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Addictions: Behind the facades: The families of alcoholics

Behind the facades: The families of alcoholics

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Are you usually insecure? Do you lie when it should be easy to tell the truth? Do you judge yourself without mercy? Are you either responsible to the extreme or completely irresponsible? Do you get stuck in a particular pattern of behaviour without seriously considering alternatives or consequences?

Most of us recognise the character traits described above in ourselves or others. For some people, however, these types of behaviour take complete control and inhibit their normal growth to maturity. To answer these and other questions may help them to identify what they have tried to hide. They may discover how much they have been affected by the alcoholic in their family.

Behind respectable facades alcoholics try to cope with their addiction. Denial is the key word. For years they pretend that they drink when they like and can stop when they choose. Then the facade cracks. The alcohol proves to be the master and the drinker the slave. If the alcoholic faces facts, there is a good chance of recovery. Denial is also the key word for the family trying to cope with the alcoholic. It is painful to admit that someone you love is addicted to the bottle and that the craving for alcohol is stronger than their love for those closest to them. The family develops patterns of thought and behaviour to protect the alcoholic and themselves from the tough truth. Nothing is normal in the family of an alcoholic. One day father is loving and caring to his children. The next day he is a brute who flares into violent tempers and hits them for no reason at all. The children become thoroughly confused. Some do not want to bring friends home for fear of finding mother or father drunk on the sofa. The alcoholic may become free of his addiction. Great relief may fill those closest to him. However, "the addiction" of the family may not come to an end. It is not easy to say good-bye to attitudes and emotional reactions, which for years have been a must in order to survive. The addiction leaves deep wounds in the emotional life of the family. The whole purpose of life for the wife or husband of an alcoholic may have become to cushion their children and be both father and mother. He or she may have tried to be a fortress of stability in the storms of alcoholism. Suddenly that reason for living is gone. But the bitter memories, heartaches and anger stay on.

I sit discussing these matters in a paradise of a place, on a small farm by a lake in Norway, some 80 kilometres east of Oslo. No troubles seem able to reach you there. Yet the lifestory and experiences of Tore Halfstad, a warm-hearted man in his fifties, bring the suffering of millions so close. He was an engineer and consultant on the export of ship equipment. He is now a therapist and counsellor for alcoholics and drug addicts and their families. He gives courses at different institutions, rehabilitation centres and to health and social workers who assist addicts and their families. He has himself been a slave of alcohol and rebuilt his life from the ruins of its devastating effects. ‘Many people build castles in the air. That is quite natural. They know they are not real. Alcoholics, however, are the only ones who move in and settle in their imaginary castles,’ says Tore. He tells of several years of denial and addiction, of going in and out of an institution for detoxication and treatment before finally going into an institution concentrating on group therapy and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The emphasis is on helping the addicts face the consequences of their alcoholism. This method has a success rate of 50%. ‘I went for the treatment because I was faced with the threat of being thrown out of the flat I rented. I would have been on the streets. Normally alcoholics only admit their need for help when some terrible consequence of their habit is made starkly real to them.’ Tore recalls something that became a turning point for him. As part of the therapy the patients were asked to write down their lifestory and the consequences of their drinking. They were asked why this and that happened and why they acted the way they did. ‘The therapist, who was a very sensitive person, said to me: "It makes sense what you have written, but you do not seem to feel the consequences of what you have done. You distance yourself from it all." I was then asked to write it all up on the blackboard in front of the rest of the group present. I had to go to the back of the room and read it out aloud. That was tough.’

Tore explains how the treatment of alcoholism traditionally has focused on the alcoholic himself. Yet others in the family need as much help. They develop roles which degrade their human dignity. It is not just a question of assisting the family to help the alcoholic, but for the other family members to become free from their own addictive behaviour. ‘An alcoholic is a specialist at manipulating his surroundings as part of his refusal to face the truth about himself. This rubs onto the rest of the family. Everyone is woven into a web of lies and denial.’ The family of an alcoholic often has a "hero", a child who is very capable and who achieves success in spite of the adverse conditions. The pride of the family, they take on adult responsibilities too early. Behind the facade he or she hardly dares to show their real feelings. The scapegoat of the family is the "rebel" whom everyone can blame. Drawing attention to themselves and away from the real problems by creating trouble at home and school, the rebel easily gets into criminal activities and the misuse of drugs or alcohol. They seek desperately for someone to love and be loved by. Then there is the "clown" who eases the tensions and conflicts of the family with humour and fun. This person is often hyperactive and immature - an attention seeker who has difficulties concentrating. Finally there is "the forgotten child", who tries to make themselves invisible. To the relief of others in the family, this child is no reason for worry. Often a nice, kind-hearted child to show off to visitors, the forgotten child is shy and withdrawn, isolating themselves in an imaginary world.

These roles may exist to some extent in any family. However, in a family of an alcoholic they are developed to extremes. Common to all these roles are pain, shame, sorrow, and often fear and guilt, behind their facades. The other common factor is that once they break out of their roles and begin on a road of healing, some of their weaknesses may turn into strengths. For example, the wife of an alcoholic may from her own painful experience learn empathy with others and be a good counsellor - secure, calm and independent.

What is the cure which breaks the chains? The therapy of the courses which Tore and other counsellors run, emphasises openness. There is no beating around the bush. Problems are talked about in a direct and sensitive way. When problems are pulled out of the darkness of denial they lose their power. The participants can start recognising the roles they are playing. They learn practical steps to break out of the vicious circle. They meet, trust and learn to appreciate who they are. They can begin on the road of healing from the consequences of having lived with an alcoholic. Some may find the courage to confront the alcoholic with the consequences of his/her living, and so perhaps become the key for them to face the truth and begin walking the path towards liberation.

Bjørn Ole Austad, Norway/Malta

Reprinted from The Malta Independent, August ‘98

Last update: 2000-02-06 10:50:10 (EEST).
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