John McMahon interviewed by Harris House

Last year I was interviewed by a treatment provider (Harris House) about our work in Bottled Up.  These are my  responses to their questions.

Dr. John McMahon, co-founder of Bottled Up, is an expert on addiction whose passion is to help and support the families of addicts. Here, John shares about his personal experience with addiction and offers advice to partners of addicts on taking care of themselves throughout their partner’s addiction struggles. Read on:

Can you talk a little about your background and interest in treating addiction? How did you become so passionate about helping addicts?

Like so many people in this field, I had my own struggle. Thirty-two years ago my wife had left me, I was deeply in debt and had to sell my house, I was a patient in a psychiatric hospital where the psychiatrist told me that I had brain damage and liver damage and that if I continued to take drugs and/or drink, I would be dead in six months.

I have never touched alcohol or drugs since.

I struggled initially to get sober, as it felt like my life had ended. However, I returned to education and studied for a degree in psychology. Then I was awarded a scholarship and studied for a PhD. After conducting research on how, when, and why alcoholics change and publishing widely and speaking at many international conferences, I was awarded tenure at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Studies at Paisley University in Scotland, where I worked for 14 years.

In 2008, I moved from Scotland to England to marry. My wife Lou, who has her own counseling practice, had been married for 29 years to an alcoholic, until his death from cancer. As you can imagine, we had lots of stuff to talk about. One conclusion we came to was that the families of alcoholics are poorly served and often ignored. Indeed, even when services do involve them in treatment, it seems to be mainly as a support to the addicts after they have entered treatment.

Probably the time when they most need help and support is during the chaos prior to the addict entering treatment when the alcoholic/addict is most active, and unfortunately, there are few service options available. Therefore, we decided to create some help and support for the partners of alcoholics. The motivation obviously came from our backgrounds: Lou’s personal experience living with an alcoholic and my desire to make amends to those I had hurt.

We made the decision to provide the help via the internet. I had carried out (one of) the first studies of computer-assisted treatment in the early 1990s. At the time, I thought that computers and the fledgling WWW offered an amazing therapeutic opportunity. People who need help can find a mass of information and tools whenever and, almost, wherever they need it. It is hugely empowering! As the technology improves, the internet and websites become much more interactive and social, making it easier to create supportive communities. Finally, it is also very cost effective, although it can take time and money to set up initially.

What is your philosophy or approach to helping people affected by their partner’s addiction?

Many of the people who come to us just want an end to their problems; they want their drinker to become abstinent and are looking for the right word, phrase, action–whatever that will achieve that. We call it looking for the pixie dust to make it all go away. Many of them will have visited another therapist or service or will have spoken to a friend and been given the same advice – Get Out!

Unfortunately, what this advice fails to acknowledge is that they are still in love with their drinker. They don’t want a divorce; they want the man/woman that they fell in love with back in their lives. For that to happen, they need to empower themselves first by looking after themselves, detaching from the drinker’s behavior, stepping out of the secrecy and shame, and building support for themselves. Then they can start looking at how they might intervene in the drinker’s behavior and encourage change.

For someone living with a problem drinker who wants to get help, where should they begin?

Good question! As I said above, this is a population that is not very well served, so their options tend to be limited, with some areas being worse than others. They could start by contacting their local alcohol/drug service or attend Alanon meetings. Alternately, they could search for help online, or they could just come straight to

What do you think are the most common misconceptions we have about people who live with alcoholics or addicts? What do we get wrong?

The biggest thing that we get wrong is that they are weak, pathetic people. They most certainly are not; they are some of the strongest, most determined people I have met. The fact that they hold things together for the children and the marriage testifies to that. What they rarely need is a bit of tough love; love yes, understanding yes, a hug yes, tough love no.

What are the most useful tools you’ve found for overcoming an addiction?

When there is an addict in the family, they tend to take center stage; the family life revolves around him/her. Partners try to reduce the negative impact by a series of strategies that, unfortunately, have little effect or, worse still, exacerbate the situation. We call these strategies the 4P’s. They are Punishing, Picking a fight, Policing, and Pleading. The first goal is to get them to stop doing these things and look after themselves, instead; that is, to take the focus off the addict and shift it to themselves and the family.

What doesn’t seem to work as well?

Any measures that increase powerlessness or guilt.

What factors seem to work against recovery? What should the family members avoid?

One attitude that is counterproductive is that the problem is the addict/drinker’s issue and he/she is the one that needs to change. While the problems are not the partner’s fault, both tend to develop patterns of behavior that maintain the problem, and change can happen easier and quicker if both partners make changes in the way they relate to each other.

Can you share one of your favorite success stories? Someone who was able to change their behavior and is living a healthier life?

Success for the family can come in different guises. Ideally, we would like to save the relationship, but that is not always possible or even the best option. So in Bottled Up, success is what is best for our clients. These two stories illustrate that principal.

Alice (not real name) had a husband who drank in binges, and while he was not violent, there were many heated arguments during these sprees. Many of these arguments led to her husband storming out of the house feeling justified in continuing or even escalating the binge. Alice tried a new approach, creating a new life with some new friends. Instead of engaging in arguments when her husband was drunk she would have dinner with friends or attend some other social event. During one of his sober periods, she told her husband that she loved him, loved being with him when he was sober, and would love to spend much more time with him, but not when he was drinking. Slowly his binges got further apart and shorter and finally stopped completely; he has been completely sober now for over two years.

Mary (not real name) had, unfortunately, less success in that regard. Her husband continues to drink and refuses to discuss the problem. Six months ago, she decided that she needed to look after herself and her two teenage children and so had to separate from her husband. She continues to live in the family home with the children while her husband now lives in a small apartment. Although she wishes that he had gone to rehab, she says that her life is much less chaotic and much happier now, and the children are much more settled.

What would you tell someone who has no hope — someone who can’t see their partner ever being in recovery.

I would say that there is always hope, but sometimes change can take a long time to come. However, you do have choices: you can just sit and wait, you can make changes so that your life improves, or you can leave. The choice is yours to make.

4 Replies to “John McMahon interviewed by Harris House”

  1. Living with my 40yr old alcoholic son seems to pose a different problem , he is not violent or bad tempered but ,isolates himself and gets so intoxicated at times that he stays in bed for days , just about hanging on to his latest job (he has lost so many ) . I know if we make him leave he will probably drink himself to death , but living with him ,we feel trapped .,worried to leave him here alone ,Feel sorry for him and mad at him too .So difficult to put your child out on the street .

    1. We have just asked our 46 year old son to leave our house. He is in a safe shelter but has not stopped drinking. He collapsed and was taken to hospital where he carried on drinking whilst being detoxed. We have been enabling him, providing food and shelter, he is jobless has not worked for 4 years.
      We had become do-dependent with our son. When he was in pain, we were in pain, when he was hurting we were hurting. You are powerless over your sons drinking and he is powerless over his drinking. The problem we faced is what happens if my wife or I die, or God forbid we both do. It is difficult, it is heart breaking. Sometimes there is nothing more you can do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *