Facing alcohol abuse
October 2, 2006
I enjoy using humor when I write my columns; it’s more fun for me to write that way and probably more fun for you to read. However, school has begun and more calls are coming in from worried parents and overwhelmed school counselors and teachers. And more children are saying they aren’t the only ones in their families using drugs and alcohol. I feel compelled to address this issue because I see the effects of substance abuse and dependence every day in the course of my work.
Addiction wears many costumes. It plays tricks; it is quiet and stealthy as it weaves its way into the lives of families. The disease of alcoholism may not be expressed in the form of actual alcohol or drug consumption, but in how it has affected families throughout generations. Alcohol acts like an invisible wall shutting people off from their ability to connect with their own emotions and those of the people they love. Alcohol is especially insidious because it’s socially acceptable; celebrated as a social lubricant and a way to let go of the cares of daily life. One can have a nice, casual romance with alcohol for years before it can change into a relationship characterized by bondage rather than choice. The wine bottle that once sat in the refrigerator for weeks or the glass that was once left half empty is no more. The bottle becomes a focal point and the glass is refilled again and again.
When children grow up in alcoholic or drug-using families, they learn how to survive without much emotional connection with their parents. They learn that they can’t trust their parents to take care of them. They miss out on many childhood developmental stages because they are often forced into parental roles, and they learn to isolate. They don’t bring their friends home for fear of embarrassment and they tend not to say much to anyone about what their home lives are like because they would rather just be normal and not have those kinds of problems.
When asked what they think of alcohol and drugs a lot of them will say, “I’ll never use them because of what I’ve seen happen with my parents.” Despite their feelings, most end up getting drug and alcohol involved. One of the major risk factors for children becoming drug and alcohol involved is their parents’ attitudes toward and use of drugs and alcohol.
Our community’s economic strength comes largely from people who vacation here and alcohol is often a big part of vacation. In my observation, drinking and partying is marketed heavily in this area, and it’s difficult to promote substance abuse prevention in such an environment. In the language of prevention, this community appears to have a high level of community acceptance for the use of alcohol and other drugs. Although there are consequences for use of illicit drugs and for driving under the influence, the statistics bear out that this community has a serious problem not only with continued and repeated violations of these laws but with early onset of substance abuse and dependence.
Law enforcement, schools, parents and the drug treatment community are doing damage control at this point, but the rate at which kids are beginning to use drugs and alcohol has not abated. Prevention or delay of onset will take the efforts of individuals, families and the community and it will mean taking radical steps many of which will be uncomfortable. In the home, it may mean drug testing children, networking with other parents to verify children’s whereabouts and whether parties will be supervised, being unabashedly nosy and rummaging through your child’s personal belongings if you suspect substance use and refusing to pay for driver’s licenses, auto insurance or use of the family automobile unless there is solid evidence that they aren’t using alcohol and drugs.
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In the community, it means local businesses being willing to institute drug testing and drug-free workplace policies and it means stricter consequences for driving under the influence, and tolerating the sale of alcohol and tobacco to minors, which means changing laws and enforcing existing laws more stringently.
Most drug treatment programs tell parents they must be willing to examine their own use and attitudes toward alcohol and drugs if they want to participate in helping their children to get and remain clean and sober. A lot of people don’t know what to look for in themselves in terms of alcohol use and addiction in general.
I gained a deeper understanding of that issue when I saw an interview between Christiane Northrup, a physician and author, and Oprah Winfrey. Dr. Northrup said that while the amount and frequency of the consumption of alcohol is important, it is the relationship between the person and the substance that is key to understanding the nature of addiction.
As I said earlier, addiction is a form of bondage. If one’s day revolves around doing a particular activity or substance at the expense and exclusion of other activities and relationships, and it occupies much more space in one’s life than it should, it is an unhealthy relationship. An addictive relationship can be with a substance, a person or an activity (like shopping or gambling) or an eating disorder; overeating, binging and purging (bulimia) or starving (anorexia).
Some of the questions to help evaluate your own use and attitudes toward drugs and alcohol are:
– Do I spend a lot of time thinking about, obtaining, ingesting and coming down from the substance or worrying about whether I have a problem?
– Do I need to drink or use daily or have to resist the temptation to do so?
– Do I have marital and family problems as a result of my substance use?
– Have I had problems with my job as a result of my substance use?
– Do I drink, smoke or use in front of my children?
– Do I wake up in the morning and make a promise to myself that I won’t drink or use and then find justification to do it later on?
– Have I had legal problems as a result of my use?
– Do I wish I could stop?
– Do I stop for a while but find it difficult to live life without alcohol and or drugs so I start again after a few weeks or months?
If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you may benefit from learning more about the nature of your relationship with the substance or behavior. Deciding to examine this issue more closely is deeply personal and frightening for most. Deciding to get help and support takes courage and willingness to confront behaviors and feelings that you have avoided or been too ashamed to face. There are many, many people in this community who are compassionate survivors and competent treatment providers. If you or your family struggle with addiction, please e-mail me for resources and information.
Kimball Pier is a practicing therapist, substance abuse counselor and divorce mediator. She has an M.S. in marriage and family therapy and advanced divorce mediation certification. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.