Read an Excerpt
I always had one best friend and even though we talked about what seemed like everything, we never shared the big secret. My secret was my father's drinking; hers was her uncle's. Only recently have we discovered that we both had been sexually molested; me by my father, she by her uncle.
Come into the house where alcoholism lives. Open the front door. There's the living room. Everything is in perfect order. It looks ready for a photographer or, perhaps, a funeral. On the far side a door swings open for a glimpse into the kitchen. This, the heart of the house, reeks of dirty dishes left in the sink, food-encrusted plates on the table, overflowing garbage. An invisible barrier divides the kitchen from the living room. just as you -- a guest-won't be allowed on the kitchen side, the children of the house aren't allowed on the other side. The public facade is maintained in the living room, while the private chaos is hidden from view. But the disorder of alcoholism cannot be totally hidden, for a closer look reveals another level of reality: The plumped-up pillow on the pink couch doesn't quite cover an empty whiskey bottle.
What is going on? Why the disparity between front and back? Why the attempted cover-up? This orderly-disorderly house is the outward evidence of an extensive denial system that began with the alcoholic (who is both the subject and the main keeper of the secret) and that by now has implicated the whole family.
The pretense that everything is all right in the "for visitors only" living room reflects the pretensethat everything is all right in the family. Outsiders must see only what has been arranged for them to see; the chaos has to be hidden; the boat must not be rocked and everything must look fine.
The children who live here are almost, but not quite, misled into thinking that their household is like any other. They want to believe in this normality. One woman said she thought it "unusual" that her mother put vodka in her morning coffee, but her mother reassured her by saying, "This is the way to get the day going right." Not until these children venture beyond their mothers' skirts (or jeans) does it dawn on them that something is definitely different about their own family; and it is then that they begin to wonder what is normal, and if they themselves are crazy. They live a game of "let's pretend, let's protect," yet guarding the secret protects neither the alcoholic nor the children.
They quickly learn to conceal what happens at home from outsiders as well as from close relatives, concluding that if even a grandparent-perhaps the drinker's father or mother-shouldn't know, there must be something immoral, sinful, or criminal about the drinking. These children see alcoholism not as an illness but as a weakness, an embarrassment-and as a shame that accumulates as time goes on and the alcoholic gets sicker. Hiding becomes a way of life that goes unchallenged and unquestioned as the lives of those who keep the family secret are twisted, knotted, and distorted.
These children, when they grow up, still talk about how alone they feel. They are the victims of a double bind: They are still afraid to talk because they may reveal the secret; and remaining alone, they strengthen the very behavior that protects the secret -- not talking. It is a circular trap, the kind you dream about in your most tortured nightmares.
It is much easier to deal with illness in which behavior is predictable: The anorexic doesn't eat; the child with poison ivy scratches; the psychopath lies; the lame limp; the seasick throw up. In alcoholism, nothing is predictable. At the same time, unpredictability is not something you can count on. And that is what makes it so excruciatingly confounding for children who are left in the dark as the family secret is fiercely guarded and all members join in the conspiracy of silence.
What Is Alcoholism?
"The biggest secret of all," says a man who is now an alcoholism counselor, "was inside me and how awful I felt deep down." Only in adulthood did he begin to understand how the disease, alcoholism, was behind much of the pain and turmoil in his life.
There is no simple definition of just what alcoholism is. When it comes to the most severe form, experts agree; but what lesser symptoms should be given the name is still debatable. For example, should problem drinkers-those whose lives are disrupted by their drinking-be called alcoholic? Some say yes, pointing out that if they are not yet addicted, chances are they soon will be. Dr. Morris Chafetz, the first director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says bluntly: "Alcoholism is drinking too much, too often. It is permitting alcohol to play an inordinately powerful role in a person's life." The World Health Organization defines it more narrowly as "a pathological dependence on alcohol."
With this dependence (or physical addiction) come withdrawal symptoms-shaking, delirium tremens (d.t.'s), and other serious physical effects-when the drinking stops. With it also comes the development of tolerance so that the drinker needs more and more to get the same effect. As time goes on and the illness progresses, tolerance decreases until even a drink or two can produce intoxication. Perhaps because of the deterioration of liver or brain function, a small dose hits with the power of a large one.
The progression of the illness is often unnoticeable because it moves so slowly. In men, it is estimated that ten to twelve years elapse between early-stage problem drinking and full-blown alcoholism. In women, progression is telescoped. They start drinking later and move on more quickly to late-stage symptoms.
At this late stage alcoholism is usually recognizable as a chronic, relapsing disease. To understand what is really happening does not require an official diagnosis. The actress Mercedes McCambridge, a recovering alcoholic, looked back on her family and observed, "There is alcoholism on both sides of my family. They all died sober. They were all marvelous people. None of them found their way to Alcoholics Anonymous. They merely stopped drinking. What happened I don't know, because it was...