Q: My husband, Wally, is an alcoholic, but he isn't willing to admit he has a problem. He won't even talk about it. Tell me what I should do now.
A: First, let me tell you what you should not do and what is generally unhelpful.
Do not nag, complain, scream, cry, beg, plead, embarrass or label your husband. He has a disease that he can't control. It is not within his power to overcome it alone.
Do not protect him by lying to his boss, covering for his irresponsibility, bailing him out of jail and paying his bills. A person who tries to rescue the alcoholic is called an enabler, and she may actually prolong and worsen the problem.
Though opinions differ, most authorities do not look on alcoholism as a character weakness or a moral problem. It may have been a moral problem during earlier days when the person chose to drink excessively. But later, it was not his desire to hurt his family, stay in a drunken stupor, waste his money, etc. The alcoholic has long since lost his capacity for voluntary action.
Do not perpetuate your husband's problem for your own selfish reasons. It is not uncommon for family members to resist treatment for what may be unconscious motives. For example, a woman whose husband is usually drunk has power over her family. She is the unrivaled boss - the one who controls the money and makes all of her family's decisions. As her alcoholic husband begins to recover, she may realize she is losing her power and move to sabotage his rehabilitation. Guard against those subtle forces that may undermine recovery in your home.
Q: OK, I know what not to do. Now tell me how to get help for my family.
A: It is virtually impossible to deal with this problem without outside help. In a very real sense, the entire family shares the sickness of the alcoholic. They are affected by rage, depression, disillusionment, despair, financial fear, denial, low self-esteem and myriad other emotions that accompany this illness. They are wounded in spirit and need the loving concern of those who have been there. Even if an alcoholic does recover on his or her own, a relapse is almost certain unless the family has been treated, too.
That family assistance is available through an organization called Al-Anon, which provides a support program for the families of alcoholics. Pauline and Bob, a couple who appeared on one of my radio broadcasts, credit Al-Anon with saving their family and perhaps Bob's life. Pauline says:
"After refusing to attend for a year, I went to Al-Anon in desperation and finally began to get the answers I needed. I'll never forget the first night. They gave no sympathy and no advice. They just shared their experience, their strength and their hope. I latched onto it with everything I had, and within a few weeks, things began to change for me. Al-Anon directed me toward God and helped me to get my eyes off myself and on him. Then they taught me how to deal with Bob."
Bob's comments about Al-Anon are even more dramatic. He said:
"If you really want to mess up an alcoholic's drinking fun, just get his spouse involved in Al-Anon. Pauline changed her approach in three ways, and it bugged me like crazy. Whereas she previously poured my booze down the drain, she stopped doing that, or anything else to keep me from drinking. I really wondered if she loved me anymore.
On Mondays, I would ask her to call the office and tell them that I had the flu. She had always done that for me. But after going to Al-Anon, she would simply smile and say, 'No, you'll have to do that yourself.'
She seemed to be calmer, more in control. Before, I would come home from drinking with the guys and look for an excuse to leave again. All I had to do was pick a fight with Pauline and then say, 'All right, if that's the way you are going to act, I'll just take off.' Now, she gets in this Al-Anon thing and instead of trying to hold me at home, she smiles and says, 'So long. I'm going to a meeting.'"
- James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.