To the family, alcohol may seem like the cause of problems. But to the alcoholic, it remains a friend.
This has to do with the experience of alcoholism. In the early stages, alcohol plays a largely positive role in the drinker’s life. It makes him or her feel better, and it does so quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of effort. It may actually stimulate rather than sedate him. He may feel that alcohol sharpens his intellect, improves his social skills, bolsters his self-confidence.
At the same time, he’s experiencing few (if any) problems. Yet.
That’s why alcoholics never seek help in the early stages. They see no reason to. By the time the alcoholic even considers the possibility of change, alcoholism is firmly established.
Even when there are problems, it’s easy to place the blame elsewhere. Alcohol must remain an ally, not an enemy. And the alcoholic is always able to summon up a positive memory of the way things used to be, before the problems set in. Psychologists sometimes call it euphoric recall. Every addict has a fund of positive experiences that counter the reality of his current relationship with the drug.
Gradually, over time, drinking becomes a central organizing principle in the alcoholic’s life. He’s chosen his friends and associations based on their own drinking habits (and their willingness not to confront him about his). Drinking is surrounded by an array of psychological defenses that inhibit his awareness of problems and decrease his motivation for change.
There’s denial. There’s also rationalizing, the tendency to manufacture reasons or excuses for alcohol-related problems. What can’t be rationalized can instead be blamed on other people or circumstances. Alcoholics can minimize the importance of alcohol-related problems, or intellectualize by focusing on some minor aspect or dispute rather than the larger issue. Or they can try to scare us off with a display of temper.
We can’t expect to address alcoholism without encountering these defenses, since they exist to protect alcoholic drinking. But we have an advantage. We know what we’re going to hear, because we’ve heard it all before – hundreds or even thousands of times. The alcoholic continues to use the same defenses, simply because they’ve worked. And he’s not about to change now.
Which means we can prepare to overcome them.