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Alcoholism Is A Family Disease

The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are supplied by the exact same water source. Water flows down from Mt. Hermon into the Sea of Galilee and then out of it to enrich and fertilize the Jordan plain.  Water also comes down from Mt. Hermon to form the Dead Sea, but it has no outlet and is a lake of stagnation. Something similar happens to individuals affected by alcoholism.  Not just to the person who is doing the excessive drinking, who is the focus of  “the problem,” but to all members of the family or close friends who are affected by alcoholism.  Alcoholism blocks the normal healthy flow of emotional currents.  To get life, you need to give life.  Alcoholism makes all whom it affects into takers.

Alcoholism is a family disease.  The broken emotional pattern of the drinker stop the natural flow of emotional energy in the lives of family members.  When this happens, those affected by alcoholism; regardless of whether they are the drinker, the spouse, or children, become “dead seas.”

The characteristics of the different family members form clear patterns.  There is the spouse of the alcoholic.  This is the person who is caught in an emotional triangle with the spouse and alcohol.  Often the spouse is a caretaker who looks after and defends the addicted mate.  Fear becomes the controlling emotion, fear about what the addicted spouse will do, whether he/she will fail to show up, whether he/she will be in a bad mood, whether friends will discover the “secret” of his/her drinking and on and on the list of fears goes. As the alcoholism progresses,  the spouse of the alcoholic will often begin to react to the fear with anger.  He/she will become an arrogant controller, self-righteous and always critical.  Eventually, the spouse’s enabling and anger will move into a phase of grief.  He/she will become a grieving, depressed loner, whom nobody can possibly understand and whose burdens are too great to be shared with anyone.  The emotions of the spouse become stagnated in a sea of self-centered self pity.

The parent of an addicted child goes through a similar pattern.  However, the entire progressive nature of the parent’s co-dependent illness is influenced by an overwhelming feeling of guilt.  What did I do wrong to raise an alcoholic or an addict?

The impact of this guilt is so great that most parents initially assume all blame and believe that they are responsible for the child’s alcohol or drug use.  Between the guilt, on the one hand, and the parent’s denial of the existence or extent of the child’s problem, on the other, the parent often continues to protect and enable the child’s substance use.  At some point, the feelings of guilt may give way to anger.  Without some education and insight into the family disease of alcoholism, the parent becomes an angry controller.

Most often, the illness of the parent leads to the separation of parent and child.  Often the parent will develop an alcohol or drug problem him or herself in trying to deal with the emotional roller coaster of the child’s addiction.

Children in an alcoholic family develop a set of survival skills.  With an alcoholic parent and an untreated spouse, the child is going to adopt one of the following roles in order to feel okay.  Sometimes these roles overlap or come in combination.

1) The Hero: This child tries to excel in order to prove his or her self-worth which is not being naturally fostered by the alcoholic family.  The hero is often the mediator between the alcoholic spouse and the dependent spouse and tries to feel a sense of belonging by trying to “fix the family.”

2) The Enabler:  This child will do anything to avoid the emotional pain in the alcoholic family.  He or she will help provide the alcohol, or other drugs, if necessary, and will enable the cycle of alcoholic drinking to continue.

3) The Scapegoat: This child responds to the emotional uncertainty of the alcoholic family out of anger.  Often the alcoholic will, to all outward appearances, be functioning normally but the child will be breaking rules, causing trouble in the community, and having difficulties at school.  The scapegoat helps keep the attention away from the alcoholic by creating more public problems, which become the focus of attention.

4) The Lost Child:  This child’s response to the emotional uncertainty of living with alcoholism is to try to disappear.  This child tries to blend in and not be noticed. This is the quiet child who spends excessive time in front of the computer or in fantasy games that keep the child safe from reality.

5) The Mascot:  This child’s response to the frustrated emotional needs of alcoholism is to get attention and validation by providing laughter.  Humor is a primary survival skill.  This child tries to divert the family’s attention from its pain to anything outside the ongoing family crisis.  In the October issue of the CLO, this column talked about codependency and its perhaps more descriptive name, Delayed Stress Syndrome.

The adult feelings and behavior described in that article are often the result of children who grow up in an untreated alcoholic family situation and adopt one or more of the roles described above as a way to survive in the alcoholic family.

The good news is that more and more treatment centers are recognizing the family systems nature of addictive disease.  Most treatment programs offer family weeks to help provide enough initial insight for family members to understand their need to get the kind of assistance needed to deal with the affects of alcoholism on their lives.  When the alcoholic, the spouse, and the child all get help, then the chances are great that the family can move forward in a positive and healthy way.  The emotional water of life can flow again and the next generation can avoid the dead seas of depression, addiction, and other compulsive disorders that come to be the automatic pilots that run the lives of those who grew up in or live with alcoholism.

– by Don Carroll


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