The pain of loving a problem drinker

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There is little recognition of the fact that the families of alcoholics often need as much help to ‘recover’ as the drinkers themselves

When a family   member drinks to excess or drinks in a dependent manner, the repercussion for the health, safety and well-being of all concerned are usually profound and long-lasting.

“Having a problem drinker in the family means emotional suffering,” says Rolande Anderson in the opening chapter of his new book, Living with a Problem Drinker  . The Irish problem drinking canon has been slowly expanding in recent years. However little, if any, literature exists for those who live with the emotional carnage created by dysfunctional relationships with alcohol.

The partners, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, colleagues and friends who are affected when someone develops a problem with alcohol, are often a largely silent or suppressed community. They are involuntary participants in a drama which has a devastating impact on their lives.

They, too, often need to undergo periods of “recovery” or treatment to enable them to deal with the trauma and daily strain of having a problem drinker in their lives.

This book attempts to offer solid advice on how best to understand alcoholism and its impact.

Astutely, Anderson chooses the term “problem drinker” more often than not, enabling him to sidestep alcoholic versus non-alcoholic definition arguments that can sometimes stifle diagnosis and subsequent recovery from alcohol-related problems in Irish society.

A counsellor with more than three decades of experience in the field (Anderson ran a partners’ and spouses’ counselling group for 18 years), the author has been one of the more astute and vocal campaigners working in addiction counselling in Ireland.

“I believe there is a river running right through the middle of Ireland,” he says, “and that river is called denial. I think people are more open now than they were 20 years ago, but there is still horrendous shame and suffering, and much secrecy in families where alcohol problems occur.

“People are often very reluctant to say the most difficult things and may find accessing counselling or speaking openly difficult. I would hope this book helps to sidestep social stigma.”

As well as detailing the effects and diagnosis of problem drinking, Anderson’s book also offers some insight into what clients should expect from a counselling session, and the type of treatment that is available.

He says that counselling services in Ireland on a national level can be very “hit and miss”, with costs and quality varying hugely. In theory, he says, there should be a counsellor in every area, but in practice there are waiting lists and people have to travel long distances to access counselling.

“Facilities can be appalling, whereby clients have to go to a health centre and queue up,” he says. “Private counselling, though, is usually very expensive, and people often can’t afford it.

“In addiction counselling there is a wide variety. One of the things that worries me greatly is some of what goes down as counselling. In one example, someone told me how all the counsellor did was talk about his own life and experience. So some of the practices are less than professional and part of the book is about what should you expect from counselling.”

The book should be an important guide for partners or spouses trying to establish the impact problem drinking has had on their lives. The final message is one of hope – that people do not have to accept behaviour that is unacceptable or inherit the abnormal as normal.

As Anderson puts it: “The goal is to live rather than survive”.

Living with a Problem Drinker
  by Rolande Anderson ( £7.99) is published by Sheldon Press,

Source: The Irish Times, 31/08/10
Journalist: Brian O’Connell