What Happens to the Family's Compassion for Alcoholics?

Marriage, Feelings Systematically Killed Off

Woman at window
Compassion Is Slowly Killed Off by Pain. © Getty Images

The joke that was relayed to me from someone who read this column went like this:

"What's a slip in Al-Anon?"

"A spouse has a compassionate thought for the alcoholic."

I have a wide and far-reaching sense of humor. But because I am not an alcoholic, I could not find humor in what is clearly a slam at Al-Anon.

Please understand that I do not rank Al-Anon equal with the Holy Grail, in fact I have taken issue with some Al-Anon positions; but when we who have gone through alcoholic combat recognize we are losing the war, the only game in town is Al-Anon.

Weeping With Pain

There, in those rooms -- usually church basements -- I have been present when women and men who are married to alcoholics openly weep with pain because the mate they love is committing slow suicide and in the process also destroying the marriage and the family.

Their ability to feel compassion towards the alcoholic is systematically being killed off too.

They Are Brain Damaged

An alcoholic has no conception of the depth and breadth of the pain their drunken behavior inflicts upon those who love them. How can they? Their cognitive abilities are impaired; in essence, when drunk, they are brain damaged.

In fact, their thinking ability, their emotional stability, their mental capacity, are all adversely affected to such a degree that most bonafide treatment facilities will not even entertain the idea of hiring a recovering alcoholic without at least two, preferably three, years of being continuously and totally sober.

And that's no guarantee they've found sobriety.

Anger, Rage and Fear

There are the rare high-functioning drunks, who are quiet, non-argumentative, and drift off into semi-consciousness. Sharing space with them is like being with the living dead. But, at least, they're quiet.

Usually, however, drunks find some way to be abusive, even to terrorize, and after a while, the non-alcoholic spouse's feelings of compassion are replaced with anger, even rage, and too often fear.

The "Enemy"

To the alcoholic, the non-alcoholic spouse is The Enemy. We who are not drunks by our existence are a threat to the alcoholic's "life" style. By attending Al-Anon, The Enemy has made it difficult for the alcoholic's denial to continue.

Somehow, even after alcoholics stop drinking, that enemy mindset continues. Maybe that's when they feel cocky enough to make up "jokes" that have no basis in fact.

There is humor in Al-Anon meetings, but it's wry (not rye!) and often dark, mostly laughing at ourselves for how addled our thinking becomes as we try to maintain a sense of normalcy.

I remember returning home from the hospital where I'd been with my dying mother and finding the alcoholic I was married to sitting on the floor, his back propped against a chest of drawers.

I put my hands on either side of his face and said, "I am so sorry" to his glazed, unseeing eyes. When I withdrew my hands, he slumped over. He didn't move for ten hours. I didn't laugh. I didn't cry. I didn't make up an unfunny joke. I went to bed.

-- Donna

Note: Donna Thompson is publisher of Challenges, in which she writes her featured column, Get A Life, a publication for people in recovery and their families.

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