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
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
Bjørn Ole Austad, Norway/Malta
Reprinted from The Malta Independent, August ‘98