It’s Saturday and I’m saddened and inspired. A week ago my community was shaken by a horrible tragedy. A well-known and well-loved mom of three was struck and killed by a drunk driver while she was jogging. In the days that have followed, my friends and neighbors have grieved her passing and celebrated her love of life by wearing blue and running in her honor this weekend.
There’s an excellent reflection on it here: http://www.alifeofgratitude.com/4/post/2014/01/meg-menzies.html
There has been a lot of talk this week about drunk driving. To a lesser degree, there has been talk of road safety, not only for those behind the wheel, but also those who share the road on foot or on a bike.
There has been very little talk about the deadly disease that may have been behind Meg’s death. Yes. The disease.
The driver was drunk at 8 in the morning. I think it’s pretty safe to say that someone who is that intoxicated that early in the morning has a drinking problem.
I hesitate to use that word “alcoholic.” I don’t know if he is or he isn’t. I struggle with that word because it conjures up images of a ragged street person, not a well-respected medical doctor who seems to be functioning well in society. And then there’s this idea of alcoholism being a disease, as if his lack of control somehow excuses him of the consequences of his behavior. It doesn’t, nor should it.
Most of us are aware that alcoholism is a recognized disease, but we probably don’t understand exactly what that means, even if we know people whom we think could be alcoholic. I’ve come to learn that it’s a disease that affects not only the problem drinker, but also everyone with whom that person comes in contact. Whether the drinker is a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, an employer, an employee, a friend, a neighbor, a complete stranger behind the wheel of a car in the oncoming lane of traffic, there is someone else who cares about that person and who also must live (or die) not only with the consequences of the alcoholic’s behavior, but with the fear that relationship generates.
In a special way, I think of that drunk driver’s own children. Did they worry about how much their dad drank? Did they even know? Did they make excuses for him thinking it was the kind and merciful thing to do? Are they carrying around guilt and shame for their dad’s actions? Do they feel somehow responsible for his behavior? Is their rage turned inward, or outward? Do they believe there is no one else in the world who could ever understand or give them unconditional love and compassion as they, too, grieve this tragedy?
I think of the people who love alcoholics in their own lives, who hear this story in the news and think, “That could have been my son, mom, sister, boyfriend …” The ones who feel a sick mixture of gratitude and relief and fear that today, it wasn’t my loved one, but it could have been. The ones who would be crushed if anyone found out.
I think of the countless children of children of alcoholics, who’ve grown up with non-drinking parents who suffered the consequences of growing up in an alcoholic home. Do you know what happens to the children of an alcoholic who don’t get help with living in that kind of hell? Sometimes they become rigid and controlling, or develop “socially acceptable” addictions to work, exercise, food, shopping, video games, romantic relationships, porn, anger, or self-pity.
They may not be distracted drivers, but they most certainly are distracted parents, distracted spouses, distracted employees. The children of these children of alcoholics often pick up the drink to cope, and the cycle continues. Or, maybe they don’t pick up the drink, but they scratch their head and wonder what’s wrong with themselves, especially since they had two functional parents, material needs met. Grandchildren of alcoholics may not even know there was a drinking problem in the family, because families of alcoholics often practice such rigid secret keeping.
Alcoholism is a family disease. It affects everyone who comes in contact with the problem drinker, in big and small ways. And with as many problem drinkers as there are out there, if you love one of them and are sick with worry about them or consumed with anger at them, I promise you this – YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
You are not alone. There are many people who have experienced the feelings of responsibility, guilt, shame, anger, fear, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness that you may be carrying. Perhaps you’ve done everything in your power to fight this disease and its effects. I know you haven’t won, because it is impossible. You didn’t cause it. You can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. You’re not that powerful, and trying to be will only kill you early or rob you of the joy of living.
However, we can contribute to the disease by our attitudes and actions. We can enable. We can give the drinker an “excuse” to drink when we argue with or belittle him. We can delay the natural consequences of her actions when we lie to her boss and say she’s sick with a stomach virus.
We can contribute to our own disease by throwing ourselves into our work, our volunteering, our romantic relationships, our candy crush games, our political action groups, our hobbies, our depression, our anxiety … Yes, “our” disease. We are just as sick as the alcoholics. We lash out unexpectedly at our children. We run around the house insanely searching for bottles to dump out, as if that will stop anything. We become compulsive about helping others, sometimes to our own detriment. We get so overwhelmed with living that we stop paying our bills or sleep until noon. And we get behind the wheel tired and distracted and most definitely impaired. And we haven’t put a single foreign substance into our bodies. We act like alcoholics, stone cold sober.
We can’t do anything to stop the alcoholic if she doesn’t want to stop. We cannot save him from his disease. But we can save ourselves from ours.
There is help and hope for families who’ve been affected by this disease. For Meg’s family. It can be found at Al-Anon.
Al-Anon is a program of recovery from the affects of drinking on the family and loved ones of an alcoholic. It is an anonymous fellowship of people who understand as perhaps no one else can. If anything I’ve written has sounded uncomfortably familiar to you, then you could undoubtedly benefit from learning more. There’s a wealth of information at the Al-Anon website: