Making Marriage Work The Alcoholic Parent
by Dorothy Cameron Disney
Making 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 intolerable.
There 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.
ANN’S 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.
“I 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.”
But 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.
On 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.
“Until 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.”
Every youngster present at the meeting had an alcoholic parent. Each knew at first hand how uncontrolled drinking can wreck marriages and devastate families.
Alateen 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 in self-pity.
Things 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.”
The 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.
PRACTICAL 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 himself.
I 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.
“It 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?”
Alateen has a practical answer to that frequently asked question:
“Get 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.
“An 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.”
Some 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.
HAPPIEST 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 that way.
Those 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.
The 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.
In one of Alateen’s booklets I ran across the words of wisdom which deserve a hearing in all households where frictions and dissension exist:
“Remember, 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 application.
(Source: Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1962)