Very often, that statement stems from a belief system that tells the family that “there’s the alcoholism over here – and the alcoholic and his nuttiness over there.”
They think of alcoholism only as cirrhosis of the liver, or late-stage brain damage, or falling-down drunkenness.
They can’t quite believe that the alcoholism controls all the person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings.
Why is the family unable to get past their own denial?
a) The family doesn’t really understand that a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are highly influenced by toxic poisons acting on the brain/spinal cord/central nervous system.
The alcohol isn’t just working on the brain when the person is drinking. It takes a long time to get it out of the system, and the alcoholic is usually drinking again before it’s out. So, there isn’t usually any real “sobriety” at all.
(Picture people going into surgery on twilight drugs. They say weird things and are not “loving and understanding and involved with their spouses.” Picture doing this for months and years, day after day, and you have regularly-distorted thoughts, feelings, and actions.)
b) The family often wants to believe that there really is a psychiatric reason for all this. This is because if the alcoholic refuses to go to treatment, the family naturally feels despairing and hopes that the problem may be something other than the alcoholism so that the alcoholic will go to some kind of “treatment.” (In the hope that something “will take” and he’ll get well.)
The problem is, the majority of therapists do not understand alcoholism. They often try to help the alcoholic focus on his/her childhood to supposedly “get to the root of the problem.” They think that the “root of the problem” is not alcoholism, but a psychiatric reason. They believe, therefore, that the alcoholic can’t really stop drinking until that “psychiatric root cause” is found. Then (according to this theory), the real need for alcoholic drinking would just wither away.
The alcoholic often agrees to go to this kind of treatment because he knows it leaves his drinking intact.
The problem is, that treatment approach seldom works.
Alcoholism is not secondary to a psychiatric problem. Alcoholism is a primary disease in and of itself.
Historically millions of alcoholics have died from the effects of alcoholic drinking – while trying to “get at the root of the problem” in therapy. (As a matter of fact, many people do discover, and “work on” their childhood trauma in therapy – and still continue to drink and die.)
And, even if there is a psychiatric problem in addition to the alcoholism, it is very difficult to treat the mental illness unless total abstinence from alcohol is first attained.
It is also extremely difficult to even diagnose whether or not a person has a psychiatric illness in addition to alcoholism, if that person is still drinking. The alcohol-induced crazy behavior must be at least somewhat abated by sobriety, in order to correctly assess the patient. Many people have been incorrectly diagnosed as “mentally ill” – when in fact they have alcohol-induced behaviors that mimic mental illness.
Additionally, it is often difficult to convince an alcoholic to leave ineffective psychiatric counseling – to go for real help for the alcoholism – because that attendance at the therapist’s office is a further excuse to continue drinking! The alcoholic says to the family, “What do you mean, get help? I’m getting help! I’ve been seeing my therapist every week now for five years! What more do you want?” And sadly, many therapists who do not understand alcoholism really believe that the “family interaction” causes the alcoholic’s drinking. Therefore, those therapists focus not on the alcoholism, but on the “family anger” at the alcoholic. As a result, more blaming of the family goes on – this time with the stamp of approval of therapy.
c) The family sees the alcoholic as such a tin god – so powerful – they wind up with a block against believing that anything is more powerful than the alcoholic. (The alcoholic has told the family that for years, and the family naturally believes it.)
* * *
Think about how powerful you think your alcoholic is. Think about how it colors all your beliefs about control issues; about treatment; about what you have the right to do and not to do; and about your self-image.
From Toby Drews, the author of the million-selling "Getting Them Sober'' books, endorsed by 'dear Abby', Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and Melody Beattie: