ARE YOU DRIVING YOUR ALCOHOLIC TO DRINK?
by SHIRLEY KESSLER
Unless you know what you’re doing, your efforts to cure can kill
You 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 spotting symptoms:
1. Drinking with defiance or out of necessity, not for either fun or relaxation.
2. Inability to limit the amount imbibed (unlike the “heavy drinker” who can moderate.
3. Progression. Untreated, the disease grows more virulent.
4. Blackouts-a later stage, a form of amnesia. This isn’t passing out but “not remembering a thing” while under the influence.
Dr. 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.
If 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.”
Yvelin 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 death itself.”
Just 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.
In 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.”
Growing 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.
Mail 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.
Information 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 respond.
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, is typical.
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 drunk.
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 earning capacity.
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.” He did.
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.
(Source: Pageant, December 1955)