Alcoholism: The family disease

Alcoholism: The family disease

When speaking to people in long term recovery for an alcohol use disorder and their families, you hear the heartbreak of active alcoholism as well at the joy to be found on the road to recovery.

Alcoholism is a disease. Because of its devastating impact on families, it is called a family disease, a disease of isolation, secrecy, guilt, and shame. The words often used in connection with alcohol use disorders are very punitive and often demeaning. Alcoholics are sometimes described as weak, dangerous, morally deficient, among many other unflattering terms. We describe their families as dysfunctional, possibly a home void of love and filled with abuse. Today we know that alcoholism and addiction do not only come from unhealthy homes but can develop in loving and functioning homes.

If we look at a comparison of the reaction to other life-threatening diseases, we do not find personal attacks on the person or look to their families for blame. No fault is assigned to those diagnosed with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease and other conditions, nor are their families automatically seen as dysfunctional. People rally support with praise of heroism as the affected person battles the disease. There is no shame. No blame.

The disease of alcoholism can equally affect the quality of life, resulting in possible death as do other serious diseases. But unlike other diseases, the alcoholic is held responsible for having the disease. This incorrect fact often affects how people treat both the alcoholic and their family. More accurately, alcoholics, like anyone that is diagnosed with a disease, are not responsible for having the disease. They are responsible for making healthy choices in how to treat their disease and seeking treatment.

The story of alcoholism begins with both the person and their family believing that alcoholism could not affect them. The family member with alcoholism is in denial of their drinking, and the family joins them in the dissent, thinking their loved one could not possibly be a problem drinker. Their denial becomes the barrier to addressing the needs for recovery. Rationalizations protect them from feeling the shame and fear experienced in acceptance of alcoholism in their family. Drinker and family offer explanations of why it cannot be true: He or she is just a social drinker, there are no alcoholics in the family, they never miss work, they are too young, they are too old, they don’t drink and drive, they don’t drink alone; on and on the reasons provide the faulty reasons of why this can’t be. The alcoholic and the family desperately want to believe there is no problem.

There is no religion, social standing, or love that gives full protection from the disease of alcoholism. Once the concern becomes real, families look for solutions. Sometimes they try having a “firm” talk with their loved one and bargain for sobriety. Negotiations result in disappointment and frustration. Co-dependency grows as the loved one tries various ways to control their drinking. Not understanding that alcoholism is a disease – not weak will power – makes attempts to promote sobriety fail. Families put off treatment and find excuses for why it is not needed. They look for short term solutions at first, not recognizing recovery needs time.

Not drinking is the first necessary step to recovery. It is a brilliant start but by no means the finish. Due to the shame and secrecy bred into the diagnosis, the strain can be devastating to the person suffering and everyone who cares about their life. Families often consider that the problem lies only with the alcoholic, and if they stop drinking, everything will be fine. Loved ones need to heal from the anger, frustration, shame, self-blame and broken hearts often surrounding alcoholism. This help can be found in treatment and family programs.

The reality that alcohol kills more people than all other drugs combined has faded into the background of many discussions on addiction. With 88,000 deaths per year related to alcoholism in the United States versus 15,000 from all other drugs combined, the question becomes – how is the devastation of alcoholism and its effects on families slipping off of society’s radar? Fifteen million people in the United States are suffering from alcohol use disorders, with only 7% receiving treatment.

We need to bring the truth about alcoholism from the darkness into the light.

Hope needs to replace the fear.

Good treatment is available, free self-help groups are prevalent, and recovery from alcoholism and the impact on families is possible.


For information on addiction treatment, call Recovery at the Crossroads: (856) 644-7210.”

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