery is a recipe for failure. And I know going through it without support is, too.”
Alcohol in Intimate Partner Violence
Jenna Clinton* first started drinking alcohol because of her partner, who was nine years her senior. He told her it would be “cute” if she had some wine.
“He had never had a drink in his life,” she said, but he still encouraged her to finish a whole bottle by herself. Clinton, 18 years old at the time, had never drank before. She also loved her boyfriend, so she did. When she was drunk and unconscious, he sexually assaulted her.
This pattern continued for a long time. He would persuade her to drink. He would pressure her to drink more, and more, and then when she was blacked out, he would abuse her.
Eventually, she stopped drinking alcohol.
“After the drinking stopped, he would still sexually assault me,” says Clinton. “But when there was alcohol involved, my life was in danger.”
“Alcohol does not cause abuse, but it can be used as an excuse for violence, as it facilitates escalation of conflict.”
Looking back now, she calls it “sinister.” He used alcohol to manipulate, control, and abuse. When alcohol was no longer an option, he waited until she was asleep to assault her. Thankfully, Clinton is no longer in this relationship, but to this day, 20 Americans per minute are physically abused by their partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Though alcohol isn’t the reason for intimate partner abuse, it often makes a problematic situation worse.
“Normal inhibitions prevent tensions from turning into serious fights. Unfortunately, alcohol is a disinhibitor. As a result, frustrations that may have been subdued can turn into verbal or even physical fights when alcohol takes away inhibitions,” says Patricia Celan, M.D., a Psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada. “Alcohol does not cause abuse, but it can be used as an excuse for violence, as it facilitates escalation of conflict.”
According to a CDC study, one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, at least one partner is usually drinking when intimate partner violence occurs.
Should You Stay or Should You Go?
If you’re experiencing abuse or if your partner’s drinking has turned dangerous or violent, it’s time to consider alternative options. Staying to support a partner, to maintain the family, or to avoid hardship may seem honorable, but it can be harmful to your physical and mental wellbeing.
Regardless of the complication of your situation, know that there is somebody out there who can help you. It may be a mental health professional, a friend, or a stranger who’s been in your position before or who has helped others in similar situations.
If you’re planning to leave, Dr. Celan encourages you to make an emergency kit. Include identity documentation, cash, medication, and non-perishable food. If possible, take photographs of the injuries or the abuse. This could be beneficial if you later have to fight for legal custody of children. And find a safe place, whether with a family member or a friend, or at a local shelter.
Regardless of the complication of your situation, know that there is somebody out there who can help you.
Use available resources and if you or your partner are in immediate need of treatment for an alcohol disorder, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-487-4889. If you’re in immediate danger or wish to seek help for domestic abuse, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They are available 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233.
Know, no matter what, that abuse is never your fault and you can survive and recover from it.
“You just work at it,” Blake says of his journey, admitting that a few years ago he would’ve never shared his story publicly. “It’s just a day at a time.”
*Name has been changed.