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This collection has about 45 stories in 250 pages, each by a person describing how alcohol abuse has affected their lives. They are from a variety of perspectives: drinkers, spouses, parents and children of drinkers; while they are mainly white, there are a few contributions from people who are in minority groups, although there are no gay or lesbian contributions. Some declare religious faith, while others do not. The majority are sympathetic to the idea that alcoholism is a disease and that Alcoholics Anonymous is a good approach to dealing with alcohol problems, but not all do. The goal of the book is to provide stories that will help others facing similar problems.
I had a grandparent who was by all accounts a chronic alcoholic who died in an asylum before I was born. His children were all affected by his drinking and his violence. I have other family members with a chronic history of overdrinking which has affected their ability to function. I suspect that the drinking was and continues to be a method of coping with the difficulties of the world ("self-medicating" as the lingo goes). I myself enjoy alcohol and sometimes use it to relieve tension. I've seen the damage that long term alcohol use can do to a person's brain. Furthermore, I've experienced the frustration of trying to get someone with an alcohol problem to stop damaging themselves and those around them.
Yet while I know that alcohol use can cause brain damage, I am skeptical of claims that alcoholism is just a disease like any other, because it obscures the alcoholic's moral responsibility for the harm that he or she causes to others. So this is an especially interesting collection because people write about how alcoholism has affected their personal lives and the relationships between people who drink too much and those around them.
Donna Veneto describes her father as loving, caring, and fun to be around, but then she spends most of her contribution talking about "Daddy Hyde," her father under the influence of drink. Daddy Hyde had a violent temper and spent much of his time away from home in local bars. Once In her teens, she got into many fights with him. She is similarly ambivalent in her judgments, saying that she is unsure. Sometimes she feels sorry for him, and at other times believing that he could have tried harder.
Tracey Alverson describes her father with some anger. She ends her piece with a dramatic statement. "I am starting a life of my own, and he doesn't want help. He knows he drinks too much but he has justified all the times he's stolen from us, threatened my mother, come close to physically harming one of his children. I choose instead to live with the pleasant memories I have. It's not my fault my father wants to die and is slowly killing himself with the bottle" (34). Similarly, Gloria Raskin talks about the resentment she felt toward her brother Arthur at the time of his death form cirrhosis of the liver at his poor choices in life. He refused help and when their mother gave him some money at a difficult point in his life, he spent some of it on more alcohol. She describes his son Paul as responsible, hard-working, caring and a good father and laments that Arthur lost all those traits. So while she never explicitly says it, she implies that he became irresponsible, lazy, uncaring, and a bad father.
Lisa Dordal also describes her alcoholic parent as a sort of split personality in her piece "Two Mothers." Her daytime mother was a lively and charming person. Her evening mother drank, so she was sluggish and slurred her words. On retirement, her drinking got considerably worse, starting in the morning. Dordal describes her own drinking too, and recognizes how it became a problem for her. Yet when her first marriage ended, she quit drinking and turned to God. Mridu Kullar is another contributor who highlights the contrast between the public face of her father as a good family man and his behavior at home when he would get normally be intoxicated and difficult. She struggles with the question whether he is really an alcoholic although the rest of her family denies it.
The difficulty of distinguishing between the good loveable qualities of a person and the way that person acts as a result of drinking is a common theme of the contributions. Allison Jones puts it succinctly when she writes about her husband, "Trying to control Brian's drinking made me insane. I was no longer able to separate the disease from the man" (95). He was attending A.A. meetings, yet he was still drinking, which made him a very difficult person to be with. She says that eventually they repaired their marriage, and part of the healing process was coming to see that she was powerless over his drinking, so that she was able to forgive herself and her husband. This sort of view that she gained from Al Anon helped her cope with her feelings about him. What stands out here is the idea of forgiveness: Brian hurt her and was accountable for what he did, and eventually she came to put her anger and resentment past her. It is not that her feelings were unjustified, but that they were able to move on from them.
Some heavy drinkers also blame themselves and report shame at the things they do when drunk. Karen Waggoner writes, "My disease, my condition, my chemical makeup, maybe even my character make it impossible for me to resist the ease and comfort that alcohol brings to me. We who suffer from alcoholism love the effect of drinking more than we love ourselves, our jobs, our families or our integrity" (53). While she describes her problem as a disease, she also describes it as a problem of love and identity. She became utterly selfish and withdrew from her relationships with her children and grandchildren. She ascribes her realization of her problem to an act of divine providence.
The ability to take control of one's life and conversely, the inability to do so, (i.e., powerlessness) feature prominently in the stories. Many contributors say that alcoholics are powerless over alcohol, and yet many of the same people then describe how they took control over their lives. Sometimes they resolve this contradiction by invoking an external power such as God. Yet the idea of powerlessness can be used for other purposes. Sheri Ables writes about her alcoholic husband, and justifies her leaving him by saying he is unable to reform himself, so what she is doing is best for her and their children, and may even be best for him. Other contributors write about hitting bottom, the AA way of describing the event that led them to recognize that they needed external help. In some cases, the families of alcoholics held interventions to get them to go into rehabilitation programs. Yet the truth is that it is very difficult to know what enables a heavy drinker to turn their life around. There is some data that suggests that AA can be helpful, but it is certainly not the most helpful mental health treatment available, and even the best treatments have a low success rate. There are some biological forms of treatment available and more in development, but ultimately it is all about getting a person to change their own behavior, drawing on their own resources of self-control. So the notion of powerlessness is very hard to make coherent, which is presumably why so many of the descriptions combine it with the idea of some external power or even a miracle that comes to set the alcoholic on the right path. If we are going to understand a person's recovery without appeal to supernatural powers, then we have to admit that people do have some power over their own lives, and under the right circumstances, they will be able to use that power, even if they are not able to do so in other situations. Many of the stories make clear how difficult that is; they describe the many attempts that alcoholics make before achieving some relatively permanent ability to avoid returning to heavy drinking, and make clear how it continues to be an ongoing struggle against temptation. It is occasionally possible to sort through the confusing language of powerlessness to find descriptions of people's power to control their lives.
Yet the writings in this book make very clear how much people's thinking and self-description when it comes to alcohol use has become infused with the rhetoric of AA, Al Anon, popular psychology, popular biology, and religion. Many different ideas and theories get thrown together and enter our language in a jumble, to the extent that it almost becomes impossible to write about alcohol use in any neutral way. Voices of Alcoholism gives a very American mix, and is interesting as a representation of how we do think about alcohol use. Maybe it will be useful to people trying to make sense of their own lives, because there are enough different views in it to have something for everyone. The editing of the book has been done well, and all the writing is of a high standard. Most of the stories are interesting. So this is a collection with a great deal to offer, even for readers who don't accept all the assumptions of the contributors.
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.