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CYC-Online 15 APRIL 2000 / BACK
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The alcoholic parent

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse by either or both parents inevitably affects and involves the family in many important and harmful ways. Among the ways in which the alcoholic's family is affected, there are five areas which seem to be of the utmost importance.

Although there is no unanimity of opinion as to whether there is always an antecedent and causative personality maladjustment underlying alcoholism, there is complete agreement that the alcoholic when in the active phase of his illness is a most disturbed and disturbing individual.

In the early stages when some measure of control exists, he may be able to abstain during working hours or during an emergency, so that his alcoholism can be kept secret from all but the members of the family. As the addiction advances, each episode of drinking will be accompanied by a greater and greater craving for more alcohol – a dependence which is both psychological and physiological – so that he will continue to drink at no matter what expense to his family, his health, his business or his previous intellectual or ethical standards. Because he cannot face life without alcohol, he builds up elaborate alibis and defences against admitting his addiction. The fact that social drinking is an acceptable part of our culture, plays into his hands and lends plausibility to his statements that he drinks as others do. His egocentricity, his denials, his rationalisations, his blaming of others, his eventual shedding of responsibilities should be looked on as part of the illness from which he usually cannot recover without outside help.

The alcoholic father
In his periods of sobriety, the alcoholic father is frequently charming, affectionate, understanding and penitent. He inspires the natural love of his offspring who from this, build an ideal father image of omnipotence and loving kindness. The disillusionment of drunken episodes is shattering to the frail superego structure of the child.

The effects of alcoholic behaviour on the child may be direct, swift, sure and devastating but they may be mediated indirectly also through the effect on the mother who finds it difficult to be relaxed and loving with her children when she is hostile, tense, angry, afraid, vindictive, exhausted and worried.

Many of the normally shared activities of family life are denied the child of the alcoholic. He needs both parents to teach him the rules of our culture. Since the alcoholic does not himself live according to these rules, he cannot be a good teacher. His own insecurity, egocentricity, impatience and capriciousness render him incapable of consistent discipline so that the child rarely knows what is expected of him. Until and unless the wife takes over completely there are frequent battles over discipline. The child may even blame himself for these quarrels between parents or may even blame himself for a drinking episode, assuming that some shortcoming of his own triggered it off, thus, the child lends himself to the role of scapegoat and can be unmercifully punished.

The child may play one parent against the other, ending up with little respect for either one. Either the frustrated parent may take out his anger toward his spouse on the innocent child, who cannot retaliate, or an angry parent may overindulge a child to win him away from the spouse, not because he loves the child but to spite the other. Derogating the child, humiliating him and unjustly punishing him, makes it impossible for the child to develop a sense of self-worth. As the father senses his loss of masculinity he may substitute sadistic brutality for it, turning against one or several members of his family. The child, in his helplessness, will develop fear, hatred and revenge, fantasies for which he later on feels guilt and fear of retaliation. This situation may produce a Lifelong difficulty with authority figures. A child may become overly dependent on the mother but deny it out of fear, or he may become the target of the alcoholic's jealous rage as the mother administers to his needs rather than the father.

Unable to endure the incessant quarrelling, a child may turn against both parents or he may even come to feel that the non-drinking mother is to blame for the father's drinking, thereby identifying masculine independence with drunkenness.

The alcoholic mother
Because the mother plays the more important role in child rearing in our culture, the effect of an alcoholic mother can be more serious than that of an alcoholic father. Since she is usually drinking at home her physical presence cannot be avoided and the children have to bear the brunt of her regressive behaviour. She is often unreasonable, aggressive and quick to anger, impatient, demanding, deceitful, extravagant and grandiose, and helpless. After a few drinks she may be extravagantly exuberant and grandiose, embarrassingly sentimental and maudlin, demanding of the centre of the stage, or she may become morose and complaining. As the illness progresses she may become supersensitive, resentful, quarrelsome and even violently hostile and aggressive. She may become ill, hurt herself when drunk, drop lighted cigarettes and break dishes or furniture.

All of this is so frightening and humiliating to the children that they will not bring playmates into the house. Fearful for their mother's safety they may also refuse to go out to play. With behaviour so contrary to our ethical norms, the children find it difficult to reconcile what they are told with what they see. They may fail altogether in developing a stable conscience or they may feel that they come from a mother who is no good and that they themselves can therefore never amount to anything.

The effects of an alcoholic mother and a young infant can be disastrous. Though she may sincerely love the child she will frequently be so guilt-laden that she also becomes over-solicitous.

Since she frequently is not living in harmony with her husband and because she has withdrawn from much of her social life and interests outside the home, she may turn all her unsatisfied love and yearning onto the child and build an unhealthy clinging overdependent attitude in the child.

When the mother is drinking she cannot help but neglect the infant. She may leave him cold and wet, unfed, slap him when he continues to cry or leave him alone for long periods. Quarrelling of parents can also deeply disturb a child of even a few weeks old, causing gastro-intestinal upsets, asthma, skin rashes, etc. When the father takes over and cares for the child the mother may become jealous and spiteful, competing with the child for the father's attention. When the drinking bender is over, the mother being deeply ashamed, may try to make it up to the infant, becoming maudlin and over-indulgent.

With such unpredictability the smooth flow of symbiotic communication between mother and child on which the future sense of confidence, self-esteem and trust are founded, is shattered. Into the child's character may be built a fundamental and permanent mistrust and sense of having been cheated. This may be central to the later development of psychopathic, psychotic or neurotic trends.

Parallel defences and symptoms
During the progression of alcoholism the family gradually adapts and learns to live with the dysfunctional member. However, such an adaptation takes its toll on the rest of the family resulting in the development of certain defences and even symptoms by all the members of the family. This is why alcoholism is also known as a “family disease". In his description of the progressive stages of alcoholism, Jellinek identified such defences and symptoms as denial, projection, isolation, rationalisation, deterioration of physical health and personality changes. These defences and symptoms are not developed by the alcoholics alone but also by the members of the family. Thus the alcoholic's denial of his problem is matched by the denial of the family unit. The family will often collude with the alcoholic's rationalisations. For example, they will make excuses for not attending a birthday party or function because father is having another ulcer attack from the terrible pressure he is experiencing at work. Gradually, such rationalisations become less and less convincing. Social isolation increases as the family withdraws from outside contacts. Here we can cite the example of the wife of an alcoholic who cuts down on her attendance at church socials, as more and more people comment on her husband's absence or laugh at his inappropriate behaviour when he does join her.

The irrational behaviour of the alcoholic is often matched by that of the non-alcoholic family members. Bewildered members of the family especially wives, in order to show support for the alcoholic are sometimes required to lie and deceive in order to get him out of a tight spot or keep him out of trouble caused by his drinking behaviour.

The “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" personality changes often observed in the drinking alcoholic, can also be experienced by the non-alcoholic family members. During the recovery process, family members can often identify their own past personality changes, an “ethical deterioration" that contradicted their private values and standards of behaviour. Examples are: the non-violent spouse who suddenly hits the alcoholic; the mother who physically abuses her children after she had been abused by her intoxicated husband; the son who steals to help meet the family's needs. The indefinable fears, anxiety and guilt of the non-alcoholic family members are often parallel to those of the alcoholic. It is not unusual for family members, like the alcoholic, to question their own sanity; and, as a culmination of guilt, frustrations, rage and self-pity, to suffer “mental breakdown" and even to contemplate suicide.

Just from the little I have said about alcoholism, it is clear that the disease of alcoholism in one individual cannot be separated from its effect on all the members of a family system.

Thus, it goes without saying that the whole family needs to recover from this family disease.

This feature: Adapted from a paper presented by Mr G Fortuin (Regional Director, SANCA) at a NADAG Summer School.


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