Alcoholism is a family affair

April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, a fitting time to talk about the devastation the disease of alcoholism has on families across the globe. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 15.1 million Americans ages 18 and older (6.2 percent of this age group) have an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

In her book It Will Never Happen to Me, Dr. Claudia Black, an expert on addiction and codependency, describes how affected families develop three primary rules that serve to reinforce the ongoing misuse of alcohol or other drugs. These rules may be unspoken, but are rigidly enforced.

The Rules

Don’t talk. Don’t talk about the problem – if you do you may lose the hope that things will get better or that the addicted person is just experiencing temporary difficulty. Prolonged exposure to this denial of reality creates confusion and an altered sense of reality.

Don’t trust. A sturdy foundation of security is often not present in a home where there is alcoholism. Responses to children’s needs will vary, depending on the level of intoxication and the emotional state. Very little may be done to ease the child’s fears or his/her inability to trust that his or her needs will be met. The child cannot even trust his or her own perceptions. After all, insufferable circumstances are portrayed as normal.

Don’t feel. The overarching focus is on the alcohol and its use, and everything else takes a back seat. Many important childhood events – baseball games, band recitals, awards assemblies – may be ignored. Ongoing disappointment leads the child to the inevitable conclusion that his or her feelings do not matter. It seems better to avoid feeling anything at all than to feel stockpiled resentment, embarrassment, and anger.

In order to enforce the three rules, family members take on different roles for the purpose of keeping the dysfunctional system intact.

The Roles

The enabler removes the consequences of the dependent person’s behaviors and choices by providing alibis and excuses. The enabler goes to extremes to ensure that family secrets are kept and that the rest of world thinks the family is a happy, well-functioning one. This role is usually that of the spouse or significant other, but can be assumed by a child.

The hero, usually the oldest child, is popular and successful and draws attention away from the addiction.

The scapegoat, often the second oldest child, develops defiant, sometimes hostile behaviors. Though exhibiting perhaps the most honest response to family problems, the scapegoat takes the blame for them.

The mascot, usually the youngest child, provides comic relief to soften family tensions and get attention from all family members.

The lost child just gives up and withdraws from the family. He or she is most often the middle or youngest child.

The greatest problem with these roles is that they serve to support dysfunction and can cause future problems when carried into adult relationships.

How to Help Your Loved One

Though alcoholism is daunting, every day, all over the world, people can, and do, recover. How and when they recover depends on the addicted person – his or her readiness, willingness to admit the problem, and the ability to access needed help. But, there are some things loved ones can do to help.

Educate yourself. An alcohol use disorder is more than just drinking too much from time to time. Look online for information about signs and symptoms of alcoholism, the risk factors involved, and the groups that provide support for someone in recovery. Know what you are talking about before approaching the addicted person.

Check your internal climate before approaching your loved one. Will you be able to speak reasonably and firmly to him or her? If anger or desperation is the prevailing mood or if you cannot avoid threats and ultimatums, perhaps you should wait. You are not in control and cannot steer the course of your loved one’s journey.

Be prepared for the conversation. Practice what you will say, using “I” statements. Instead of saying, “You’re an out of control drunk and you’re going to kill yourself!” say “I love you and I’m concerned about your health.” Pick the time and place that most lends itself to a fruitful conversation. Make sure you are speaking with love and listening empathically. State what you have observed that concerns you, offer support in seeking help for the problem, and be willing to roll with the initial resistance. Do not take it personally and do not lose heart. Huge life decisions are not made overnight. Kindly and firmly let your loved one know what behaviors and circumstances you will or will not accept in the future, and then stick to those boundaries.

Know where to get help. Find out about the 12-step and other peer support groups in the community. Al-Anon is a mutual support program for people whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking.

Call the Washington County Behavioral Health Board, (740) 374-6990, or visit the Recovery is Beautiful Facebook page for more information. The Washington County Behavioral Health Board believes that no person is a throwaway person, that recovery is possible and eminently beautiful.

Miriam Keith is the Community Recovery Advocate at the Washington County Behavioral Health Board.