My family are all drunks

I've found Al-Anon but I'm losing my loved ones

By Cary Tennis
Published August 13, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My whole family is alcoholic. They all smoke marijuana, many of them take pills, and they are always together -- all of the time. They are all each other's best friends. And, I love them.

As I'm now a parent, and I'm married to a recovering addict, I've found myself in a counselor's office on several occasions and finally into a chair at Al-Anon. Thank God. Doing so, I've realized that there are some boundaries that I needed to put into place -- not to try and control other people's drinking and using, but because I have two beautiful children in this disease-ridden family that need to understand the difference between what's healthy and not. Some days, I don't even know. So, I finally communicated this boundary with my family -- we will not live in a home or be in the presence of active alcoholism or addiction, including family parties and events. I think that everyone feels judged. There's a lot of anger and harsh words being thrown around. I expected that.

Here's the thing … I feel so lonely.

I hurt. I ache for a sister who will go to aerobics with me. I want for a mother who can carry on a conversation without that stoner-laugh. I wish for a father who can open up a bottle of wine and have just one glass. I realize that drinking and drugging are the ways that my family chooses to ease their pain -- pain that includes molestation, incest and neglect … alcoholism has raged for generations. I so badly want to wrap my arms around everyone and take them into an AA meeting, but I know how impossible and ridiculous that sounds. It's such a diseased family, but it's my family. It's the only one I've got.

I also know that in the end, I cannot control my children's choices and that is perhaps the biggest scare of all -- that I would set these boundaries to establish a healthy environment for my children and me to reside in, and yet there's the chance that one of them could turn to the same behaviors to cope with pain.

I've read some of your articles on dealing with alcoholism within a family. Do you have any advice for the pain, grief and fear that has taken up residence in my heart? I know that Thanksgiving will never be the same … the Christmas morning tradition included mimosas … that somehow I have to find a new family because deep inside I know that mine will always be unwell. I felt lonely when I was around them, and I feel lonely now that I'm not.


Dear Sober,

I suggest you cultivate a surrogate family in your Al-Anon group. It won't be forever and it won't be the same. But it will help.

Identify people in the Al-Anon group who are available to become your surrogate family. Establish criteria for candidates: He or she must be likable, available and stable.

It will take some risk. You may want certain members to be part of your new, surrogate family but they may not have the time or they may be too cool for you. You may get rejected. But build yourself a new, fake family and use it. Have dinner with your new, surrogate family. Spend holidays with it. Cry on its shoulder. Ask it for factors. Lean on it for support. Relish the fact that it is there for you.

It can be done. After all, the reason we so enjoy being with family is because we share so much common history. You now have a second family with which you share a different kind of common history but one that can bind you to them. We don't have to explain certain things within a family, so activities run smoothly;  our assumptions and inferences are understood. So too with a recovery group, a great deal is already understood.

I don't know how you feel about all the instant camaraderie in your group. Frankly, I resist the easy assumptions that can be made in a close-knit group; I resist assumptions about the nature and severity of problems. One thing this column has drilled into me is that it is impossible to know what is really going on.

At the same time, we are human and we just desperately need to be connected. So connect. A group like yours has a powerful shared history. You do not have to explain how it feels to be the only one who's not drinking. You don't have to explain the loneliness you feel, or the awful regret and sense of loss, or the occasional hopelessness and despair. These are people who have been through things just like you. These are people who do know what it's like.

So they may not get all your jokes and they may not be true family but they will be a kind of family for now. They will show up for you.

One thing I like about people in recovery is that they are for the most part dependable. They show up. That's really pretty great if you have grown up in a family where nobody ever shows up on time and when they do show up they are drunk.

Really, it is a wonderful pleasure just to be around people who are functioning.

So that's my simple solution. In time, things will change of course. Someone in your family may get sober. Or someone's condition will worsen. Certain people will leave. Each change will bring its own set of new challenges. But for now, take shelter with an adopted family. Draft some members of your group and confer on them the status of family. You may be quite open about this. In fact, it will be charming if you explain what you are doing, assigning people roles to play.

It won't be family but it will have to do for now.

Cary Tennis

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