Dealing with the elephant in the room—alcoholism

Dealing with the elephant in the room—alcoholism

Al-Anon Alcoholism 2013 interviewed Alexa Smith, a chemical dependency counselor and co-founder of Serenity Renewal for Families, Ottawa, ON Canada.

Why is it so difficult for family members to seek help for the effects of a relative or friend’s addiction to alcohol?

Initially there can be a lot of denial. The more we love someone, the more we want to believe that alcoholism may not be the problem.

Though many believe there is less stigma associated with alcoholism today, this stigma still exists in many communities. Family members can find it very difficult to acknowledge that there is alcoholism in the family. They often choose not to talk about the effects of alcohol, hoping “the problem” will go away.

It has been said that alcoholism is like an elephant in the living room that no one acknowledges is there. The elephant dominates the room; everyone steps around it carefully, afraid to disturb it.

Family members feel a deep sense of loss in their relationships. They frequently feel anger and guilt, wondering what they could have done differently.

Some family members feel a sense of responsibility and shame over a relative or friend’s alcoholism. The possibility of sharing their experience with strangers can be daunting and could prevent them from seeking help.

Children may fear the consequences of sharing their feelings about a parent’s alcoholism. They may even blame themselves for a parent’s drinking and the subsequent behavior in the home.


Many family members believe that if a drinker stops drinking, their relationship and family will be “back to normal.” Why is it important and yet so difficult to break through this perception?

Many individuals affected by alcoholism struggle with the question: “What is normal?” They adjust their behaviors to accommodate the progression of alcoholism in a family member, relative, or friend, even though they might not necessarily realize that their choices were in reaction to the drinker.

Sometimes, I believe that the early stages of recovery can be more difficult for family members than the years of drinking. Family members will continue to struggle by changing their focus from the drinking to what the person is doing to stay sober. At this point, trust can become a major issue for family members.

Many alcoholics experience relapse, lasting various periods of time. If family members have invested their sense of self-worth in whether or not the drinker remains sober, their efforts will be spent trying to keep the person from drinking, something over which they have no control.

For alcoholics to stay sober and grow in recovery, they need to learn more about themselves, and identify core issues (feelings, attitudes, and behaviors) that need to be addressed in everyday living. Eventually, the alcoholic will need to take ownership of these issues. The alcoholic in recovery often struggles with this process, and requires help and support to learn the skills of facing reality and choosing to change.

It is a process of self-discovery that helps the person in recovery to be healthier, happier, and more serene. With time, the hope is that the recovering person will have healthier relationships.


Family members often feel ashamed and guilty about the relative or friend's drinking.  Why?

Alcoholism is a family illness, and the behaviors often associated with an alcoholic are not always held in esteem. Many family members, especially children, have been ashamed of the alcoholic’s behavior.

Spouses frequently feel guilty for not being able to protect the children, or to prevent the alcoholic from drinking too much. It is not uncommon to hear, “He or she is such a wonderful person, when not drinking.”

Family members need to be helped to understand that they cannot control the drinker, no matter how deep their love for the person may be. Sometimes, one’s compassion for the alcoholic moves to enabling behavior, which eventually can do more harm than good.

It can be very difficult and painful for loved ones to step back. Al-Anon encourages members to detach. The friends and families of alcoholics need to be assured that this does not necessarily mean to terminate the relationship with the person.


How does Al-Anon help your clients?

Frequently, family members believe the alcoholic is the one with a problem, failing to recognize that alcoholism affects a whole network of people in the alcoholic’s life, especially those closest to them.

Al-Anon offers a supportive environment where people can reach out to peers through meetings, telephone, or internet. Friends and family members need to give themselves permission to take time for their own needs, and see themselves as persons to be treated with respect and dignity, to love and be loved, and believe in themselves.


Why do you recommend Al-Anon to the family members of alcoholics receiving counseling?

Alcoholism is a family illness that knows no boundaries. People have been—or are—caught up in the cycle of alcoholism and the impact this is having in their lives today. People who identify as having alcoholism in their family of origin have possibly come to regard the alcoholic environment as normal. Counseling helps people identify needs, feelings, and behaviors that they may have repressed and denied for years. Choosing to change is an on-going process and Al-Anon offers the support, compassion, and friendship that everyone deserves as they choose to improve their quality of life.

Al-Anon groups are there to support individuals, but are not therapy groups. In the same way, Al-Anon members’ Sponsors are not their therapists. It can be very beneficial for Al-Anon members to reach out for professional help when needed, and recognize that support received in Al-Anon can complement the counseling therapy.

Alcoholism can creep up and ruin the lives of many people whether it be the person who drinks or a family member. It doesn’t matter who reaches out for help first. If family members want to change, however, they must eventually face their own pain and have a desire and willingness to start their own journey of recovery, regardless of what the alcoholic chooses to do.

Al-Anon is always there to offer the support, compassion, understanding, and friendship when a person reaches out for help.