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Making Marriage Work The Alcoholic Parent
by Dorothy Cameron Disney
marriage work is never easy when alcoholism is involved.
And when there are children in the family, the trial by
ordeal that confronts a loving wife and mother can be virtually
are many wives who would be willing to carry on an unequal
partnership were it not for the youngsters. But they are
loath to subject their boys and girls to demoralized homes,
parental quarreling, sleepless nights and hideous days.
Divorce, for the children’s sake, seems the answer.
STORY. . . One night a year ago Mrs. Miller (this
is not her real name) saw her daughter, Ann, climb out her
bedroom window and scuttle through a back garden to the
alley. The girl was carrying a large brown-paper bag. In
the alley she lifted the lid of the family’s trash
can and removed empty gin bottles.
followed Ann a half mile to a building excavation,”
said Mrs. Miller, “and saw her heave away her parcel.
And then I knew! She was trying to conceal from neighbors
just how much her father drank. I had been so preoccupied
with my own misery that I hadn’t realized what was
happening to the child. Right there, right then, I decided
to get a divorce.”
next day Mrs. Miller did not go to a lawyer. She went to
her pastor. He suggested that she and her daughter investigate
a pioneering organization called Alateen, founded only four
years ago to give youngsters like fifteen-year-old Ann guidance
in a topsy-turvy world. It has been rightly said that alcohol
addiction damages not only the compulsive drinker himself
but everyone in his household.
a recent rainy Saturday afternoon I met sparkling-eyed Ann
on the steps of a small church. I followed her inside to
the room where a dozen teen-aged youngsters awaited us.
I joined Alateen,” said Ann, “I was busy feeling
sorry for myself and couldn’t think straight. I was
so ashamed of my father’s boozing and so mad at my
mother for not stopping him I spent hours in my bedroom
where I could brood in privacy. I pleaded with my mother
to get a divorce so we could raise our shades, live like
normal happy people.”
youngster present at the meeting had an alcoholic parent.
Each knew at first hand how uncontrolled drinking can wreck
marriages and devastate families.
now has 150 branches scattered through 50 states. It is
an offspring of Alcoholics Anonymous and an allied organization,
Al-Anon, to which wives, husbands and friends of alcoholics
belong. Alateen accepts the principles and philosophy of
AA and the basic AA tenet that alcoholism is an illness
that can be arrested but never cured. With this acceptance
comes understanding and, more often than not, a sharp reduction
are better now,” said Ann. “Oh, I don’t
mean that dad has quit drinking. He hasn’t. Just the
same, things are better. I’ve learned from these other
kids that my case isn’t unique. Lots of them are worse
off than I am.”
meeting opened with a prayer for serenity and courage. In
the hour that followed, the boys and girls--members range
in age from twelve to nineteen--exchanged bits of hard-won
information, shared common experiences. In the main, typical
teen-age dilemmas were explored. Yet it was meetings like
this, Mrs. Miller told me, that helped to save her marriage.
A wiser, calmer Ann eventually urged her mother to the final
decision not to seek a divorce.
ANSWERS . . . Alateens are not evangelistic groups
dedicated to the reform of erring elders. One rule the new
member learns at once: you cannot scold, plead, reason or
threaten an alcoholic into sobriety; such an approach only
makes matters worse. The best approach is the approach of
toleration. An understanding that a drunken father is a
sick father (one Alateen tells another) will not only help
you to live with him but help him to live with you and with
met Fred, a skinny, fourteen-year-old, in an industrial
section of Brooklyn. His mother, who holds the family together,
is a department-store clerk. His father is a part-time accountant.
is pretty tough,” said Fred, “to feel respect
or affection for anybody like my old man. When I came home
the other day he was slumped on the sofa and I knew he was
hitting the bottle again. I didn’t say a word, just
looked at him and started upstairs. Maybe he read my mind.
Anyway, he pulled a table lamp out of its socket and threw
it at me. I was used to ducking and I wasn’t hurt.
But what does a kid do when his dad becomes violent?”
has a practical answer to that frequently asked question:
completely out of his way until he is rational again. Then
talk it over with someone who has the knowledge and experience
to assist you. This may be an AA member, your clergyman,
doctor or a close relative.
alcoholic can become irritable, over-emotional, brutal to
the people he loves most. If you cannot avoid or ignore
violent incidents, try your best to believe they would not
have happened if your father were himself.”
of the youngsters at the meetings I attended had never had
a close friend. They needed and desperately craved companionship-for
misery not only loves company but profits by it. They feared
to invite acquaintances to homes where an unpredictable
parent might be silly or outrageously drunk. Loneliness
usually results in a distorted sensitivity, and many chip-on-the-shoulder
young people had shunned company because of snubs that existed
only in their imaginations.
HARVEST. . . The friendships which grow out of
Alateen are perhaps its happiest harvest. Some of the chapters
hold picnics, dances, hi-fi get-togethers. But these are
kept separate from the regular weekly meetings, which have
serious purpose and are conducted on that level. The members,
who are in search of moral support and counsel, want it
within the family circle of an alcoholic always live in
a climate of anxiety and suspense. They feel beaten and
hopeless. Out of frustration there may arise convictions
of personal guilt; because of the very elusiveness of the
malady, they become convinced that in some way they must
be responsible for the loved one’s condition. This
is a misconception children frequently bring to Alateen
discussions. As soon as members become aware that their
feelings of personal guilt are without foundation, they
have already taken a long step toward mental health.
primary function of Alateen is to help bewildered young
people solve their own problems. Its strongest partisans,
however, are mothers (or fathers) who are attempting, under
almost insuperable difficulties, to rebuild or maintain
marriages shadowed by alcoholism. As they see their children
gain in self-knowledge, self-confidence and self-respect,
they feel a lightening of the unequal burdens that are inevitable
in an unequal partnership. An imperfect home, Alateens told
me frankly, is better than a broken home.
one of Alateen’s booklets I ran across the words of
wisdom which deserve a hearing in all households where frictions
and dissension exist:
both your parents need our love
and loyalty.... Try not to add needlessly to their burdens.
Try not to take sides if there are quarrels, for no matter
what your parents may say to or about each other, it will
aid them greatly if they know you love them both.”
Alcoholism is a special problem, but that advice has universal
Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1962)