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A family problem: Loved ones often more affected by alcoholism than the addict

FARGO -- At her worst, "Jane" of New York Mills, Minn., avoided family gatherings.

"I knew I was going to get drunk, and I didn't want to do it in front of my family," said the 47-year-old who asked to remain anonymous to adhere to the principles of her 12-step recovery program.

If she did go, she snuck drinks when she thought they wouldn't notice.

"When nobody else was drinking, I was in the closet drinking," she said.

Jane knew she wasn't fooling anyone but herself, but at the time, nothing mattered but her addiction.

"When you're living in it, you can't see the forest for the trees," she said.

Friends and family are often the first to notice the signs of alcoholism and the first to bring it to the alcoholic's attention, but they're also often the ones most affected by it.

"It's kind of a selfish illness, in that we don't necessarily see how it's affecting other people," said Brad Brown, addiction services supervisor at Southeast Human Service Center in Fargo.

Jane didn't realize how out of control her drinking had become until her family approached her about it.

"When I realized they thought I had a problem, then I started lying about how much I was drinking," she said.

Thus begins the pattern of ignoring, avoiding, isolating, rationalizing, minimizing and denying so familiar to families of addicts.

"Denial's one of the biggest 'symptoms,' so to speak," Brown said. "It's actually a defense mechanism that allows a person to continue to use."

Mike Kaspari, director of First Step Recovery in Fargo, talks about alcoholism as a "relationship" that the addict becomes more involved in at the expense of other relationships.

"The further and further I get into that affair, the more time I spend in the relationship, either planning use, using or recovering from use, and in many cases, especially further down the line, hiding use," he said.

Kaspari said women especially tend to be very secretive about their


"I hear stories of pretty elaborate using patterns that revolve around their kids' schedules," he said.

Friends and family -- even young children -- are usually more aware of the problem than the drinker knows or is willing to admit.

"As much as you can lie to yourself under the influence of alcohol, they're not stupid," Jane said.

'Get out of the way'

Anyone who's known or lived with an alcoholic knows how difficult it is to get him or her to stop drinking.

"It's damn near impossible, and you can drive yourself crazy trying," Kaspari said.

Part of the problem, Brown said, is alcoholics have a tendency to think, "I'm not harming anybody but myself, so leave me alone."

The "Your addiction has affected me in the following ways ..." letter made familiar by TV shows like A&E's "Intervention" can help reach someone.

"They can be incredibly therapeutic and life-changing," Kaspari said of the letters.

He said the letter, or "documentation assignment," is most effective when loved ones use specific examples and attach feelings to those examples.

Brown counsels family members to point out the obvious without condemning or being judgmental.

"We will see people who are stuck in treatment until they get their documentation letter from their spouse or their parents," he said.

If that's not enough to break through the denial -- and it often isn't -- Kaspari's No. 1 piece of advice? "Get out of the way."

He said there's a misconception about what "family treatment" means. People enter it thinking they'll learn how to help their addict get well.

There's some of that, but the focus is more on getting the family members themselves well.

"It's a hard concept to sell to families: The fastest way for you to help the addicted person in your life oftentimes is for you to get better yourself," Kaspari said.

That means identifying and learning not to engage in enabling behaviors such as making excuses or covering for the alcoholic.

"Even though they're pretty deeply engrained now, you've got to stop doing that, not for (the counselor's) sake, not for the user's sake, but for your own sake and sanity," Kaspari said.

He recalls telling a client, "When your wife kept coming to family program, I knew your drinking days were short," and he was right.

"An addict isn't going to change until you make it too uncomfortable for him to stay where he's at," Kaspari said.

Brown said when an alcoholic does start talking about change or making promises, trust the actions, not the words.

"If the behavior says, 'I'm taking myself out of the environment I was in,' that you can trust," he said.

Recovered alcoholic Jane said she's slowly regaining her family's trust.

"I'm very fortunate that I still have my family," she said. "I still have my husband. I have not been estranged. I could have very easily been homeless or dead."