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"Alanon, The Chief Enabler?"
copyright 2011, all rights reserved

by Toby Rice Drews
author of the "Getting Them Sober" books

It was about 1984 that I first started noticing the subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on the spouses of alcoholics in some of the literature about alcoholism and the family.

a.) The first launch on the families in some of the literature started calling the families "enablers" instead of "rescuers". (think of the difference in connotation----- the first term has the "feel" of a deliberate act of helping the alcoholic to stay drunk---- the second has a much more gentle "feel" of a family member who is loving and well-meaning but who is using ineffective means to help.)

b.)Then, it got a bit worse -- the spouse of the alcoholic started being called The Chief Enabler..... the connotation there needs almost no explanation. It screams of an almost planned deliberate plan of action to keep the alcoholic sick.

c.) Then, towards the end of the 1980's, there appeared a few articles in journals that claimed that Al-Anon was really only a place for spouses of alcoholics who were basically hopeless......hopelessly attached to the alcoholic and not strong enough to be one of those majority of stronger wives of alcoholics who COULD break away.

Around that time, I started receiving hundreds of phone calls from families about these very questions ------ families whose heads were spinning from not knowing what to do when they were confronted by counselors they just met who insisted that they leave decades-long marriages because (they were told) they were either "enablers" or "too codependent". They were told that if they tried to help their spouses, they were "enablers".

If they wanted to stay in their marriages, they were "too codependent". (Around that time, I read an article in the Baltimore Sunpapers about a reporter who watched a film, along with family members, at a local treatment center, entitled "the enablers" ------and the reporter watched the families' angry faces after the film was over. The reporter asked the families, why are you so angry? One woman put it so well------- "If we're helping, we're enablers; if we're angry, we're b**ches. When do we win?!"

What is very difficult to get some people to understand is, is that this disease of alcoholism ----- this crazymaking, emotionally abusive behavior of the drinking alcoholic ------ is so terrifying to the family, and yet is, at the same time, so cunningly hooking in its way of going from soul-destruction of the family to making the family feel so special, so close -- and back-and-forth and back-and-forth ------- that the result is that the family is so turned on its head and confused and winds up so lacking in self-trust and self-worth that it halfway believes that it will literally fall apart without that alcoholic. (I go more into this in the chapter called "the irregular behavior of the alcoholic keeps us attached" in the book, "Getting Them Sober, volume 4".

This resultant hooking-attachment that occurs is SO strong that it baffles even counselors at battered women's shelters. There is often a huge turnover in personnel at those shelters because they feel so frustrated at why these women go back to abusers.

What is not understood is that when counselors keep asking, "WHY do you stay?!" -- it only adds shame. Shame because the spouse of course knows that "taking it" is awful-----but she cannot leave. And shame does not make one be able to leave the marriage...... it only means she'll leave the counseling. And what the simplistic admonition to "leave the codependent relationship" also does not take into account is what Al-Anon, that God-given program, has always known------ that many marriages that seemed awful can be saved when one person changes. It does not always take two. One person changing his or her behavior can change the entire outlook of the family.

There seems to be two diametrically-opposed "poles" out there, now --- two theoretical concepts that still keep drumming on the families of alcoholics ---- specifically on the spouses -----

a.) that if one is "strong", one does not stay with someone who is emotionally abusive b.) that if one is truly Christian, one stays with your spouse..... learns communications skills, learns the marriage skills based on true religion that will work to make the marriage successful.

When I wrote the first volume of "Getting Them Sober" in the late 1970's that was later published in 1980, I wrote this in the introduction: "This book won't tell you, perhaps like a well-meaning friend might do, to "throw the bum out". Only you know what you can live with and what you cannot live with. On the other hand, I know you don't need any more outsiders telling you to "stop attacking the poor guy"."

Not much has changed, has it?

The point is, what DOES work in helping families of alcoholics to heal is to accept them EXACTLY where they are....... not play God and tell them they should leave OR stay in marriages...... assume they are adults and have the God-given right and dignity to make their own decisions.... and gently help them untangle the huge ball of tangled string of issues at their own pace, in their own time.

Very few people "move" out of any dysfunctional situation if they are shamed for staying. And constantly telling someone that they shouldn't "be taking it anymore" is an IMPLIED shaming. What DOES work? When I am counseling, I stress --

a.) you must, to the best of your ability, not minimize what is going on. b.) you must, to the best of your ability, not shame yourself for not being able to move in any direction, take any steps, as quickly as you think you should -- or even at all. c.) you must at least try Al-Anon for 8 meetings..... precisely because it is a spiritual program, when we start to say no to the littlest thing where we did not do so before, an irrational unconscious guilt sets in and that guilt is a real kicker!

What saying no even a little bit does to MOST of us spouses of alcoholics is set off guilt ------ so then we try to "make up to the alcoholic" for "being so mean" as to say no, for the first time. We usually do not even know we are having this reaction-response --- we think we are punishing them when we start to say "no" with even a smidgeon of anger in our voices. But when we find a Higher Power that is gentle with us, we get a kind of spiritual "permission" to say no to those things that we used to put up with.

Why is that important? Because most of us families of alcoholics have been so beaten down that we need that spiritual permission to allow us to feel like we have the right to ANY dignity without guilt.

d.) When we allow ourselves the TOTAL freedom to stay OR to leave, we then don't feel scared to look at what is really going on...... there's no pressure..... there's no shame........ we're not frozen with terror, just thinking about "having to leave". We know that we have the right to stay or leave or stay and leave and stay and leave again.......... and when we know that no one is making us feel ashamed or wrong for staying, and if we stay honest with ourselves about the situation, we heal much quicker!

e.) And as Al-Anon so wisely knows------ there are a lot of us who will become emotionally stronger IN that marriage and that strengthening may very well create a dynamic that can eventually result in a total healing of the family. But we cannot discover what is TRULY an authentic choice for ourselves unless we listen to only our inner voices, in our own time, in our own way.

Years ago, in my counseling practice, I worked closely with Dr. Max Weisman....many of you will remember his name. He died a few years ago.... he was a real pioneer in this field, a psychiatrist who, decades ago, started a subcommittee on alcoholism in the American Medical Association.

He spent summers in Russia and Eastern Europe, training other psychiatrists on how to adapt the 12-step programs in their countries that were essentially atheist in philosophy.... and he succeeded in helping them make that bridge for healing.

I remember him telling me that this field was the only one that he knew of that produced counselors who had the arrogance to tell people that they should break up their marriages. For about twenty years, now, there have been groups that have decried Al-Anon for spawning severe codependence...... and they have gotten followers. For the most part, these followers have been folks who, when you meet them, seem to be pretty strong people.

But many of them only became strong after years in gentle groups like Al-Anon, that accepted them for what they were, that offered nothing but kindness and non-shaming help........ and I wonder if most of these now-strong people could have gotten to where they are now, if they had been made to feel so shamed "for staying in an emotionally abusive marriage" when they first walked into the rooms of Al-Anon -- terrified and unable to make a move?

One also hears from these groups that decry Al-Anon, that Al-Anon "is good for awhile, but it keeps people in codependent dead-end marriages". What they are saying is that after a while----- say, after a year or two----- one "should be able to get on with one's life" and leave a marriage where the alcoholic is still drinking.

This is just another variation on the same theme as I spoke of above, but this time, allows the spouse of the alcoholic a little slack -------- allows her/him to have a little time to "be codependent" and then says to her/him, "ok, get on with it..... time to leave".

f.) In my thirty-plus years of working in this field, training counselors, counseling families, I have found that helping families pull apart that big ball of wax of tangled threads----- the threads that are the lies the disease has made us believe ----- and helping the families see them in the light of day ------- helps to actually MELT the fears of the families..... and when those fears are melted........

At the same time, I do not shame them and terrorize them into thinking that they must make moves that they either are not ready for OR THAT THEY SHOULD PROBABLY NOT EVER DO BECAUSE IT IS NOT GOOD FOR THEM FOR SOME REASON THAT I DON'T KNOW AND THAT THEY PROBABLY DO NOT KNOW AT THE TIME I AM COUNSELING THEM ----------- only then do they relax enough to trust enough to "turn it over" and learn, INTERNALLY, what is good for them.----- I hope this helps...... best to all in recovery,


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