Living with Alcoholism

I was thirteen when I realized my mother had a drinking problem. I watched in horror as she spiraled deeper into the bottle. Her growing instability and mood swings were pretty terrifying in light of the mother I had known to that point. 

I kept constant vigil, secretly trying to smell her breath, searching through the cabinets and basement trying to find her stash, tearing through the village in a panic to find my Dad and let him know that it was happening again.

The humiliation as our secret became public; the confusion as to why this was happening and what I needed to do (it was all my fault, after all); the strong sense of guilt that my epilepsy was the reason for it; the fear for her safety when she would disappear; anger and disgust in the face of her drunkenness; and the helplessness in making it go away largely defined my adolescence.


Approximately one in four people is affected by alcoholism during their lifetime, but the stigma is so great that many remain unaware of what goes on in the homes of some of their friends and neighbors.
Alcoholism is a family disease. Not only does it tend to run through the generations of a family (grandfather, mother, uncle, brother, daughter…), it also negatively impacts those who are closest to the one with the drinking problem (parents, spouse, children).

Often there is a change in the behavior of spouses and children as a means for dealing with addiction in their home lives. The family members develop coping mechanisms in handling the pain involved with having an alcoholic parent:


  • The Hero is a high achiever, trying desperately to compensate for the family’s distress by being extremely “good”. She never breaks the rules and performs exceedingly well in school and all of her activities. She constantly seeks approval, but no matter how hard she tries, in her mind, it is never enough. Her sense of inadequacy is tremendous.
  • The Clown draws attention away from the pain and dysfunction at home by entertaining others, by being “cute” or funny. This behavior provides a good cover to the supreme sense of insecurity that this child feels.
  • The Scapegoat attracts negative attention by acting out, getting into trouble, hanging out with the “unsavory” crowd, often making extreme fashion choices (body piercings, tattoos, spiked hair, or perhaps a Gothic style). Feelings of anger and helplessness and being misunderstood abound.
  • The Lost Child tries to make himself invisible, keeping to oneself, attracting little attention or leaving to hang out with friends outside the home as much as possible. This child feels lonely and unimportant.
  • The Enabler is usually the child (or spouse) closest to the addict emotionally. S/he tries to protect the alcoholic by making excuses for her behavior, picking up the slack around the house, bailing her out of jail. This allows the drinker to continue without suffering the natural consequences of her drinking: social ostracism, financial effects…


While sibling rivalry is normal and necessary in children, becomes a huge problem when childhood competitions are carried into adulthood. On-going sibling conflict may be in response to family dysfunction, such as alcoholism, the mistreatment of others in a way that is detrimental to a child’s well being, or the catastrophic illness of a family member.

The result is a struggle of negative, childish feeling and a supreme sense of inadequacy and even betrayal which has followed us into maturity. At family gatherings, old conflicts reduce these adults to the childish response played out as youngsters. It is likely to cast a dark shadow over our relationships with our partner, children, professional relationships, and friendships. We are setting the example our children are likely to follow if the cycle is not broken. Guidance by a professional may be what is required to break these destructive patterns of communication. 

I have heard it said that one of the most valuable gifts you can bequeath to your children, is to work out or come to terms with unresolved quarrels with your family of origin.

Recently, most of my siblings and I gathered for the funeral of a beloved aunt. As usual, I was filled with fear and trepidation at the prospect of reuniting with my family of origin. I cannot stand the “games”, the secrets, the competition, the dishonesty; the pitting of one against another, and the tremendous sense of being so judged and completely misunderstood.

The opportunity presented itself to work through these lifelong rivalries that had escalated upon the event of our father’s passing, tearing us apart in ways that seemed beyond the scope of reconciliation.

After once again rehashing old wounds, we agreed to make a pact:


  • We will let go of past grudges once and for all.
  • We will say what we mean and mean what we say. 
  • We will talk to each other, not about each other. We will keep our relationship and issues with each other between ourselves; and not pull the others into disagreements that have nothing to do with them.
Our eldest sister, the “Queen Bee”, who was burdened with way too much responsibility at too young an age, and continued to think that she must step in on behalf of her grown siblings, is hereby dethroned! We will now stand as equals.

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