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Alcohol flames family tensions during holidays

I’ve noticed a phenomenon that I can only call alco-drama, and it tends to peak around this time of year, especially when families with addicted members have spent a good deal of time together.

There are several forms of alco-drama, but one of the most common is called uproar. Let me give you an example. A drunken sister at a family open house begins to discuss her rather promiscuous behavior with her 12-year-old niece and nephew, at which point their father becomes angry and berates his sister. She, “in retaliation,” brings up her perceived unfair treatment regarding their mother’s inheritance, causing all of the other siblings to join in the heated discussion. Low and behold, we have uproar.

If “Sis,” divorced and 47 years old, had been sober, she very likely wouldn’t have been discussing her sex life with two 12-year-olds. Then she wouldn’t have had to “retaliate.” But as with most alco-discussions, the best defense is a good offense. Better yet, to get everyone riled up diffuses the blame enough that by the time tomorrow comes no one will remember how it started.

Another example is a form of alco-drama we’ll call the shell game. One sibling with some issues to hide places the blame on the most obviously addicted family member to deflect blame and to gain the confidence of one or both parents. The more the addict tries to defend, the guiltier he or she looks. For instance, “brother A” steals a pair of earrings from mom and then subtly lets it leak that “sister B” has a little extra money and might be using again. “Sister B” who has a history of stealing from the family for drugs is immediately suspected and accused of the theft. The earrings are never found, but the stain of mistrust is draped over the addict. Meanwhile, “brother A” is graced with favored status even though he also has a hidden problem.

A final example is a version of alco-drama we’ll call the vortex. This game requires years of practice and an accumulation of guilt. The addict, suffering from a terminal case of entitlement, continuously lays the responsibility for his behavior in the lap of his baffled but angry victims.

For example, dad and mom have saved for a vacation when little Johnny, now in his early 30s, has another in a long series of personal catastrophes. He has been homeless, in jail and in medical distress, all as a result of his ongoing alcoholism and refusal to get help. But he always blames the parents, who always fall for it. This time the game is set up by a series of phone calls, starting out friendly and ending with the fifth call when demands for money are made because the drug dealer has threatened his life (not true). Mom and dad, in their guilt and confusion, knowing it’s not right but thinking the situation is life of death, “just one last time” fall into the vortex of alco-drama. Angry at themselves and him, they bail little Johnny one more time. Little Johnny uses the money to buy dope.

There’s only one rule in the alco-drama game for all involved – if you play you lose.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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