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Growing Up With Alcoholism

In Al-Anon, we hear alcoholism described as "a family disease." That simply means that living with someone who has the primary disease of alcoholism causes problems for and in all the people in close contact with it. We are all affected, even though we may not all be affected in the same way.

In my case, alcoholism caused enough distortions in my perception of life that I had lots of recovering to do when I got to the Al-Anon program. The very good news about the effects of alcoholism on family and friends is that these effects can be reversed over time by practicing the principles we learn in our program.

I grew up with the disease. My father's drinking problem was well entrenched before I was born and he never stopped drinking before he died. My mother never made it to Al-Anon, so there was no recovery in my family.

Verbal and Physical Abuse

Without going into specific details, I can tell you there were daily hateful shouting matches between my parents, verbal and physical abuse of the children, all kinds of secret keeping about what went on in our home, a general sense of misery in every family member and heated denial that alcoholism could be a problem in our family.

I remember asking if my father was an alcoholic and the answer was "of course not, he holds a job, doesn't he?" Ignorance of the disease caused just as much pain in my family as the drinking behavior and the reactions to it. After many years in the Al-Anon program, I understand that this type of behavior is more or less the norm in families where the disease is present.

I choose to believe the disease disabled both my parents from showing their children what they had in their hearts for us and also deprived them of the ability to teach us any substantial skills in negotiating our way through life.

Developed Disastrous Characteristics

As a result of that developmental process, I arrived at adulthood with the following characteristics:

  • No trust in my own perceptions of what was happening around me,
  • No positive sense of self-esteem,
  • Serious emotional immaturity,
  • A wide array of people pleasing behaviors,
  • An extraordinary tolerance for unacceptable behavior,
  • Absolutely no spiritual development,
  • No belief system or principles by which to live my life, and
  • A view of the world as a scary and dangerous place.

These are not useful characteristics for someone who is about to begin making independent, life determining choices and, as you might imagine, I made some disastrous ones.

Recognition, Not Attraction

Although I vowed not to end up living the way my mother had lived, I chose an alcoholic as my life partner with unerring accuracy. Today, I believe I made that choice because I had no idea how to behave around people with a reasonable degree of emotional maturity.

When I found myself in the company of a man who responded to life with behavior which was familiar to me, I interpreted that familiarity as attraction rather than just recognition, which was what it was.

As it turned out, this man was abstinent from alcohol at the time we met and fell in love. However, he had no recovery program to help him stay sober. When he started drinking again, I felt a terrible sense of humiliation and shame that I had chosen exactly the type of partner I had vowed not to. My limited self-esteem was further eroded.

Keeping Secrets

Even though, in my mind, I knew the uncontrolled drinking and accompanying bizarre behavior was something I should reject, it seemed as though I went into a trance and began behaving exactly the way mother behaved toward my father.

I blamed, scolded, coaxed, berated, reasoned, screamed, threatened and raged in my attempts to control the situation. And, of course, I kept it all a secret. For many years, I did not tell anyone what was going on in our home. I did not invite anyone into my house and generally isolated myself with the disease.

Although my upbringing did not provide me with a set of principles by which to live my life, I did have what I would call a "cash register" sense of integrity and a knowledge of what was right and wrong. Yet, I became willing to compromise even those limited principles to keep peace and mitigate the effects of the disease on our life.

Believed My Own Lies

I became dishonest with others about my actions, I lied about why the bills weren't paid on time and, a lot of the time, and I tried very hard to believe my own lies about what was wrong in my own life. I thought his drinking was due to "stress", unhappiness about the direction his work life had taken and dissatisfaction with our relationship.

Over time, I became suspicious of others whose lives seemed to be going well and developed an ever increasing sense of negativity about life in general. I became a critical, judgmental and impatient person. Did I mention that I felt very sorry for myself?

My focus gradually narrowed to the point where all I could see was what the alcoholic was doing wrong and I became convinced that if he would just stop drinking, our life would improve immeasurably. Finally, when it became clear he was not going to stop drinking in spite of all my efforts to get him to do so, I simply began to hate him and wish he would die, preferably immediately.

Help Was Available to Me

During the time I was possessed with this death wish (his), the drinking escalated to a level which frightened me and I called a local treatment program to see if they would come get him and take him off my hands. Their answer was "No." Their rules were that the person needing treatment must request it, but they did have something positive to say to me. They told me that they believed family members of alcoholics needed help, too, and that help was available for me in Al-Anon.

Since I had become desperate, I called the phone number they gave me and spoke to a long time Al-Anon member, who invited me to a meeting where she met me and took me under her wing for the evening.

Although I don't have a clear recollection of what was said at that meeting, I do remember very accurately how lovingly I was greeted, as well as the feeling of relief I experienced in learning that I was not alone with this problem.

The Impact of Alcoholism

Eventually the alcoholic's drinking began to frighten him and he sought treatment on his own. By that time, I had attended a few Al-Anon meetings and began to see the problem in the light of reality and recovery. I have been committed to the program ever since and over a period of many years I have learned a great deal about the impact of alcoholism on my life.

I have also learned what to do about it. Looking back, I can see that the most important impact of the disease on my life was that it caused me enough pain to break out of the defensive, coping patterns I had developed and forced me to seek help for myself in Al-Anon. My wish for you is that you do the same.

Lynne T.,California