18 November 2006

Alcoholism, Denial, Enabling, and Healing

More than a decade ago, I became very close to a man who first entranced me, then baffled me utterly, then abused me savagely, and then - finally - much, much too late - drove me away.

This sounds like a capsule description of a relationship with a narcissist; but he was not a narcissist.

He took massive quantities of a benzodiazepine, but he did not have an anxiety disorder.

He had mood swings that surpassed anything I had ever seen before, but he was not bipolar.

He created more double binds, indulged in more 'gaslighting' crazymaking, evaded more responsibility, and cast more shame and blame than anyone I had ever known, but he did not have a personality disorder.

He was an absolute genius in his ability to elicit information from me that told him exactly how to hurt me, terribly, and he was absolutely heartless not only in his willingness to use that information to hurt me, but in his obvious pleasure in my pain. But he was not a sociopath.

He was an actively drinking alcoholic, in full denial of his alcoholism.

The closer I came to seeing this, the more I refused to enable it, the fiercer his enmity towards me became.

Alcoholism is everywhere. It can accompany narcissism, depression, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder... and when it does, it adds its own baffling twists to the mix, and often intensifies the core problem significantly.

Alcoholism is everywhere. It doesn't just nod off behind the trash cans on Skid Row... it flies fighter jets and commercial airliners. It fights fires, sells real estate, performs open heart surgery, sets up phony shell corporations to gouge consumers, fiddles with the books and does phony audits, takes golden parachutes and bankrupts Fortune 500 companies. It preaches and teaches. It batters wives, husbands, and children. It cheats on spouses and cheats again on mistresses and paramours. It wraps cars around trees, kills grandmothers and high school students in head-on collisions, and walks away whistling without a scratch.

Some of my early companions in the 'adult world' of work were self-confessed, actively drinking alcoholics. The organizations that employed us seemed to prefer a certain... spinelessness... in middle management. The corporate culture seemed to be filled with blaming, shaming, scapegoating, evasion of responsibility, dishonesty, and denial of obvious problems; high-functioning active alcoholics would have been perfect perpetuators of such a system. In fact, people who behaved maturely, admitted and sought to fix mistakes, took responsibility and expected others to do likewise - in other words, sober, non-codependent adults - were manifestly unwelcome in these organizations, and were generally driven out or exploited until they left in disgust. But at first, these people were wooed, charmed, and conned. Entranced, then baffled, then abused, then finally driven away.

Much as I was wooed, charmed, conned, and harmed by the alcoholic I so loved, until I finally fled.

There is a pattern here; one I had not clearly seen before. And the pattern continues: for I find myself now contemplating people I have known in other times and places, who first entranced me, then baffled me utterly, then abused me savagely, and then - finally - much, much too late - drove me away.

One clear and obvious characteristic of my former beloved, and my former co-workers, and of other souls I've been wondering about recently, is that they seem to me to be 'stalled'. Life experiences produce no growth or change. Occasionally something that looks like progress occurs, but soon the temptation to stir the pot, abuse someone in pain, or muddy the waters on someone who is trying to figure something out presents itself, and they're right back in business at the same old stand.

That man who once meant so much to me was stalled in exactly this way. And he had several friends who were also unaccountably stalled. And he, and all his friends, turned out to be active alcoholics, drinking while in therapy, drinking while on their medications [if they ever actually took the medications], and laughing behind their hands at their employers, therapists, and 'loved ones'; because they thought they were fooling everyone, and that anyone they could fool so easily.... deserved anything that was done to them.

Thinking about that man, about his friends, I suddenly realized how often other people who baffle me - have made references to alcohol, after a particularly egregious bit of acting out. How often a few drinks too many was held up as an excuse.

I have been wondering how often I fail to see the forest for the trees, and how often other children of narcissists and parents with PDs may do the same.

People who are, and want to be, psychologically literate - want to understand our own inner workings and those of other people.

Yet some situations and people may mystify us for years. How often have we encountered someone
who is
always has a 'story' and changes it every five minutes,
avoids responsibility as though it were anthrax,
disappears when confronted directly,
alternates between solid commonsense and empathy on one hand,
and wild defiant hostility on the other,
with no apparent 'trigger' - or 'triggers' that make no sense at all upon examination?

How often have we wondered if such a person suffers from a personality disorder??

... and how often has it been nothing more or less than active alcoholism at work, playing off our own enabling and denial?

Here is a refreshingly concise summary of what an alcoholic in genuine recovery looks like - from the U.S. Naval Flight Surgeon's Manual, via the website of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force.
"Most successfully recovering alcoholics consider themselves in no way different from other people except that they no longer drink alcohol. Some of the qualities which are indicative of the patient with a good working program of recovery are the following:

1. He no longer drinks alcohol or takes mind-altering drugs of any kind unless they are prescribed for an emergency or an elective surgical procedure.

2. He comfortably accepts the fact that he has alcoholism. He no longer wonders whether the cause is biochemical, genetic, or unknown, and he no longer hopes that someone will invent a magic pill so that he can drink again socially.

3. He is no longer concerned with his personal anonymity, as a matter of fact, he makes sure that his commanding officer is fully aware that he is an alcoholic.

4. He is actively involved in helping other alcoholics find sobriety, and he regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. If he is in family therapy or group psychotherapy, this is an adjunct to Alcoholics Anonymous.

5. His sense of humor has returned, and he can now accept criticism when he is wrong."
I would venture to propose that the single most obvious giveaway that someone who baffles us may be an active, nonrecovering alcoholic is buried right there in item 5. The sense of humor, and the sense of responsibility. All of the nonrecovering alcoholics I've known were great jokers... but the jokes were nearly always mean, made at someone else's expense, or very childish in other respects - bathroom humor, sex-is-dirty-tee-hee, or racial/ethnic slurs.  Actual wit? Genuine irony? Nonexistent. Those things require perspective and detachment.

As for responsibility... with an active alcoholic? Fugeddaboutit. Not gonna happen. Not without a serious price tag. You may get an active, unrecovering alcoholic to make and keep a promise to you, but if they do, you'll pay for it. Help you move? Sure, and they'll break one of your prized possessions, too. House sit for you while you holiday? Absolutely. Sorry your pet got out and was run over... Take you to the doctor's office for your colonoscopy? Yes of course, and we'll fabricate some excuse to use your car, and we'll make sure we manage to dent it somehow.

It's a lot like narcissism, isn't it? But unlike narcissism, alcoholism can be overcome, and when an alcoholic is in serious recovery, they're totally different people. Often truly wonderful people. Often the most honest, committed, reliable, giving, generous people you will ever know. Not to mention fun to be with... because the humor is based in gratitude and awareness, and they haven't forgotten what they used to do, but they know where it came from and have made their amends... and they don't ever want to cause anyone pain like that again. Including themselves... because deep down, under the mean jokes and the mockery, under the abusiveness and the cruelty, there always was a human being in pain.

Once you realize this may be what you're dealing with -

then you realize that enabling doesn't work, and denial doesn't work, and controlling doesn't work, and in fact that anything you do in reaction is only fodder for games, until the person who is playing them can see and face their pain, and decides to stop.

Once you have gotten past the maladaptive parentally and societally instilled injunctions not to see these things, not to recognize them, not to call them what they are, not to react constructively and self-preservingly when you identify them -

then you can release the person and the interaction, free youself from the emotional entanglement and the need to 'make them see' or to 'win' - and be able to believe that there is hope for them.

You can believe that they, and you, may each find peace.


  1. Replying to Anonymous, from 27DEC07:

    Thank you for your comment. Per your request I will answer without posting your text.

    Yes, I do think that Borderline Personality Disorder can mimic both alcoholism and narcissism. I agree that people suffering from BPD seem compelled to lash out at those who have good intentions towards them, precisely because of the good intentions, just as alcoholics do, just as narcissists do.

    Both alcoholics and BPD sufferers can be addicted to drama, or trapped in compulsive 'scripts' like the Karpman Triangle. Both may lash out physically and emotionally. Both may even become parasuicidal - that is, threaten self-harm or suicide as a means of controlling people.

    And I also agree that there is a common underlying desire, in narcissists, alcoholics, and borderline sufferers, not to be really 'known' by others, and not to really know themselves, which is behind much if not all of the 'lashing out'. But this is where BPD and alcoholism can differ from narcissism - in my opinion.

    Many people with alcoholism, and many with BPD, can and eventually do face the fact that their own actions perpetuate their problems. There is tremendous shame associated with facing this, and one of the key drivers in both alcoholism and BPD is the desire to avoid feeling shame. But some people, with support, eventually reach the point where the pain from the running becomes worse than the pain from the shame. They face the shame and discover that it does not equal death. Deep inside, part of them wants to live enough to do this.

    In my experience, a narcissist can never face the shame. They can never admit what they are. They cannot take responsibility for their behavior or its consequences. They must, whatever the cost, dump their responsibility and guilt and shame onto others.

    In my opinion, this is where the difference between alcholism, BPD, and narcissism lies. In the short run, unfortunately, for all practical purposes, there is often no difference for family or friends, because until the alcoholic or BPD sufferer is ready to take responsibility, they will refuse it just as aggressively as any narcissist would.

    No Contact, or a serious commitment to programs like Al-Anon, are pretty much the only workable solutions in that situation. And I know it's difficult to watch someone suffer and be unable to help.

    Try to remember that your desire to help will only be used against you as long as the person you care about is committed to staying unhealthy. At that point, you can't help them. They are only going to toy with you. All you can do is to stop being their toy.

  2. Thank you 1000x for this post. It made me want to write and ask you whether you happened to have dated my boyfriend, the one I just left because of his drinking, the one who is now turning to me with anger and accusations. Still reeling from a message from him, I googled "alcoholics denial lashing out" and found your blog entry. It's helped me understand what I'm dealing with. Yes, just now his decision to attack my vulnerabilities. Yet still say he loves me.

    He too has friends--each as consistently drunk as he is--to reinforce his view that there is no problem, or that the problem is me. Unfortunately, there is no one else to vouch for my side of things. Yes, all of them are stalled.

    And you are right, alcoholism is everywhere. When I speak of it, inevitably the person I am speaking with volunteers firsthand experience--usually family members who are alcoholics. But until I break the silence, it's as if it doesn't exist. As you say, the injunctions not to see, name or escape this problem... These are what I fought.

    I had no idea what I was up against, with alcoholism or in leaving it.

  3. Hello Six Years Out;

    I'm glad this post helped, glad you found it, but sorry that the help is needed.

    "He too has friends--each as consistently drunk as he is--to reinforce his view that there is no problem, or that the problem is me. Unfortunately, there is no one else to vouch for my side of things."

    There is you. And you'll find others on the Web. To the extent that you are an abuse survivor, this blog and the blogs I've linked to here should provide validation and support - for starters.

    There are safe, password-protected online discussion groups that may help. A good Al-Anon or ACOA group in realspace, one that's reasonably openminded about what its members read and share [so you won't feel as though you've merely exchanged control by the alcoholic for control by the group - that can be very unsettling], can be worth more than rubies.

    ACOA helped me hugely. Al-Anon helped too. At the risk of giving unsolicited advice, I hope you can be comfortable with the idea of seeking a group for support, in realspace or cyberspace.

    It's tricky; unsafe groups abound. But such groups can be identified, and 'learning the signs' with groups you can easily leave is incredibly valuable practice.

    The reality of alcoholism [or any other addiction or form of abuse] is so very difficult to process and understand and deal with alone. I wish you luck, success, and healing.