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Alcoholism: The Family Disease

QUESTION: I am considering divorce. My husband and I had a decent relationship until our daughter was born three years ago. We now have two children, the older girl and a nine month old baby with Down's Syndrome. He has became highly critical of almost everything I do, and has taken control of all our finances. To top it off he seems to have a problem with alcohol, as his father did. He has become verbally abusive and his compulsive spending has almost financially ruined us. In addition, he said that if I divorce him he will not pay child support, and if I stay in our house, that he would burn it down. I have also been diagnosed with depression but my husband refuses counseling and I can't alone because we can't afford it. I am so worried about how all this affects our kids, but I don't know what to do or where I can turn.

Your husband's controlling, addictive and irrationally threatening behavior is symptomatic of a man in the grips of alcoholism and perhaps a major depression himself. Though your troubles did not begin with your second child's special needs, the birth of a down's syndrome child added unusual stress to an already abusive family atmosphere. No wonder you are depressed!

You have been diagnosed with depression, and it is imperative that you get treatment. Clearly, your husband's deep seated insecurities prevent him from having your best interests at heart. But this is no excuse for you to ignore your own needs for help.

It is likely that fatherhood triggered your husband's family patterns of alcoholism. He may have become vulnerable to feelings of his own childhood abuse which he kept at bay by mimicking his father's alcoholic behavior.

Be aware that alcoholism is considered a family disease based on patterns of underfunctioning and overfunctioning. The popularly defined term "co-dependency" is also likely to be a part of your own contribution to being willing to take on guilt and responsibility for your husband's bad behavior or being unwilling to psychologically separate from your spouse. Your job is to get treatment for your own depression and the support you need to stand on your own convictions. This may include living with your husband if he is willing to address the problem, or it may involve separation or divorce if you accept responsibility for change and he does not.

Strongly consider leaving your husband if he refuses to get help for his alcoholism. Begin attending an Alanon group for support in establishing safe boundaries and confronting your husband with his disease. Obtain support from your family in refusing to accept abuse, including calling the police if he threatens to harm you, the children or himself.

It is possible that your husband may agree to stop drinking but not reach out for help with his problem. Do not accept this as an answer, since the roots of alcoholism runs in his family. It is likely that he will not have learned other coping strategies from his available parental models. The extent to which his own development has been arrested by turning to alcohol will likely have resulted in a lack of other tools for handling stress.

Your husband's recovery will need to include not a only his acknowledgment that he is suffering with alcoholism, but a social support network to assist in his recovery. Alcoholic Anonymous meetings could begin this process, but it is also possible that your spouse would benefit from an inpatient hospital treatment program which includes family support groups and follow up care. Seek programs available in your community. For example,

the alcohol addiction treatment in La Jolla, CA or wherever your community is in the United States.

Do not hesitate to check into the community resources, and require that your husband investigate his options.

If your husband is willing to get help, he will need to explore a new relationship to work, family and the overall meaning of his life. Alcoholism is a disease which affects memory and neurochemical pathways in the brain. Unstopped, he may not be able to recover brain structure that can become lost forever. It is a disease that progresses from behavioral, social and relationship damage to organic brain damage which may not be reversible.

Your husband needs help. But if he will not get it, you will need to consider cutting your losses while your children are young, rather than falling prey to the ongoing ramifications of this disease. You are right to be concerned about your husband's negative effect on your daughter and the erosion of your own confidence and self-esteem. These are the inevitable results of living in an abusive environment. The good news is that you are recognizing these effects early in your children's lives. The bad news is that things are not likely to get better without treating the alcoholism.

Your children are counting on you to take charge of their safety and well-being. If you do not, you are also culpable for any abuse they suffer from not leaving a potentially dangerous and psychologically damaging situation. Though it may be difficult for you, your awareness makes you a critical link to your children's future as well as your own. Invite your husband to be a part of the solution. But do not stop there! Seek your own support and counseling to establish boundaries for a healthier and happier lifestyle. You and your children deserve it!


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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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