“People are not addicted to alcohol or drugs, they are addicted to escaping reality.”
Rev. Fr. C. Joseph-Counsellor
St. Joseph’s College, Jakhama
Introduction: Almost everybody knows an alcoholic or has one for a relative. We are not innocent about the scars burned into the nation’s heart and bounty by the misuse of alcohol. All of us who counsel in any capacity will sooner or later become involved, at least indirectly, in the problem, with alcoholics themselves or with affected members of their families or colleagues at work. A pervasive smog of stress arises from alcoholic problems. Difficulties with drinking involve many persons besides the drinkers, multiplying stress manifold. The aura of alcoholism encompasses a cluster of people, invading each with a different intensity of emotion. Although some counsellors never meet an alcoholic face-to-face, almost every day they get the whiff of some alcoholic’s breath in the life of at least one of the persons seeking help from them. The person across from us may be a spouse or an adult still unable to pull free of the shadow cast across their lives by an alcoholic parent. The marks, the memories, and the stresses of problem drinkers are found almost everywhere in our culture.In recent years, the problem of alcohol use and abuse has become more amenable to study. Against a background of increased cultural concern and a better sense of the problem’s dimensions and sequelae, research instruments have been fashioned to measure agreed-upon criteria to diagnose the various levels of severity of what are now termed “substance-related disorders”. As a result, remarkable strides have been made in assessing the international public health dimensions of alcohol use.
The things we carry with us: For counsellors, counter transference problems with alcoholics seeking help frequently arise as responses to transference reactions of theirs that crackle with rebelliousness, dishonesty, or aggression. These feelings may also emanate from our lack of knowledge about alcoholism and its treatment or our own experiences with alcohol as a problem in our own lives, families, or friendships.As counsellors we always profit from examining our own feelings about alcohol and alcoholic persons. Some trauma close to the bone can make it very difficult for us to be sympathetic to, or even interested in, persons with drinking problems. We may rule out working with them because we find them morally objectionable. None of us can be of much assistance to individual with drinking problems if we have within us serious emotional blocks to the basic acceptance of these individuals as persons.Many helpers function with a smattering of general impressions about alcoholism. They may not have read much or they may habitually respond out of instinct when they must deal with the problem. Such styles may be improvisation in reaction to the difficulties involved in getting a comprehensive and useful clinical picture of the alcoholic person. Nonetheless, we have a professional obligation to deepen our understanding through reading or by attending continuing education programme on the subject.
The basic principle in counselling is to keep the person, rather than just the person’s problem with alcohol, in focus. Many counsellors find it almost impossible to perceive such individuals as persons. The problem itself looms so large – and with such an unpleasant emotional aura – that compassion does not easily arise and establishing a helping relationship is difficult. It is easy to perceive a person with drinking difficulties as a problem case even when we intellectually agree that alcoholism is a disease rather than a personal fault. The effort to see drinkers as persons beneath all their disruptive and abhorrent behaviour remains, however, fundamental if counselling is to succeed. Counsellors may also have negative feelings about individuals with alcoholism because of the chronic relapsing nature of the illness. Professionals as well as nonprofessional counsellors can easily become frustrated and irritated at the individual’s inability to maintain sobriety and identify with family members who express some of the same feelings.
A Core Difficulty: Despite advances in our recent understanding of alcoholism, many still perceive the alcoholic as an individual who makes a conscious decision to drink too much. They view alcoholics, in other words, as sinners, moral failures who choose their own uncomfortable fate. They judge them to be responsible for deciding to stop and to pull themselves free of the pit into which they threw themselves. Such people think themselves wise when they say, “Nothing can be done until they decide to do something for themselves.” At another level, it is recognized that an essential characteristic of alcoholism is that these persons can’t control their choices about drinking. Much, however, can be done. Counsellors should know that the most successful alcoholism programmes are those that reach out to alcoholics rather than wait for alcoholics to come to them. Persons with drinking problems can respond to family interventions and to treatment when it is offered to them. Helpers should not construct an attitude that traps them into a role of waiting for alcoholics to prove that they are ready to get better. They should be ready to support families or friends in planning and carrying out interventions to get alcoholics into treatment.
Conclusion: Counsellors frequently function best if they are part of a treatment team. Joining in effort to reach out to the potential alcoholic is one of the most promising functions that a counsellor can fulfil. This goes against the instincts of many counsellors, however, because they may expect, because of some previous experience, to wait for, rather than seek out, persons who need help. Some participation in a team that recognizes the effectiveness of moving out toward the potential alcoholic at an important time should not be underestimated.