Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reaching Out

At my home group last night, one of the members said that something had to be done in her marriage to the alcoholic. She has come to the realization that she is no longer herself and that the self that she knew has just about disappeared. Her pain was palpable.

We talked in the meeting about how difficult it is to reach out when you're in a relationship with an alcoholic. I hid by pain from others. I pretended to be okay but was also losing myself. In fact, I didn't really much care about anything anymore. I didn't think that there was anyone to reach out to. Everyone else seemed "normal". And I didn't want them to know my dirty secret. Finally, a good friend who is in AA told me that I needed to go to Al-Anon. Thankfully, I took his advice.

I've read quite a bit about how adults from alcoholic families experience a great deal of anxiety and have a lower ability for differentiation of self than adults raised in non-alcoholic families. Additionally adult children of alcoholics have lower self-esteem, excessive feelings of responsibility, difficulties reaching out, higher incidence of depression, and increased likelihood of becoming alcoholics.

I never studied psychology so I had to read about differentiation of self. It refers to one's ability to separate one's own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family. If an individual has "low differentiation" they depend on others' approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to them. They are thus more vulnerable to stress and they struggle more to adjust to life changes. This is what happens in an alcoholic family.

On the other side of the spectrum, is the well-differentiated "self" who recognizes a need for others, but these individuals depend less on other's acceptance and approval. They do not merely adopt the attitude of those around them but acquire their principles thoughtfully. Thus, despite conflict, criticism, and rejection they can stay calm and clear headed enough to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion. What they decide and say matches what they do. When they act in the best interests of the group, they choose thoughtfully, not because they are caving in to relationship pressures. Confident in their own thinking, they can either support another's view without becoming wishy-washy or reject another's view without becoming hostile.

These are people who know who they are. I now see that I likely felt the most well-differentiated when I was away at college. And the young woman last night said that she felt best when she was away from the house and away from her husband.

What a terrible disease alcoholism is. The toll that it takes on the alcoholic and the family of the alcoholic is immense.

I'm glad that I know that I can begin to become more "differentiated" through this program. Now there's a good reason to be "different".


  1. The more I hear about behavior patterns of adult children of alcoholics the more I recognize myself and understand that I am indeed one even though I had no idea while growing up. It was not until my father's death that I recognized my mother's alcoholism and it was not until my own recovery that I was able to recognize that alcohol has always been in my world from childhood on. First in my parents hands and then in mine. Thank you for sharing this. I could completely identify.

  2. I guess that is why they call it a family disease as oppose to an individual disease. It affects and destroys the entire family.

  3. Like the woman who said, "that she felt best when she was away from the house and away from her husband" - I know the feeling. So does my 10 year old daughter. She said something that resonates with me. She said "When mommy is here, she make us so small." I know the feeling. Everything is out of kilter - out of balance.

    I try to get my little girl out of the house often. When she says something about mommy, I separate mommy from the disease. "Why did mommy forget to cook tonight?" I say something to the effect of, "It's the disease. It causes mommy to forget. She loves us, but the disease overtakes mommy's mind."

    Hard. Very hard. But with Al-Anon and what we know, at least we know it is a disease - a disease of the family.

  4. I heard the word "enmeshed" before in therapy years and years ago. Took me a long time to understand the term. I like the way you describe it here. So yup - ME TOO - in all you said. And yup - alcoholism affects everyone in the family. I have a family member now that has all the "makings" of an alcoholic - he is 15 years old.. he is my nephew. Neither parent drinks heavily but the "patterns" seem to show up anyway. Hopefully he won't discover alcohol. Anyhoo - have a great evening!!!

  5. what a wonderful enlightning post, thank you! i can see my (old) patterns of behaviour clearly. and even now, i have to guard against falling right back into them. it's not easy to change the habits of a lifetime...

  6. Both my mum and dad never drunk except a small amount at christmas and I was very happy when I was younger but didnt have much of a social side outside the family with my peers.
    When I did start going out alcohol was a fantastic liberator, I became someone else someone full of confidence who could do anything including put twos up at my family..
    As you have probably heard many thimes before it was all downhill from there


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