Alcohol Abuse Effects on the Family-Part One

I have been deeply moved by the depth of despair and confusion you are expressing in your identifying your most important question about alcoholism. I feel your pain. I am also aware of the presence of great moral strength.

Here are questions from two women whose struggle is almost universal among women who live with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction:

1. How do you live with high functioning alcoholic? He has a good job and he tries to be involved in the kids’ lives, but you cannot rely on him. He acts like we are the crazy ones; he is the Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll. I have stayed with him because of our vows and children. If I cannot face him, it wouldn’t be fair to divorce him and force the kids to face him alone.

2. Should I stay in the marriage? And what are the impacts on my children and how can I neutralize them?

Each woman’s question highlights two moral dilemmas. They are big life questions I suspect underlie the majority of the responses sent in. You married with the belief and intention that your marriage was going to be a lifelong relationship. Now your partner abuses alcohol, and his drinking is severely impacting your sense of wellbeing and, if you have children, probably theirs as well.

Dilemma One: You

Do you break your vows to protect your own sanity, or do you stay and just do the best you can in the hope one day he’ll wake up?

Some women manage to create a life for themselves while staying in their alcoholic marriage. They develop their own interests, friends, family connections, work and so on. It can be a lonely path, but they consider the alternative of leaving the marriage to be worse.

My sister-in-law decided in her later-in life marriage to take this route. She had wide interests, good friends and a great relationship with her adult daughter. Her older, alcoholic husband had lots of medical problems and was generally in poor health. Sadly, she died ten years before he did.

Other women with alcoholic partners find themselves spiraling down emotionally, mentally and often physically, especially if he is abusive. So they leave, but there may be guilt to deal with, and often difficult financial pressures and other problems.

Dilemma Two: Your Children

Do you stay because your children need a father, or do you take your children out of the unhealthy environment? But will separating them from their father do them more harm than good?

Children learn by modeling their parents. If you take the children away from the model of their alcohol-abusing father, will they be less likely to adopt his drinking lifestyle, but resent you for abandoning dad? If you keep them there, will they resent you for not rescuing them? As adults, will they adopt the model you provided, that of staying in a marriage no matter what?

I know a woman in her 40s who remembers at nine years old praying daily that her mother would leave her dad and take the kids. I know another about the same age who recalls as a young teen her constant worry her parents would split up. Both are now dealing with resentment towards their mothers, not their fathers.

There are no easy answers. There are no answers that apply to everyone. It’s little wonder you sometimes feel stuck and unhappy.

An “Addictive Personality”- The Alcoholic’s Convenient Myth


People addicted to alcohol drink compulsively and often claim to have an addictive personality. It is a convenient myth.

I heard of a dentist who approached his dental work with compulsive attention to detail. His crowns had to fit perfectly. He was fanatical about bite adjustment and his workspace cleanliness was impeccable—all things I like to see in a dentist, because I do not like pain… or recalls.

Unfortunately, when his compulsive cleanliness extended to his front office and the waiting room, he could not keep his staff. His marriages didn’t last, because he imposed his compulsive orderliness on his family.

Compulsively doing things is a way of handling underlying fear. In other words, a compulsion is a fear-based urge. It is an ego defense mechanism just like rationalization and denial. We all have some degree of compulsive tendencies.

At one end of the continuum are compulsions that are innocuous, or even, on the surface, positive. For example, punctuality is generally a good habit. However, if being a minute late for any appointment makes you anxious, being on time is probably a compulsion for you.

At the other end of the continuum is the person with the psychiatric condition, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Recall the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets.” A very small percentage of people ever qualify for that diagnosis.

The Chandler dentist I mentioned above illustrates how compulsive tendencies can be both beneficial and harmful. Joining a gym, signing up as a volunteer, starting a book club, gardening or even DIY teeth whitening could be examples of positive alternatives. However, he would not come even close to meeting the criteria for OCD.

Compulsive behavior can take many forms: compulsive drinking, TV watching, coffee drinking, chocolate eating, working, exercise, gardening or sex. Some of these compulsions are reframed as addictions, making the person an alcohol addict (alcoholic), chocolate addict (chocoholic), work addict (workaholic) or sex addict (sexaholic).

Alcoholism is compulsive seeking and consuming alcohol. If the functioning alcoholic stops drinking, the compulsion often shifts to something else. The stories of the amount of coffee consumed at AA meetings are legend. That and other observations about compulsive drinkers have led to the term “Addictive Personality.” Functioning alcoholics now add “addictive personality” to their litany of excuses for continuing to abuse alcohol.

In fact, unless your compulsion happens to be drinking, no one would think you had an addictive personality. Since the use of the term, “addictive personality,” is dependent on the object of the compulsion, not on the process, it explains nothing.

However, since you can shift compulsiveness from one object to another, like from alcohol to coffee, and can harness it for beneficial purposes such as dentistry, why couldn’t you redirect the power of the compulsion to drink?

The compulsion to drink might be harnessed, for example, to pursue compulsively a new hobby or new business. If you could harness the compulsiveness of alcoholism for volunteer work, for example, think of what good could come as you phased out the addiction.

Could a harmful compulsion be redirected to self-improvement? I have seen it happen.

The shift from a bad compulsion to a better one, of course, is not an end in itself. However, it could be an important step in leaving a bad compulsion in the past, doing something positive, and in ultimately achieving a more balanced life.

Thrivers, Survivors and People in Recovery

Tennis Player

We meet people everyday who have recovered or are in recovery from a major life changing event. Some deem themselves as survivors, and some just positively live their lives looking forward to the future (a thriver). What are the differences between a thriver, a survivor and a person in recovery?

A thriver is someone who grows vigorously, flourishes, or realizes goals despite circumstances. Thrivers are active agents in creating their futures. They look forward to an ever better future. They have a knowing that when setbacks come, they will land on their feet.
A “survivor,” in contrast, is someone whose identity incorporates a past wound such as sexual abuse, torture, cancer or some other horrible condition.
Renowned physicist and author of “A Brief History of Time”, Dr. Stephen Hawking, was again admitted to hospital April 21, 2009, seriously ill at age 67. Dr. Hawking has had ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease since age 21. Only 5% of people diagnosed with the disease live beyond the 10-year mark. Yet over the next 40+ years, he went on to become what many believe to be the world’s greatest living scientist. A true thriver!
I am close to a woman in her late 40s who has had cancer—skin cancer, deep muscle cancer, lymph node cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and bone cancer. She has had over 20 surgeries. To add to the horror of it, she is violently allergic to anesthesia.
Yet for this thriver, being a survivor is not part of her identity. She sees the cancer, endless operations, chemo, radiation and pain as just stuff she has had to put up with as she gets on with her life.
Others I have known have built their whole identities around trauma in the distant past. A woman in her 60s identified herself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. When we discussed therapeutically removing “survivor” from her identity, she gasped, “Who would I be?” She discontinued therapy.
I reflected on how I had been abducted and sexually abused twice as a child, one of the incidents involving horsewhipping and hanging. Of course, those incidents affected my life. Thirty years later, when I heard a man identify himself as a survivor, I realized that had never been part of my identity.
Being “in recovery” from alcohol is another form of being a survivor. Some years ago I knew a competent alcohol and drug counsellor who had herself quit drinking a couple of decades earlier. She lived a stable, normal life. I assumed she attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings simply to support her clients.
One day in a disagreement with someone, she shouted, “You’re messing with my recovery.” Her recovery? Wasn’t that 20 years ago? Then it sunk in that being “in recovery” had become part of her definition of herself as a person, part of her identity.
Back in my 30s, I had stopped drinking, because the huge amount of alcohol I was drinking was killing me. It took about three years to work through all the changes and recreate my life after alcohol. Now 30 years later, I can see that time as my recovery period, but being “in recovery” had never become a part of my identity.
I am thankful that right after I quit drinking, I had no one in my life telling me I had an incurable, progressive disease and would have to be in recovery for the rest of my life. It might have made my identity as a thriver harder to maintain.
I invite you to discard any identity based on a past wound. Be a thriver!

Moral Evasion through Pop Psychology

not your faultPop psychology has worked its way into our culture. If a man makes a mistake, its OK to blame it on something he ate or an addiction he has. Has pop psychology made it so people no longer have to accept responsibility for their own actions? Is pop psychology making us a society of victims?

A defense attorney once asked me how to use the “alcohol blackout” argument. His client had bludgeoned a relative to death. (Dozens of blows to the head with a hammer tends to be deadly.) He knew he could not get her off, but perhaps he could get her a reduced sentence by claiming alcohol blackout. I told him it might work if he had an expert witness who was incompetent or willing to fabricate. He would also need a judge who was naïve about alcoholism and alcoholic blackouts.

A man killed a homosexual who made a pass at him in San Francisco. The argument was that his violence was “an involuntary triggering of sexual attitudes induced in him by his sheltered, small-town Texas upbringing.” Fortunately for all of us, the judge did not buy the “panic” defense.

However, a body builder did avoid jail time by using the anabolic steroid defense after he broke into six homes, stole money and set fire to three of the homes. He was ruled in a Maryland court not criminally responsible because his use of anabolic steroids left him “suffering from organic personality syndrome.”

After a chief judge Sol Wachtler was arrested for extortion and threatening to kidnap his ex lover’s teenage daughter, his defense was “a prescription drug cocktail and manic depression made him do it.” A prominent medical psychologist wrote that the judge “was manifesting advanced symptoms of…Clerambault-Kandinsky Syndrome (CKS)…a devastating illness.” Translation: irresistibly lovesick and therefore blameless.

I invite you to join me in reflecting on what the medicalizing and psychologizing of bad behaviour into bad diseases is doing to societal values. To hold no one responsible is to make us all victims.

Pop psychology has been a willing participant in the evasion of moral values. We now have chocolate addiction as an excuse for gorging on chocolate, caffeine addiction as an excuse for road rage, love addiction as an excuse for staying in a dangerous relationship and gambling addiction to excuse gambling excesses. I remember this one time I was using Fhats Casino – and literally the same scenario happened. And isn’t the whole point of being a sex addict to justify aberrant sexual behaviour and feel less guilty about it?

Kevin Mitnick was accused of hacking into a corporate computer system and stealing a valuable security program. The judge saw him as a victim of “computer addiction” and sent him for treatment for his impulse disorder. Mitnick later established Mitnick Security Consulting, L.L.C. and had a movie, “Track Down,” made about him.

The alcohol-made-me-do-it argument is still alive and well. Last month, 24-year-old Ronald King received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to sexual intercourse with a child under 10. (She was four.) The judge told Mr. King during sentencing that drinking “leads you astray and makes you do terrible things.”

What happened to the bad people? Has pop psychology made them all ill and therefore not responsible?

A functioning alcoholic develops a serious heart condition and is told that continuing to drink will kill him, so he stops drinking to save his life. Thousands have done it. We laud him for his choice. However, if the same man chooses to drink and drive, and then kills someone, people are quick to conclude that the alcohol, not the man, was at fault.

Do you agree with me there is something wrong with this picture?