About the Film



Death and Dying

Family History



Copyright © 2000 Trish Williams

Alcoholism—A Family Disease

Bradshaw states that all families are dysfunctional to some extent, some of the time. The problem occurs when this pattern of dysfunction exists over time and the family gets stuck and does not deal with the issues. (Bradshaw part 1) It is clear to me now that my family existed for years in an unhealthy dysfunctional state surrounding my father’s alcoholism. For many reasons, I did not feel impacted or even aware of my father’s alcoholism until I was a young adult. Many reasons attributed to this — denial by my mother and father, and my father’s personality. He was not violent, just absent. He did not fulfill his role around the house as a father or husband. Bradshaw states that denial is partly unconscious and is a defense system that protects the self. It maintains the status quo and keeps us from knowing our own secrets. (Bradshaw part 3) My father had to keep his alcoholism a secret, because he knew how sensitive my mother was to drunkenness due to her experiences with her mother’s alcoholism.

We learned how to let go, to stop enabling him, to completely separate our lives from his so he would be solely responsible for his behavior and its consequences and we could realize our own dysfunctional involvement.

Although my father drank around the house, he did much of his drinking at bars, restaurants and the firehouse . He was basically a passive drunk and would eventually slip into a deep sleep or pass out, but was essentially functional. As his tolerance increased, he got very good at hiding his intoxicated appearance, keeping a wide-legged stance enabling him to maintain his balance. So although we saw him drink regularly, we did not see the alcoholism. This is partly because of denial, partly because of his deception, and partly because he appeared functional most of the time.

By the time I was in my early to mid twenties, I was overtly aware of my father’s alcoholism and his advanced stage of dysfunction. My mother, sister and I became educated through the many rehabilitation centers my father attended which recognized alcoholism as a family disease. This means that all members of an alcoholic family are affected by the alcoholic and the dysfunction. Along with this is the pattern of dysfunction and addiction being passed down generationally. We were taught about the disease, the life-long recovery process, triggers for the alcoholic, and how the family members often “enabled” the alcoholic to continue in his destructive pattern. And we learned about “denial”, the problem my father could never really see. Bradshaw in his videotape series Family Secrets emphasizes that the family is a dynamic system. When there is a problem, the whole system is affected, not just the individual. (Bradshaw part 3)

RD Laing pretty clearly relates the psychological “catch 22” of the disease, how one gets caught up in verifying ones own doubts and trying to confront denial in this poem from his book Knots.


There must be something the matter with him
    because he would not be acting as he does
        unless there was
    therefore he is acting as he is
    because there is something the matter with him

He does not think there is anything the matter with him
    one of the things that is
    the matter with him
    is that he does not think there is anything
    the matter with him

    we have to help him realize that,
    the fact that he does not think there is anything
    the matter with him
    is one of the things that is
    the matter with him (Laing 5)

We learned how to let go, to stop enabling him, to completely separate our lives from his so he would be solely responsible for his behavior and its consequences and we could realize our own dysfunctional involvement. As Monroe states,

“The family loves and cares about the alcoholic, but they tend to react to the alcoholics’s behavior. Their thinking and behaviors center on dealing with the alcoholic. They often neglect their own needs. By getting help, family members can begin to understand their own problems and also the family’s problems.” (Monroe 74)

It was through Al-Anon and the rehabilitation centers that my mother began to deal with her own issues of being the wife of an alcoholic, as well as the adult child of an alcoholic, as her mother was alcoholic. My sister Sue and I both began to see traits of Children of Alcoholics and their own set of dysfunctional behavior learned from the family actions. This includes being more likely to become an alcoholic, marrying an alcoholic, and other characteristics that are learned growing up in a dysfunctional family. Children are impacted by the denial and other behaviors, but each can be impacted in different ways. My sister and I were only a year apart in age, grew up in the same house, yet had very different experiences.

Around 1987 my father’s life went out of control. He went to three different rehabilitation centers yet was unable to successfully confront his disease. We learned that most alcoholics can control the disease, some with relapses and a small percentage cannot. Our hopes were shattered when the final meeting between the director and my mother came down to the fact that they were releasing him because they considered him a lost cause. Her parting words to my mother were “protect yourself”. The concept of enabling we had to learn was “do not protect him, let him face the consequences of his actions, and when he hits bottom, he will seek help.” We all came up with responses to him “no I won’t give you money,” “I can only give you a ride to the hospital detoxification or a rehabilitation center,” and in the end, the county homeless shelter. Of course he never asked to be taken to any of these places. We learned if the alcoholic never actually hits bottom and becomes homeless and /or institutionalized, the family has guilt, unresolved feelings, and grieves the loss of the person who used to be. We learned to let go.

Alcoholism does seem to be passed down generationally within my family. My mother has reflected on how she was able to look back at Tom’s grandfather and see that he too used to overindulge in alcohol and became nasty at times. She also mentioned she felt my father’s mother drank too much in her later years. A family pattern has clearly been established if I follow the next several generations. My father suffered from alcoholism as did my cousin in the my generation (my father’s sister’s son). I am conscious of my son’s possible predisposition, even though he is only ten years old.

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