The Dynamics of an Alcoholic’s Family

The Merry-Go-Round of DENIAL


Alcoholism is a tragic three act play in which there is at least two characters, the drinker and his family; friends; co-workers and even healthcare workers may have a part in keeping the Merry-Go-Round turning. 





The play opens with the alcoholic stating that no one can tell him/her what to do. This makes it very difficult for the family to talk about drinking and its results. Even when the drinking is obviously causing serious problems, he/she simply will not discuss it. Talking is like a one-way street. 


The key word in alcoholism is Denial, for again and again people do what they say they will not or deny what they have done. 


As the alcoholic drinks more and more, the helpers deny the problem and increase the alcoholic’s dependency. 


In act one, the alcoholic kills all his/her pain and woes by getting drunk. 





In act two, the alcoholic does nothing but wait for and expect others to do for them. Distinct characters begin to evolve from his/her helpers. A person can play more than one character and usually does. 


The Enabler

The Enabler is a helpful type, trying to rescue his friend from their predicament. The Enabler wants to save the alcoholic from the immediate crisis and relieve them of the unbearable tension created by the situation. 

In reality, this person is meeting a need of their own, rather than that of the alcoholic, although the Enabler does not realize this themselves. 


The Enabler denies the alcoholic the process of learning by correcting and taking responsibility for his/her own mistakes. 


The Enabler may eventually insist they will never again rescue the alcoholic. They always have and the alcoholic believes they always will. 



The Victim


This may be the boss, the employer, the foreman or supervisor. The Victim is the person who is responsible for getting the work done, if the alcoholic is absent due to drinking or is half on and half off the job due to a hangover. 


The alcoholic becomes completely dependent on this repeated protection and cover-up by the Victim; otherwise he/his could not continue drinking in this fashion. If the Victim stops helping, the alcoholic will be compelled to give up drinking or give up the job. 


It is the Victim who enables the alcoholic to continue his irresponsible drinking without losing his/her job. 


The Provoker


This is usually the wife or mother and is a key person in the play.


She is a veteran at this role and has played it much longer than others. She is the Provoker. She is hurt and upset by repeated drinking episodes; but she holds the family together despite all the trouble caused by drinking. 

In turn, she feeds back in the relationship her bitterness, resentment, fear and hurt, and so becomes the source of provocation. 


She controls, she tries to force the changes she wants; she sacrifices, adjusts, never gives up, never gives in, but never forgets. 


The attitude of the alcoholic is that his/her failure should be acceptable, but she must never fail the alcoholic! He/she acts with complete independence and insists he/she will do as they please. 

This character might also be called the Adjuster. She is constantly adjusting to the crises and trouble caused by drinking. 


Act two is now played out in full. Everything is done for the alcoholic and not by them. The results, effects and problems caused by drinking, have been removed by others. The painful results of the drinking were suffered by persons other than the drinker. This permits him/her to continue drinking as a way to solve his/her problems. 





Act three begins much like act one. The need to deny dependence is now greater for the alcoholic and must be expressed almost at once, and even more emphatically. The alcoholic denies he/she has a drinking problem, denies he/she is an alcoholic, denies that alcohol is causing him/her trouble. The alcoholic refuses to acknowledge that anyone helped them – more denial. He/she denies that they may lose their job and insists that he/she is the best or most skilled person at his/her job. Above all, the alcoholic denies he/she has caused his/her family any trouble. In fact, the alcoholic blames the family, especially the spouse/parent, for all the fuss, nagging and problems. 


Some alcoholics achieve the same denial by a stony silence, refusing to discuss anything related to their drinking. The memory is too painful. 


The real problem is that the alcoholic is well aware of the truth which he/she so strongly denies. He/she is aware of the drunkenness and the failure. His/her guilt and remorse have become unbearable and the alcoholic cannot tolerate criticism or advice from others. 


Above all, the memory of his/her utter helplessness and failure is more than embarrassing; it is far too painful for a person who thinks and acts as if he/she were a little god in their own world. 


The wheel goes round and round.


The curtain never closes after act three, but instead the acts run over and over again. As years go by the actors get older, but there is little change in the words or the action of the play. 


It is not true that an alcoholic cannot be helped until he wants help. It is true that there is almost no chance that the alcoholic will stop drinking as along as other people remove all the painful consequences for him/her. The other actors find it difficult to change. It is much easier and far less painful for them to say that the alcoholic cannot be helped, than to go through the agony of learning to play a new role. 


Self-creating crisis


If drinking continues long enough, the alcoholic creates a crisis, gets into trouble, and ends up in a mess. This can happen in many ways, but the pattern is always the same: he/she is a dependent who behaves as if he/she were independent, and drinking makes it easy to convince himself/herself this is true. Yet the results of his drinking make him ever more dependent upon others. 


When his/her self-created crisis strikes, he waits for something to happen, ignores it, walks away from it, or cries for someone to get him/her out of it. Alcohol, which at first gave him/her a sense of success and independence, has now stripped him/her of their mask and reveals a helpless, dependent child. 


The crisis is a way of reassuring the alcoholic that they have control over the other players in the play. 


The Little God


No one has a right to play God and demand that the alcoholic stop drinking. The reverse is also true. The alcoholic can only continue to act like a little god, telling everyone what to do, while doing as he/she pleases, if a supporting cast continues to play their roles. Every player has every right and responsibility to refuse to act as if the alcoholic in their lives were God whose every wish and commandment be obeyed. 


Ending the play


There is no easy way to stop the merry-go-round, for it can be more painful to stop it than to keep it going. It is impossible to spell out definite rules which apply to all members of the play. Each case is different, but the framework of the play remains the same. 

Adapted from Kellerman, no date.


BriefTSF intervention can begin the last act of the play.



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