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Alcoholism: A Family Disease?

Alcohol Detox

alcoholism and addictionMaybe you are one of them. If so, you are probably struggling with feelings of helplessness, bewilderment, anger and acute distress over what you see happening in your loved one’s life. A conservative estimate has suggested that, for every alcoholic, there are seven people negatively affected by his behavior.
The tendency to become addicted to alcohol has been found to be genetic; and, many alcoholics can identify an alcoholic relative and recognize the traits in themselves. My ex-husband was an alcoholic, as was his uncle, so I have been able to warn my children that they may well carry the gene that makes them susceptible to addiction.

There is no clear definition about what makes someone an alcoholic. Many people shy away from the term. However, if alcohol is an issue that is causing difficulties, yet the person continues to drink when it would be better not to do so, there is probably some level of addiction. To put it simply, if alcohol causes the person problems, they have an alcohol problem.

Alcoholics may try to hide their drinking and tend to rationalize it, so that they are blind to the fact that it is out of control. Loving an alcoholic is extremely traumatic; they live chaotic lives, are oblivious to the feelings of those around them, are unreliable, deceitful, dishonest, and frequently violent. They blame others for their problems and will often come up with very poor excuses for their bad conduct.

This denial is a defense mechanism; the alcoholic cannot allow himself to imagine that his beloved drink could possibly be harmful in any way, so he concocts bizarre excuses and scenarios to avoid facing the truth. The increasingly irrational behavior of the addict disrupts family life and threatens to bring shame and humiliation upon the wife and children. Families typically go through several stages, in their attempts to deal with the addiction:

1. Enabling

The family may lie or apologize for the alcoholic, cover up his mistakes, or take over his responsibilities. This only makes it easier for the alcoholic to continue drinking.

2. Controlling

The family tries to control the addict by hiding bottles, controlling money, or trying to bargain with him.

3. Blaming

As the family begins to face the truth, they project their feelings of failure, hurt, fear and anger on to the alcoholic and blame him for all the problems they face.

4. Withdrawing

Finally, the family may become resigned to the chaos of their lives and close ranks. Their hostility and self-pity may alienate family and friends; and, they may withdraw from social and church activities to protect themselves. If your family is affected by alcoholism, it is of the utmost importance to remember that addiction is an illness. It is not your fault that your loved one is drinking, any more than it is your job to stop them. The only person who can change his behavior is the alcoholic, himself, with support from medical professionals, self-help organizations, church leaders–and, yes–his family.


Be honest with friends and family about the situation: they probably already know that there is a problem. Going to Al-Anon, the support group for families of alcoholics, can be extremely helpful; and, you can encourage your teenage children to go to Alateen. Details of meetings, or numbers to call, will be in your local phone book and online at http://www.al-anon.org. Be honest and open with the children about what is happening, and why. Make it clear that alcohol is the cause of the problem and the behavior, rather than blaming the alcoholic, himself. Try to remember what you love about the alcoholic, and see him as a good person who has sadly lost his way. Pray for him, not about him.


Help yourself by emotionally detaching from the behavior and the problems it causes. Focus, instead, on your own needs, interests and social life. Seek help and support from priesthood leaders for yourself, not just for your addicted loved one; and, speak freely about your feelings and the problems the addictive behavior is causing. It is helpful, as well, to stop making excuses for the addict, apologizing for him-or, in any way, protecting him from the consequences of his own actions. Neither should you try to control him.

Let him take responsibility for his own behavior. For example, towards the end of our marriage my husband invited some friends for a meal he planned to cook for them. Then, despite my protests, went out drinking instead of preparing the food. When his friends arrived at the house, I might have chosen to call him privately on his cell phone to summon him home while I made the dinner myself, or apologize to them and tell them that he was sick. Instead, I told them honestly that he had gone to the pub, and directed them to where they could find him.


Arguing, or negotiating, with the alcoholic when he is drunk is a waste of time and energy. If you need to discuss his drinking, then lovingly do so at a time when he is calm and sober. Don’t make threats – for example, to leave – unless you are ready to carry them out. Research treatment options in your area (times and locations of AA meetings, for example, or services available from your family doctor) and let your loved one know that you have this information and will be supportive, if he chooses to accept this help. Details of local AA meetings can be found at http://www.aa.org.


It is a myth that an alcoholic has to reach “rock bottom,” before he is ready to seek help and change his life. An intervention can be very successful, in some cases, in persuading the addict to address his problem. This involves a group of family, friends, and often a specialist intervention facilitator, meeting with the alcoholic at a time when he is sober, then together–gently and lovingly–explaining their concerns and insisting that the addict accept professional help (which should already have been put into place), or suffer specific consequences – such as being asked to leave the family home.


Inpatient treatment can be expensive and can last for several weeks, or even months, but prices vary and it is worth checking out several centers before selecting one. It is often helpful to choose one that is some distance from the patient’s home, or in an isolated location, because it makes it more difficult for the patient to discharge himself, when things get tough – and they will get tough. Also, if you select a unit run on the 12-step “Minnesota model” of Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery will be based on spiritual guidelines. While many marriages affected by alcoholism tend to end in divorce, there are many families in which the drinking partner has sought and received help. In these instances, they forged a new, happier and calmer life as part of a loving eternal family. There is always hope.

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