Alcoholism Tears Families Apart

alcoholism-tears families-apart

Alcoholism tears many families apart. You may be experiencing the same type of trauma I grew up with. It’s my wish to transcend pain to promise by extending hope to others.  I’m addressing three issues in this article.

  • I will tell a part of my family story
  • I will talk about unhealthy responses to family trauma
  • I will discuss healthy responses you can use to transcend the challenges of alcoholism in your family.


I was nine years old the first time I saw my father drunk. We had just had a joyous family gathering. As I ran into the kitchen I saw my father grasping two door jambs and trying to hold himself up. He was screaming at the top of his lungs. I stood frozen to in place, thinking he was about to die right in front of me! My mother stood frozen to the floor, looking indescribably sad. He was lunging forward, I was screaming, and she was crying. “Call the doctor! Call the hospital! He’s dying! He’s dying!” Ny mother told me he was celebrating because he had just found a job. So if he was celebrating, why was he dying? Why was she sad? And why was I so frightened?

I looked up at my mother, wanting her to pick me up and tell me everything would be fine. As I was to learn later on, for one whole year, she had not seen him drunk. He was working the night shift at the local police department as a dispatcher. He had just been hired as a milk driver at a local dairy and he stopped off at a tavern to celebrate. This is what my mother told me. He was to celebrate thousands of times over the next eighteen years. I had to ride in the car with him when he was drunk at least five times a week.

That night I felt so alone. Why didn’t mother pick me up and hold me as I cried? Why didn’t she comfort me with her touch? Why was she ignoring me? It would take years to realize that she was protecting me when she pushed me behind her. And absorption in her own disappointment kept her from noticing me in a comforting way.

Alcoholism can have catastrophic effects on the whole family including economic reprisals, emotional effects on children, and health devastation for every family member.

The financial impact can pervade entire families. Adult alcoholics can experience compromised ability to get work that supplies their family’s basic needs. Their alcoholism may impede job performance and the ability to work well with others. In addition, they may lack the self-esteem and job skills needed to sustain employment.

Many times the effect becomes generational, even with children who do not become addicted.  According to Claudia Black, children and spouses of alcoholics can experience depression, particularly when abuse is also present. Depression often manifests in an inability to relate well to others, slowed thinking, and chronic unresolved anger. All three seriously compromise life development, job performance, and relationships. So the economic, relational, and life skills implications can be enormous.

I have become an advocate for the development of healthy responses to life stresses.  Three generations of Altman men were affected by alcoholism.  There may have been more involvement in previous generations. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that were true. My grandfather was put out of his home at the age of thirteen. He was an illegitimate child born to a woman who later married and had four more children from that marriage. They were horribly poor. His mother informed him that he could no longer live there because they did not have enough money or food to provide for the others. How that must have crushed that poor child! At age eighteen he lay on some railroad tracks and prayed for a train to come along.

Fortunately, one did not appear on the scene.  When he was in his thirties, he left Austria and came to the United States. He met and married my grandmother who had also emigrated from Austria.  Alcoholism had its hold on him by then. He started drinking in his teens, shortly after he was put out of his home. Typical of many alcoholics, he turned to violence. My father and his siblings were often forced to kneel on raw corn when they disobeyed their parents.

When my father was sixteen he witnessed my grandfather trying to rape and strangle my grandmother. My father started drinking right after that. Pain begat more pain and the next generation was impacted with all that negativity. He brought the same dysfunction to our family that he endured in his. Would the cycle never stop?

At age sixteen my brother began to drink heavily. He and I were born eleven years apart. He was out of the house by the time I was nine years old. Two years later, he and his wife and child lived with us briefly. It was one of the most difficult six months of my life. Now I had to deal with two alcoholics. Both he and my father raged at the whole family routinely.

Time marched on and the dysfunction grew exponentially. When I was fourteen I began to binge eat on sugar. By the age of fifteen, I became psychotic, meaning that I was hearing voices and seeing things that were not there. Looking back, I find it interesting that we all started into our unhealthy habits in our teens.

The pattern I see is one of pain begetting more pain, followed by more pain, and followed by near destruction of ou lives.

So the question is: How can this be reversed in alcoholic homes? I have several ideas about this.

  • Face the problem head on. Give it a name. Refuse to hide it. Go out of your way to talk about the problem in appropriate situations outside the family. Children of alcoholics are often advised to keep it a secret. As long as the alcoholic is drinking, remaining quiet about it enables that family member to continue to drink.
  • Seek counseling: AA has programs set up to help teenagers of alcoholics, spouses, and friends. Celebrate Recovery is a remarkable twelve step program that helps family members and alcoholics recover.
  • Focus on family strengths. We tend to become what we think about. Putting an emphasis on family talents gives a positive spin to the situation.  As we focus on family gifts, those same gifts can manifest in us. Just remember to avoid denying the problem in the process of doing this.
  • Learn to adopt healthy behaviors in response to the stress and trauma of living with an alcoholic.

I am passionate about this. I became psychotic because I developed an unhealthy behavior. My brother and my father adopted the same alcoholic tendencies my grandfather had. This cycle can and should be reversed.

So how can you capitalize on your strengths and begin to heal the trauma?

Dr. Martin Seligman has a wonderful program called positive psychology.  I would suggest considering tapping into his website  and taking the strengths test. When we live in our talents, healing becomes much more within scope. Find your passion. What makes you want to get up in the morning? What gives you pleasure? What motivates you? Learn to live in your motivation and interests. And help your family to do the same. I have a therapist who has seen clients abandon their drug and alcohol habits because they have found their empowerment in their strengths. They no longer needed addictive substances to mask the pain.

You can find the passion in your life by living in your gifts. The power of the positive is quantitatively much stronger than the power of pain.

Is your gift music? Perhaps developing that part of your life would help.

Is your gift an appreciation of beauty? Getting involved in an art class might be productive. My brother devoted a good part of his life to his painting. He had an extraordinary gift for artwork.  His earliest works were absolutely catastrophic. But he learned to develop it. I have an amazing picture of his in my music studio.

Are you a catalytic leader? Catalytic leaders have the ability to bring two opposing sides together and have them shaking hands and finding common ground.

Do you have the gift of giving? That is one of the twenty six gifts listed in Dr. Seligman’s work. Volunteering may work wonders in your life.

Finally, look at your family strengths and try to encourage family members to find common ground.

This is a challenging pursuit. But it’s so much healthier to live in promise than to live in pain.  I wish the best for all of you.

Barbara Altman, author of Recovering From Depression, Anxiety, and Psychosis, available on Amazon.

If you decide to order a book on amazon, send me your receipt and I will send you free of charge my ten steps to managing stress and my ten steps to great sleep.




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