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YOU DRIVING YOUR ALCOHOLIC TO DRINK?
by SHIRLEY KESSLER
you know what you’re doing, your efforts to cure can
live with an alcoholic and you want to help. You’ve
tried “sweet reason,” emotional appeals, tears,
lectures, coaxing and threats. You don’t keep liquor
around the house or you hide it. Or you pour it down the
drain. But everything you do backfires. You’re a heartbroken
failure. What now?
Now look into an organization called Al-Anon Family Groups.
Patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous it is aimed directly
at you and the 20,000,000 others in America who are made
miserable by 4,000,000 alcoholics. You cannot be innocent
bystanders. What you do at home can greatly hinder or speed
an alcoholic’s recovery. Al-Anon helps you help your
alcoholic. Its principles are based on sound, psychological
grounds. The first fact it helps you face, for instance,
is that alcoholism is an obsession disease. According to
Dr. Ruth Fox, a noted psychoanalyst who has treated thousands
of alcoholics, “A patterned response has been set
up in the brain during ten or 15 years of turning to the
bottle as the only source of comfort for the vulnerable
personality disappointed in a cruel world.” It is
impossible to destroy or remove this pattern. Your alcoholic’s
only hope, therefore, is total abstinence. Even after analysis
or 20 years in Alcoholics Anonymous, a first drink will
start up the pattern. Your alcoholic can never drink again.
Getting your alcoholic to give up a self-prescribed formula
for feeling better and for saving himself sometime later
from his disability, is not your job. But you can help by
Drinking with defiance or out of necessity, not for either
fun or relaxation.
Inability to limit the amount imbibed (unlike the “heavy
drinker” who can moderate.
Progression. Untreated, the disease grows more virulent.
Blackouts-a later stage, a form of amnesia. This isn’t
passing out but “not remembering a thing” while
under the influence.
Fox interviews an alcoholic’s mate early in treatment.
It’s urgent he or she understand that alcoholics are
supersensitive, easily upset and likely to project blame
rather than face up to inadequacy. Dr. Fox reassures husbands
and wives of her patients that they are not responsible
for the illness, and cautions against adding to the difficulty.
they will allow themselves to become allies of psychiatry,
“the disease,” according to Dr. Fox, “can
be arrested at any stage, not after Skid Row or tragedy.”
Gardner of the National Committee on Alcoholism says, “members
of the family mustn’t let an alcoholic’s gyrations
send them into such a spin they think he’s ‘mean’
or ‘willful.’ He’s sick. It has been definitely
shown that family members who have adopted understanding
attitudes and approaches have brought alcoholics to seek
help and recover many years sooner than would have been
the case, and thus have prevented many broken homes and
as your alcoholic can’t fight the battle alone, you
need the support of others in the same boat. This focus
on you came into view after the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Alcoholics struggling toward sobriety were often being encouraged
by everyone except their families. Husbands and wives sat
about AA anterooms waiting until group therapy began to
work for their alcoholics.
While some of them had the patience to wait for the alcoholic
to regain emotional balance, others worked unwittingly against
AA by sarcasm and needling, shoving many AAers off the wagon.
Come Back, Little Sheba, analyzed recently in the “Journal
of Psychiatric Social Work,” the sensitive hero was
doing fine in AA until “by reminding him of the past
and by not having any life of her own, the wife confronts
her husband with his former inadequacies, provoking a bout
with open aggression against her.”
aware of the importance of the non-alcoholic’s role
in a slip or a comeback, some wives of AA members organized
a “clearing house” in 1951 to seek the help
they needed before they could help their mates. This clearing
house became Al-Anon Family Groups.
coming to the still current P.O. Box 1475, Grand Central
Station, New York 17, tells of pitiful mistakes. Some family
members punished alcoholics by horsewhipping or not cooking
for them, while others coddled them into asylums.
underlined by the National Committee on Alcoholism was sent
out. Mates were told that alcoholism is not a sin, but a
disease, an addiction manifested by uncontrolled drinking
and not to be subject to home therapy.
Al-Anon Family Groups incorporated this year as a separate
entity from AA. There are 700 world-wide groups, mostly
in the U.S. and Canada. Any two people can start a group
meeting in a home, church, school or any other room, to
help each other, and eventually take the alcoholic into
treatment in AA or psychiatry.
The Family Groups give husbands and wives a chance for releasing
tensions in talks with others who understand. It is an experienced-exchange
oasis. Doctors and social workers have called alcoholism
a “family illness,” because the wife or husband
and children suffer emotional impairment, too.
So, until you straighten yourself out, you can’t act
with balance and the kind understanding to which alcoholics
Since most alcoholics are men, the emphasis of Al-Anon is
on the wife’s role in his cure. However, the Family
Groups are open to the man whose wife is alcoholic and the
Al-Anon methods are equally effective for him. What are
these methods and how do they work? Joan T., a Stamford,
Conn., housewife, who sought out an Al-Anon Family Group,
She considers herself modern and fairly intelligent. But
until recently she coped with the “problem”
of her husband, Ted, a top engineering consultant, as families
did 40 years ago.
For a long time, Joan wouldn’t acknowledge the fact
that Ted, a top engineering consultant, was an alcoholic.
When she did, her concern centered on the growing social
isolation and the pile of bills, while giving lip service
to the concept “alcoholics are sick.”
As Ted grew worse, heading for the inevitable straightjacket
or hearse, Joan belittled and screamed abuse of hid in her
“private little closet.” She avoided seeking
the necessary outright help. Acting the shrew, she put Ted
on the defensive. Partly to spite her, he refused to struggle
against their enemy, alcohol.
Luckily, Joan saw a doctor about her “nerves.”
She couldn’t sleep, laugh, or talk coherently any
more. Ted’s sexual demands, abuses in front of the
children, and other selfish behavior, characteristic of
the disease, were making life impossible. She was startled
when it was suggested that although Ted wasn’t ready
for help, there was a new organization she could join.
In a neighborhood Al-Anon Family group, Joan was welcomed
by 15 other wives and two husbands of alcoholics. All were
well groomed, alert and cheerful. First, Joan received pamphlets
on alcoholism. Then she heard others tell of their experiences,
stories all could feel kinship with. Gradually Joan felt
relief and hope. Finally she achieved a sense of peace as
the meeting closed with the prayer: “God grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage
to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
At Al-Anon meetings the tales that are told are not gripes
about mates but self-inventories. “My name is Peggy
Adams and I am the wife of an alcoholic,” one pretty
brunette facing the group says. She tells of beatings and
other indignities, but admits that she has provoked hostilities.
She’d greet her husband with name-calling, like “bum”
or “no good.”
Since coming to the group her resentments haven’t
changed. But her tactics are more subtle and in keeping
with the facts she’s learned about alcoholics. “Hon,
it’s okay,” she says now after an outburst,
“call me anything you like. It won’t change
my love for you.” This stops him cold. She then gets
him into bed and then leaves him gracefully alone.
Others tell of their experiences about abusive behavior,
understanding that it isn’t the mate’s “real
self” but things erupting from his unconscious while
A middle-aged man confesses to forcing his wife along as
a drinking companion, even when she pleaded for a “recover.”
When she tried suicide, he sobered.
Exploring their own motivations, Al-Anoners discuss the
problem of being a crutch to an alcoholic. All agree it’s
as destructive to be too permissive or to pamper an alcoholic
as it is to punish. Tortured clock-watching, going along
on bouts to protect and running at the alcoholic’s
every phone call can be emotional crutch methods. These
don’t help the immature individual to grow up.
A girl named Nancy came to a Jackson Heights, New York,
group with her mother. Nancy wanted to marry Tom, a newspaperman
who drank, but Mama said no. A few months later, Nancy was
insisting to the group, “If I jilt Tom, he’ll
drink himself to death.” She was advised that “disappointment
in love” is an oldie, like “a death in the family,”
and she was actually preventing his getting better by always
being around to lean on.
Nancy, like all Al-Anoners, has been learning to live by
the AA program. She has developed more assurance and is
now helping others. Now when Tom phones for her to hurry
over, a calmer Nancy is able to answer, “Drinking
is your problem, not mine. You can go on and on and get
worse or stay sober.” Tom is already on his way to
a cure through AA.
At first the Family Group members works on self-improvement.
Week to week progress is reported and commented on with
encouraging suggestions. Advice needn’t be taken,
however. Al-Anon has no pat formulas. Its aim is first to
root out neurotic fears.
Harmonious family relations are the next goal. Questions
of finances are discussed frankly in the groups. “I
like to eat and pay bills. Ben cares only about his credit
at the local bars. Am I a ‘financial crutch,’
if I go to work.”
Usually it’s considered best to let the male head
of the house support it. But if he’s swollen from
dehydration or can’t concentrate, the wife may have
to work. If she does, she must make it clear that it is
for the family budget. She must not flaunt her superior
After an Al-Anon member is sure of her facts and feels more
detached and nurselike about her alcoholic’s condition,
she leaves literature about the house. Discussions are held
off until the hangover stage. Then alcoholism is talked
about objectively. In sober moments the alcoholic is usually
impressed with the statistics on the 4,000,000 compulsive
drinkers and the 150,000 recoveries through AA and psychiatry.
A family’s best weapon in this slow, patiently fought
battle is the change in themselves. “Those meetings
sure do you good,” one alcoholic told his wife between
drinking bouts. “The whole atmosphere at home has
improved. Even the children aren’t sassing anymore.”
To prevent children from growing up feeling nobody cares,
and often becoming alcoholics, too, they must know the facts.
The ex-alcoholic can’t drink, they’re told,
although it’s socially acceptable. His emotional makeup
is such that alcohol makes him sick. He’ll get better,
when he understands he can live without the bottle. But
meanwhile he’s confused and needs encouragement for
the struggle ahead. Once the truth is known, he often goes
to his first AA meeting with his teenager along as an ally.
You, the non-alcoholic, must be something of a psychological
juggler. You mustn’t pit the children against your
mate or bar the alcoholic from the family circle. (on the
other hand, the children may have to pick up and leave,
if a drunk becomes dangerous. In that instance, they must,
without warning, just pull up the rug and go.)
You must lead an active, normal life. You cannot be obsessed
with “the problem” as the alcoholic himself
is obsessed with drink.
When Ann’s husband blurted out, “So I drink
too much. But I don’t need AA. I’ll limit myself,”
she told him it was no use, but she said, “Okay, test
yourself. For at least three months have any prescribed
number of drinks per day, but no more. You’ll see.”
She didn’t plead with the old hat, “Stop drinking
if you love me and the children” or “Please,
be a good father.” She simply reminded him if he went
on he would lose his mind and probably die of a “wet
brain” or a heart attack during D.T.’s. Slowly
he realized that he wanted to stop drinking. He would no
longer put off what Ann termed a “necessary operation.”
The convalescence period is rough. Converts are usually
over-zealous. They are on call like a doctor at all hours.
Their home was crowded with drunks, where before there’d
been just one. But unlike the women of a decade ago, Ann
had her parallel work in the Family Group. She and her husband
had a closer partnership than ever. And as he lived by the
AA rules, he no longer felt inadequate. He was no longer
the juvenile AA had married.
Al-Anon is still in the trial and error stage. But, the
“Family Groups Forum,” its newsletter, reports
progress from Austin, Texas, to Sydney, Australia. At AA’s
July convention the alcoholic’s relatives held forums
on family matters. Al-Anoners are making decisions and giving
the help alcoholics need.
Anyone can be alcoholic-ditch-digger, bridge partner, dentist,
man or woman. Those in Al-Anon know this all too well. To
their alcoholics they’ve extended a friendly hand
at last. And they’ll help you extend a friendly hand.
You can help. You are not a failure.
Pageant, December 1955)