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Alcoholism is a disease: one of the most complex, damaging and least understood of illnesses. No part of our lives remain unaffected if the disease is present. Physical health deteriorates;emotional growth stops and can regress; psychological health diminishes and spiritual health can become non-existent. This is all true for the families, friends and working colleagues of an alcoholic as well as the alcoholic.
The illness is a terrible one.
Alcoholism appears to be a disease of contradictions. While sometimes it seems to help both alcoholic and family, it's a painful and dehumanizing condition. But it's one that is preventable, treatable and responsive to treatment if the patient works at the healing process.
However painful and damaging it can become - and it can kill - there are effective healing processes that can bring health to the affected in varying degrees.
Again, this is true for those associated with an alcoholic as well, particularly the families.
Perhaps by way of identifying the signs and symptoms of the illness as it affects the family members of an alcoholic, a case history might be the best illustration.
The family is made up of three girls and two boys. Gerald is 28 and raising his son alone. Terry is divorced and has custody of one daughter. Giselle, 25, is married and the mother of a little girl. 23 year old Lucille is separated, raising her son alone. The youngest is single. Daryl is besieged by emotional and mental problems. He's twenty. Their mother, Jalayne, is now a healthy, working individual. For three consecutive years she applied for training as a rehabilitation counsellor. On her third try she was accepted into a two year certificate course. Jalayne graduated in 1986 and has been working since that time.
Had you known Jalayne before 1979, you would see no resemblance to the person she has grown to be. She has a busy and productive working life, and an active social life. Family life still goes through it's many ups and downs but the downs are not despairing and hopeless anymore, and the ups are more and closer together.
It was not always so.
At first, family life was like others who lived on the reserve. Jalayne's husband, Edwin, drank, but not much.
No one remembers when he began coming home drunk. Everyone remembers the changes in him when he was drunk. There would be arguments, criticism, anger and stomping around the house. There would be threats. Soon these behaviours became worse: physical fights with Jalayne terrified the children, Edwin's yelling and threats with guns rendered the family silent. When the children knew their father had been drinking they would hide, or leave home and go to their grandmother's.
During one episode of fighting, Edwin beat Jalayne so badly with his fists and a stick of wood, that her back was injured. She still suffers from that injury.
The children grew angry and resentful at both parents: Edwin, because of his violence and dominance over the family, Jalayne, because she stayed with Edwin. She'd only run away when threatened and had to hide. Sometimes she'd take the children, sometimes she'd have to escape fast from what she knew might be death.
There was incest that Jalayne did not know about. The girls didn't discuss the things their father did to them, partly because he was their father, mostly because of overwhelming shame and fear. The girls avoided their dad. The boys were beaten and intimidated. Everyone lived in fear.
Edwin put Jalayne on the streets as a prostitute. Now there was lots of money but Edwin took it all for himself.
Towards the end, Jalayne took to shoplifting. She doesn't know why. She didn't need what she stole but she remembers that the shoplifting was almost a necessity. She had to do it....and of course, she was caught and placed on probation.
Jalayne was weary. Her situation seemed hopeless. She had no place to go. Too ashamed to go to relatives: too scared to stay home, she spent her time on the streets. Her despondency deepened. When she travelled by cab or bus, she would lie down on the seat for fear Edwin might see her and give her yet another beating. Her head was always down, and when she spoke her voice was flat and quiet. By now the police had been to her house several times to intervene in family violence. Edwin had never been apprehended. He always got away, or he would talk his way out.
Jalayne was caught for shoplifting again. This time she gave up. She would go to jail and rest from the fear and running. Sleep would be uninterrupted and she wouldn't have to be ready to try and bolt. Her face would have a chance to heal. She wouldn't have apply make-up to hide bruises or wear big sunglasses to hide black eyes.
On court day, Jalayne took Lucille, 12, and Daryl, 9. She would give them to Children's Aid. She was doing a terrible job looking after them, and they would be better off with someone else.
The judge placed her on probation one more time.
In her probation worker's office, Jalayne didn't know what next. The probation officer didn't know either. He just looked at her as she sat with her head down.
"Jalayne", he said, "there is one more thing to try."
Jalayne raised her head. She didn't believe him. There was no expression on her face, just an empty, tired, hopeless look.
The officer took something from his desk drawer and placed it in front of Jalayne. "Here's some literature", he said. "You'd better go to AI-Anon....if you don't go and do something about your life, you may as well lie down and die."
Jalayne phoned Central office. She went to a meeting where most of the members were Native. There was only one person there; a non-Indian who told Jalayne about the group and gave her a number to call. When she called, there was a long talk with a women called Joyce. Then they visited and talked more. Joyce never told Jalayne what to do and never acted as though Jalayne had done anything wrong. Jalayne remembers feeling as though Joyce understood and she began to trust this Al-Anon member. Joyce respected her and Jalayne felt as though she was accepted. They talked and shared and went to meetings together. Confidence was coming back to Jalayne.
The group was open and honest. No one was shocked by what was discussed. Jalayne learned that she was not responsible for Edwin's drinking.
There was comfort in that knowledge. For years Edwin had blamed her for his drinking and the beatings he gave her. Somehow, everything had always ended up her fault, and she had begun to believe him. Then she would feel guilty and dumb. All the pain and humiliation that her children suffered seemed to be her fault and she hated herself and Edwin. But she loved him too. It was all confusion.
With learning and understanding through Al-Anon, those feelings went away. Knowing all the hurt and unhappiness was part of an illness helped Jalayne to accept the past.
Fear was still strong, but courage and confidence were growing. Slowly, Jalayne began to know that she had to leave Edwin if the family was to heal.
Everyone but Edwin knew this had to happen, but the family was torn in pain. After months of terror and a hostage taking where Edwin spent eighteen hours holding five people at gunpoint, the separation became divorce. Edwin was in prison and Jalayne was now the only active parent. This was scary but now there was help.
Months turned to years and Jalayne continued to grow. She thought about the teachings and strength in Al-Anon. She had heard these things before. She heard stories when she was growing up and she knew from them how Indians used to live and what they believed.
Honesty was important. Humility was a valued virtue and people helped and encouraged one another. Everyone worked hard for the good of the community.
This was also the way of Al-Anon. Jalayne understood now that her life was her responsibility. She could no longer blame Edwin for the effects of his illness. If she was to be healthy and balanced she had to work her program.
Jalayne loved her family but had to let them go. Gerald was drinking heavily and stole from her, but she was strong enough to report him and not let him in her house. This hurt, and Jalayne cried for her boy, but she knew that she would not help him by lying and covering up for him like she had done for his dad.
Lucille hated everyone. She was quiet and wanted to be alone, but would swear and yell at Jalayne and blame her because her dad was in prison. Jalayne would listen and love her girl and try to explain why the family was this way.
There were many decisions to make, but Al-Anon members did not tell Jalayne what to do. They shared their experiences and supported and encouraged her in what she decided to do.
It was hard to live by the honesty of the program and her ancestral teaching. Income for the family was welfare and compared to what they'd had before Al-Anon, it was a poverty-stricken and deprived life, but Jalayne kept to her program.
As strength and health came, ancestral teachings became more important. Jalayne went to sweats and ceremonies and prayed for guidance and to express her gratitude for the way she was growing. Daryl was troubled and had a serious accident. Jalayne took him to a medicine man for healing. Five years later, he is still following the way of his old ancestors. Giselle also seeks help and counsel from elders and Terry and Lucille are back in school. Gerald has stopped drinking and devotes time to his boy.
The family healing is still going on. There has been pain in growing, but there is also a strong feeling of accomplishment. The problems and setbacks continue, Gerald slips. Giselle goes back to drugs and Lucille hates and resents, but the bad times are shorter and the good times longer.
Work with recovering alcoholics can be frustrating but it can also be satisfying, and Jalayne is a strong and understanding counsellor. There is a living care in her for suffering alcoholics. Her once beloved Edwin is alcoholic.
How ever healthy and happy she is, Jalayne will remember the years of suffering. It helps her to help others. Ancestral teaching told her that long years ago. Al-Anon reminds her. Both are as much a part of her life as eating, breathing and exercise to keep her healthy and balanced. Food, exercise and air feed her body. Al-Anon and ancestral teaching feed her feelings, her mind, her spirit and soul. Jalayne needs them all.