VIC 33 | Alcoholism

This is a story of empathy, understanding, and unwavering love with Jan Salisbury, whose daughter is a recovering alcoholic of 18 years.

Learn as we explore how every individual’s chemistry is different and how becoming aware of these differences can be the first step toward support. We unveil the concept of being emotionally detached without casting blame.

KL and Jan provide actionable advice on maintaining a strong, loving bond while ensuring emotional well-being for both you and your loved one. From therapy to the power of friendship and self-education, we uncover techniques that can help you remain strong and balanced. Thank you for joining us!

Watch the episode here

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How To Love Someone With Alcoholism With Jan Salisbury

I am very excited to have one of my colleagues in the Vistage world here with me. We share some commonalities in our own, loving people who have been dealing with or have dealt with, whether they’re dealing with or in recovery from, at this point, addiction. Since we both operate in the executive space, the corporate world, this is a ripe conversation to be having that some people are willing to have and some are not willing to have. The silence needs to stop. Welcome, Jan Salisbury. I am very glad to have you with me.

Good to be with you, KL. Thank you for all the work you and your organization are doing. It’s incredible.

Thank you. A little bit of a backdrop for your story, you have three different people in your family or in your life that have been touched by this disease. If you could give us your story, that would be great.

The first person was my niece who had been sexually assaulted when she was a teenager. As you know, that’s very common. A lot of people in recovery have been sexually assaulted. She started with alcohol and then she went to cocaine and crack. She’s been in recovery off and on over the years. This last time has stuck. She knows what to do. She knows to go back to AA. She has her own business. She has a grown child and doing better than I’ve ever seen.

You’ve known her all of her life. Being an aunt and going through the experience of understanding what’s going on, how did you navigate this?

I didn’t ever judge her. I was there to support her, even in her crazy times. She wasn’t coming across as very sane. I encouraged her as much as I could. She doesn’t live on the West Coast. She came out a few times, but I couldn’t have that close contact with her. She knows that I was there for her and she’s told me that many times.

How did that be there for her show up? There’s such a variety of ways to be there for people. One of the main struggles for a lot of people who love people in the throes of addiction is, “How do I be present for somebody in a way that is going to serve them? What does that look like, sound like, and feel like, and how do I figure out my way through that?”

I guess I have enough of a background. The other people in my family started to show up. She respected AA regardless of whether or not she went back and forth. She understood that that was the way for her to recover was to be an AA. She sponsored people. She does a bunch of stuff. She always gave back and she was always welcome in my house. I always invited her to family events. I always reached out to her and also to her son, who has some issues, not addiction, but some other kinds of issues. To me, that’s being there. It is always communicating that I loved her. Regardless of what she did or what she did while she was using, that was never going to change.

Honestly, that is a higher-level way to approach this. Most people have a very difficult time, dropping the judgment that surrounds this disease. Did you have a path to that way of thinking about it?

In my former life, before I was an executive coach, I was also a therapist. That background helped me to both have distance and not take whatever she did personally, or to think that was who she was. It wasn’t who she was. It was that kind of separation that helped me. Also, I knew her growing up. I knew what had happened to her, so I had a lot of understanding and empathy for that.

As a therapist, you have a window in that a lot of people don’t.

I think so. It is a way to be non-judgmental even as I thought she might destroy yourself. I knew that wasn’t the person that she had. I just had to be there while she found her way.

I’ve come to that place, and I do think for a lot of people, that’s how we love somebody deeply and almost witness their suffering. To some extent, that’s the question that some people have asked me. Sometimes it’s framed in, “How do I stand by and watch this happen?”

That was more difficult with my daughter. In this case, because of the natural distance, that helped a little bit. I will just be there in some ways. I would visit and do all kinds of things. It’s so important to understand the disease and what it does to people so that you can see how they are not the same. Even when people do illegal things, when they’re using all of those kinds of things, it’s to recognize what the culprit is. It’s not their character.

Can you say a little bit more about your understanding of the disease, which helped you come to this understanding of how to love somebody in the midst of it?

First of all, I’m very fortunate because I have never had an inkling to use more alcohol or anything else. I’ve seen people respond extremely differently to it. First of all, it’s recognizing that, for whatever reason, I don’t have it. It would take some things for me to be an addict. I don’t use alcohol when I’m not feeling well and all of those kinds of things. It’s recognizing that my chemistry is different. The other thing is between my daughter and my former husband, I have been to 3 inpatients and 1 outpatient. There was a lot of education. To be a family member and to attend that was extremely helpful. I got a sense of the etiology. Most of the people working in those programs have been through their recovery. I got a sense of what that was about, not from books, but from through it.

Do you remember in the early stages with your former husband and your daughter? What was the learning that took place for you? My experience was on the front end of this was I had to cobble together these resources to understand this disease. It wasn’t like readily available. I found that frustrating, to say the least. Certain things fell into place. The more I asked questions, read, and talked to people, but there were pivotal things along the way that were very important for me to go, “That’s what this disease is.”

Al-Anon is very helpful, but it wasn’t helpful to me.

It wasn’t helpful to me either.

I wasn’t there to give other people therapy about issues, and it can be extremely helpful for a lot of people. I just want to be clear about that. I have two close friends who worked in inpatient alcohol treatment programs in Seattle. They were extremely helpful. They were godparents to my daughter, and she was in Seattle. I had really good support there and help that I think was a major contributing issue. The other thing is it helped me most to hear the stories of other people, to be honest.

That’s what helped me. This notion of it’s a disease that’s caused by this or that, it’s caused by many things and to realize that there isn’t one cause and there isn’t one thing to blame. There are a plethora of situations, and I learned that with my daughter more than anything else. She had the genetics for it on her father’s side of the family. Also, there are some other things that were going on, which she’s described to me since then. She’s been clean and sober for many years.

Good for her. That’s great. There were multiple factors at play in her disease.

She had been to inpatient treatment around her father, so she had some understanding of it. She’s a smart cookie. Also, to seek out support always. I would go looking for my daughter at 2:00 in the morning. I would call up a friend of mine and we would head out in the car. It was having that support around me that was so helpful.

That community of support that has your back that is not going to bring the judgment to the table and is willing to walk the walk with you is mission-critical to figure out a way to navigate this as sanely as possible.

You’re so afraid of them dying. You’re afraid of people dying when they get other kinds of diseases, but this one, you just don’t know and it’s not in your control. That’s the toughest part.

I do think it’s the toughest part. It is out of our control and the fear, almost desperation at times. How do you handle that psychologically?

To me, it’s different when it’s an adult in some ways. It’s totally different than when it’s your kid. That’s where the inpatient treatment was so helpful. Also, the outpatient treatment was pretty intense. It is hard, but it’s this whole notion of being detached from what they’re doing to themselves and doing that in a way that isn’t emotional and doesn’t communicate blame, even if you’re trying to control things. “Why are you doing this? What are you doing?” I learned that I just need to back away from that.

I realized that they were making choices, and I needed to somehow always communicate, “I love you,” and there are consequences to this. It is to do that in a way that was real, but at the same time, empathetic. One of the best things I learned from treatment going to a family member is how to do that and how to not get so emotionally invested that they were reacting to that in me.

How did you handle your own fear?

That’s a good question. I went to therapy. I forgot that part. I’m sorry. I usually make that choice when there are things like that going on. “I’m not going to do this by myself.” That was helpful. It is being open and talking to my friends. I do have a lot of friends who are psychologists. They were there and I could talk to them about anything. Honestly, I didn’t hide it from my friends and family. At the same time, I certainly didn’t broadcast it out to the world but not my friends and family.

To some extent, it is extraordinarily grateful that you had friends and family that you could turn to, that you could talk this out with and feel safe, held, and psychologically okay. Therapy is fantastic. You have great friends to be able to talk to and have them be there when you need them the most. You are educating yourself on the disease and learning what works versus what doesn’t in terms of how you respond and be with the person who’s in the midst of the disease. I’m also curious as to your journey in terms of your self-care around this.

At the time, my daughter started getting into it. Several things were going on. I moved my parents to where I live and they were gone in a year. I was getting a divorce in part because of the addiction. I was done. There might have been some things that I saw in my daughter that clarified that with my marriage. There was this line, and that line was, “I’m done.” It’s recognizing what that line is, and, “I’m never done with my daughter.” That does not mean I would always want her in my house, depending upon what happened, but I’m never done.

That, to me, is a crucial difference between those. Having that therapy and also taking care of myself physically, that’s my thing to do. Since I have my own business, I’m able to make choices around that. I do that naturally. With my daughter, the most important thing was showing up and then maintaining those appropriate boundaries. I will say one thing about treatment. It takes a few times for most people, 2 or 3 at least. People don’t understand that.

VIC 33 | Alcoholism
Alcoholism: One of the things that is most challenging for most people is self-care.

The average is 7 to 8.

What I learned is that they’re really good for detoxing. Once they get the education, then it’s a different journey. They have to start making other choices when they get out. When people see treatment as a panacea, it’s not. That was one of the things where, by the third time, I was like, “I know what this is.” She made some bad choices, and I was watching it and hearing about it. It was distressing to watch.

Anybody who’s reading this has been in those distressing moments, in those moments of panic, desperation, and shattered dreams. How did you navigate your way through that? People want to know how you do this.

First of all, I know that your organization offers resources that I probably could have used, but I didn’t have them other than Al-Anon, especially where I live. There was nothing other than therapists who could help me out with that. One of the therapists I had that I went to for marriage counseling had an addiction background. That was very helpful. Going to people who specialize can be very helpful. The other person just knew a lot. For me, that was critical. I had to have a place to go. Especially, after my parents died, I was able to focus on my daughter and what she was doing. I gave her some choices to move from Boise away from the playground and playmates and all those things that she had to do. That’s when she went to treatment for a third time up in Seattle.

Having people to talk to a lot about it, to me, that was everything. Eventually, I had a significant other, a new person in my life. He was cool about talking about it with me as well. We would go through those phone calls at night. She was calling me and I was wondering if she was safe. It’s a lot of issues. I will tell you that the thing that made the difference. First of all, I got her a very good therapist. I was very lucky. The second thing is that it was her decision. She tells me this to this day.

There was a point at which she woke up and she said, “I’m not going to do this, and I’m going to go back to school.” She called me up and I said, “That’s great. Now you’ll go to the community college.” She did, and she did very well. She got a scholarship, then she went to a very good law school. She realized, “I don’t want to live this life. This is not okay. I want to move on.” She tells me all the time, “Mom, it’s nothing about you or your parenting. I had to make a decision at some point. It was my decision.” Something I noticed in the two people who are stuck with recovery is them owning that decision.

My experience is that is true. The counter to that as a parent is that somewhere along the way, we got the message that we’re supposed to keep our kids from suffering and we’re supposed to fix it for them. Challenging those two beliefs and shifting them for a lot of parents is a big lift.

It is. I would’ve done anything. In my mind, there was a part of me that said, “I would do anything to keep her from going through this.” There was another part of me that said, “You can’t do that. It is her decision.” All I can do is be there for her as she makes these decisions. There were some tough times. I will tell you something. We are extraordinarily close, and going through all that made a difference.

I have no doubt. I do think that the bedrock of powerful relationships is unconditional love. I know in my own journey with this, I have wrestled with the notion of how I continue to love him deeply, be a witness to, and a participant in his suffering until he’s ready to make a decision about his own life.

The bedrock of powerful relationships is unconditional love. Share on X

It’s true. Being a parent is very different from that. The other thing is my daughter had very supportive grandparents. They didn’t judge. They showed up for her in different ways and never judged. It also made a difference, even though they weren’t living or reliving. She was close to them, and that was huge. It is expanding the family to include others who can step into that space. They may not have understood all the things about addiction, but they understood that she is a person who is different than her addiction.

That’s extraordinary for that generation. At the same time, for her to have that kind of love and support in the midst of all of this is very cool.

The other thing I want to share is that my daughter was incredible at tidying stuff.

They are masters.

I’ll tell you about something I discovered. I remember seeing money going out of my bank account. It wasn’t a lot, but it was money. I did not know this, but my daughter almost has a photographic memory for numbers. To this day, she can look at my credit card and tell me what the numbers are. We laugh about that. I’m like, “You’re able to do that?” She says, “I can keep track of all the court cases.” I didn’t know that. She smiled. It is those kinds of things. Your spouse hid stuff. After a while, you hide yourself is what happened. It isn’t just the addiction. You’re hiding you, you’re hiding your pain and all of those kinds of things. That’s what ended the marriage. I tried to be supportive, empathetic, and things like that, and the treatment never really took. She also saw that.

VIC 33 | Alcoholism
Alcoholism: It isn’t just the addiction you’re hiding. You also hide all other things.

She sounds ridiculously smart, which a lot of them are. I know my son is. The manipulation is part of the disease, the hiding. I know from him that there are so many stories that I will never know and I don’t care to know what he has lived through. I don’t need to know. I know enough to know how traumatized he has been by his own disease. Now, part of his work is to heal from the trauma of the disease.

That’s true. People forget that because they’re so focused on, “This is about your disease,” as opposed to realizing that the disease, in a very real way, victimizes them as well. I don’t think we talk about that much. I’m glad you brought that up.

There’s this loop of shame for the person who has the disease that is, in some respects, crippling.

For sure. Frankly, AA was probably the best way for her to come to grips with that. When she was in Seattle, I asked her why she didn’t go to the AA meetings at the university, and she said because they’re not real. She would go on Aurora because those folks had the real consequences, and she wanted to remind herself of what that was.

That’s smart on her part.

That part of AA was incredibly helpful. The experience I had with my spouse was that he would go to the meetings and think he was special and different.

That was the disease. It is different navigation to do it with a spouse versus doing it with a child.

There’s no question about that. The hard part about the disease is how quickly it takes hold. Not always. Maybe alcohol is different, but how quickly it takes hold, and that’s tough. The trajectory is so quick that it barely gives you time to catch your breath. All of a sudden, it’s there.

The difficult part about the disease is how quickly it takes. Share on X

A lot of people that I’ve interviewed who are in recovery at this point talk about their first drink. That was the first time where they felt like themselves. In that moment, everything changed. Like you’re talking about, all of a sudden, this takes place. They’re on a trajectory that isn’t in the open, and then we find out when things start to fall apart.

That’s correct. By then, they’d already been engaged in it. The other thing is making excuses for them. I was guilty of that in the beginning. I’m like, “It’s this, that, or whatever.” That’s part of the disease’s effect on me, which is I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to acknowledge it, so I’m going to make up this stuff so that I don’t have to.

Did you find yourself doing that more with your former husband than with your daughter?

Yes, I did. There was much more shame there. I don’t think I felt that toward my daughter or my niece very much at all, but I did. It’s so interesting how many people in our lives also didn’t see it. We were shocked, and it was there. They are smart people. They were therapists, and they didn’t see it.

I interviewed a woman who wrote a book and was married to a functioning alcoholic who was extraordinarily successful. That is the hole she fell in, which was loyalty to her husband and nobody on the outside saw it. She was alone in it. The cone of silence that she felt she had to hold onto just about killed her.

That would be tough. I couldn’t do that. It would just eat me up inside. That sounds extraordinarily hard.

I can’t imagine. I was married a long time ago to Sam’s dad who was a Vietnam vet and alcoholic. During the first post-traumatic stress episode, I found out who the specialist was in our community counseling wise, and I was on it. There was no way I could have survived it if I hadn’t had that support. Professional help, as long as they’re good, is mission-critical. You do need to look for people who are really good at what they do in that arena. If you do have friends or family that can hold the space for you, support you, listen to you, and be present, that is fantastic.

I remember I interviewed a gentleman not too long ago. He asked his son, “What can I do to support you?” His son said, “Do your work, Dad.” That’s the other piece of this. You did your work. I want to remind our audience is we have a role in this too. Not in terms of blame, things we did, or anything along those lines, but there’s a deeper level of work for us to do in the midst of loving somebody who is either in the throes of addiction and even on the side of recovery too.

That’s true, KL. I know this sounds odd, but everything in life, it’s an opportunity to learn a lot. There were times when I said, “I don’t want to learn this, frankly. It wasn’t on my radar.” At the same time, as I look back at this point, I learned a lot. It helps me to see the world differently. It helps me to help people who are leaders who are going through some of this because I can see it sometimes. Even though I’m not a therapist, I’m able to at least see some things and also help them address them if they bring it up about where they can go. In the end, it helped to make me the person that I am. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t want it. Nobody wants this in their life. I look around and I ask people, and there are very few people that don’t have this in their families.

We are definitely at a pandemic, epidemic, whatever you want to call it, levels at this point. It’s like 1 in 3 families. That’s why, for me, this notion of staying silent or being steeped in shame and judgment is almost unconscionable from a human perspective. Many of us are in the throes of loving somebody who is dealing with this disease.

How many people are high-functioning? They’re in workplaces and leadership positions. People see it and they don’t confront it. It’s tough. Like I said, I’m glad that this helped me to be the person that I am.

I agree with you. You’re farther along in the years of recovery than I am at this point. I would still say it wouldn’t change anything. Personally, this whole notion of our kids being different from us cracked me wide open in a way that nothing else could have. I needed the cracking in order to access these parts of myself that had yet to be expressed, given life, or whatever. Since we’re in the times that we’re in and the work that we both do, I do think that it’s been in preparation for this time.

That’s true. We also all have to make ourselves available to others so that they can get the support that they need to get through this. There’s one other thing that is effective, and that is that there’s a part of me that knows that may happen again. I just have to accept that. It probably won’t and it may. The Serenity Prayer is not just for people who are addicts. It’s for the rest of us.

VIC 33 | Alcoholism
Alcoholism: We also all have to make ourselves available to others so they can get the support they need to get through this disease.

The Serenity Prayer is for life.

I’m grateful that now, the two people that I am close to and love are in good places. I’m very grateful for that.

I’m grateful that you are less tired, more rejuvenated, and are starting to get your spark back.

Thanks. Like I said, there are things outside of our control. I’ve learned not to push the river but to say to myself I’m on this river and my job is to navigate it. I’m a big river person, so that metaphor works for me. The rapids change. They’re not always the same, depending upon the flow. You’ve got to read them and use your knowledge to navigate through them. It’s not always easy, but that’s what life is, frankly.

There are things outside of our control. You don't want to push the river because the river will win. Share on X

As long as we’re engaged with living our lives, there’s always going to be something that shows up that’s going to be new, stretches our edges, and causes the opportunity for us to rise to another version of ourselves.

VIC 33 | Alcoholism
Alcoholism: As long as we engage in living our lives, there will always be something that shows up that will stretch our edges. It is an opportunity for us to rise to another version of ourselves.

That’s true. I tend to think I’m done, and then I’m not. “I’m done growing as much. Can we just stop for a moment?”

I tend to think that when I am done, I’ll be dead.

You know that’s true. I don’t think I want to just be hanging out without learning. These emotional pieces do take it out of you, and you have to find ways to replenish. I would say this. If people were judgmental in my life, they probably didn’t last as my friends. You have a choice of who’s around you and who isn’t. Either they’re going to be all in or they’re not. There are some relatives, not too many, but that we’re just like, “I don’t need to be spending time with you. I don’t need to talk to you.” That’s not going to work for me. The other choice you have is who you want around you.

Also, being choice about who they are, knowing what serves you and what doesn’t, and being willing to take a stand in terms of, “If that doesn’t serve me, I’m going to distance myself to protect my own energy but also to help me move with this in the direction that I choose to move and my own intentionality around this.”

It’s okay to make those choices. Sometimes that’s hard for people. Sometimes I have to go, “That’s not working out. I don’t need that in my life.” I tend to love people and love relationships, but these days, if they’re not working, I’m done.

I tend to think that that potentially comes with age. At least I have gotten to this point where I’m in the last third. I have less patience for playing with people who are steeped in negativity, victimhood, judgment, shame, and all of the things. I don’t have the energy anymore.

I have a little story that I want to end with. The outpatient program my daughter came to was pretty hardcore. The guy who ran it was a sergeant in the military. It was four nights a week. One night, the parents came because he wanted the parents to get a sense of how to parent their children in a way that didn’t let them skate on stuff. My daughter, to this day, does not like this person, but that’s okay.

What’s interesting is that there was a guy in there who had a daughter. We would see each other over the years. He ended up in my trusted advisor group. After a while, we didn’t talk about it. We just talked about whatever. He was a financial person. It’s so interesting how, every once in a while, we’ll bring up in the group our relationship and what we learned, if it’s relevant. One of the things I want to say to parents is also find parents who are going through this like you because there’s a very special understanding there. His daughter is fine. I’m grateful that we still have this contact. That’s pretty amazing. That was many years ago.

That’s pretty extraordinary. You’re both so blessed that you have good stories on the other end of this. If you can find those parents who see this journey similarly to you, that is one of those unbreakable bonds. There’s a knowledge about this that our other parents don’t have.

It is because we could all see each other going through the same thing in the group. That group made a difference. There’s no treatment that’s the thing. It all can help. It does lessen the shame because you’re looking around the room at all these parents and we’re all going through the same thing. It doesn’t matter what we do for a living. None of that mattered. That was special because we had the same challenges. We didn’t feel so alone. We had people that were doing this like us. We talk to each other. It also helped with the shame. There might’ve been some things that weren’t perfect about that, but it certainly helped me.

There are people like us who we can talk to to help with the shame. Share on X

The ability to share amongst people who understand is super powerful.

We know that, too, from other online kinds of groups and places with certain medical conditions or other things. I’m going to speak as a professional at this point. If you look at the psychological research, it’s social support. What we’re talking about is what kind you need.

It pokes, and hopefully shatters, this whole notion of silence, doing this alone, and steeping yourself in the shame of it too. It has to stop for us to be able to be healthy and whole.

That’s what your work is all about. Thank you again.

I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for Sam. I want to say thank you. You have a much richer experience that I know about now than I knew previously. I appreciate you sharing that. Also, the wisdom of all the things that contributed to your being able to find your way in a healthy way and then be the person that you are in your work now, which we so need.

Thanks, KL. If there’s anything I can do to support your work, please let me know.

Thanks, Jan.

You’re welcome.

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