Counselor on Call: January 2009

The following is a new column by licensed marriage and family therapist
Laura Schultz. Each issue, she'll be answering your questions with regard
to life, love, relationships, and self-empowerment.
If you have an issue that you'd like her to address, please e-mail
As always, your name and personal information will remain confidential.


Counselor on Call,
I am very concerned about one of my sisters who drinks very heavily most of the time. It became so uncomfortable for me during the holidays that I confronted her and told her I thought she was an alcoholic. Of course, she denied having any problem with alcohol. I love her very much and am very concerned that she will hurt herself or someone else. Can you tell me how I might get her to stop drinking?

First, I applaud your courage to ask this question and to reach out for guidance. I know it is difficult to talk about these very personal issues. As a therapist, I have witnessed first-hand the pain and anguish that family members endure who are dealing with a beloved relative’s drinking. They want desperately for the person to get help and are frustrated and angry with the person - who seems not only unaware that their drinking is a problem but also how it affects the rest of the family. Loved ones often blame themselves, feeling that somehow they are the cause and that they have some power to cure the problem – or, the family may believe that the alcoholic is doing something to them personally and if “they loved me enough and would just listen to me that they would change.” Caught in this cycle of regret or blame families lose hope.
There are many myths surrounding the disease of alcoholism, but the most common one is that people still believe that alcoholics are people who live on the street and have lost everything. However, less than 3% of those who have alcohol problems are living on skid row. Most have jobs, families and are respected members of their community. It is also true that just as many women have drinking issues as men, but women are usually less likely to get help due to the remaining societal stigma attached to being a female alcoholic. There is also the mistaken belief that alcoholism is due to a lack of will power or a moral weakness of some sort. Addiction can be viewed as a chronic illness, like diabetes, and most likely cannot be treated through sheer willpower alone - no matter how strong the desire is to stop using the substance.
The first step in solving a problem is usually to educate oneself about an issue - and alcoholism is no exception. There is a great deal of good literature and many resources in this arena. I would suggest starting with Alcoholics Anonymous, local mental health centers, or the National Council on Alcoholism. Also, a consultation with a family doctor, clergyman, or therapist may be helpful. It is important to see the alcoholic as a person who is also suffering in order to realize that compassion and support can enable the family to become part of the solution. In a pamphlet entitled “Understanding Ourselves and Alcoholism” produced by the Al-Anon Program (a worldwide family 12-step support group founded to help family members and friends of alcoholics) it says that:

Alcoholism is a family disease in which those who care the most are affected the most by
the disease. They are ashamed of the public scenes but in private they try to handle it. All
their thinking is directed at what the alcoholic is doing or not doing and how to get him/her to stop. This is their obsession. While the alcoholic doesn’t seem to be concerned with the bills, the job, or his/her health people around them worry. They make the mistake of covering up, tell little lies to mend damaged relationships and worry some more. This is their anxiety.

And often, family members want to strike back and punish the alcoholic pay for the hurt they have caused.
Now that I have described some of the issues that affect the family, I’d like to give some suggestions to facilitate empowerment in the situation:
1. Usually the best time to approach a loved one about seeking help is when both parties are in a calm period. It may be helpful to tell the person that you are concerned about their drinking and want to be supportive in seeking treatment options. If the person acknowledges they want to stop, one may mention that there are alternatives - but it is probably ineffective to mention specific details or force the issue unless the person asks. Having some literature in a place where they can read it if they decide to explore the possibilities, is one suggestion. Alcoholics Anonymous has wonderful pamphlets for this purpose.
2. An alcoholic has to want help for him/herself - not for someone else; thus, the family may have to wait for him/her to reach what is
called “a bottom” or crisis to make her realize that she can’t stop without help. A person often seeks help when they have to deal with the consequences of their own behavior.
3. A family member can take steps to protect themselves or the children from harmful situations such as not driving with a person who has had too much to drink.
4. Some families, with the help of a professional, join together as a loving unit to conduct what is known as an intervention. This may or may not facilitate the person seeking treatment but at least the group will be united and feel some sense of empowerment.
5. Most importantly, whether the alcoholic family gets help or not, the relatives may benefit from the encouragement and support of people who are going through the same ordeal. Al-Anon is for spouses and significant adults, Alateen for teenagers, Alatot for young children, and ACOA for adult children of alcoholics are all groups that enable people to understand that they are not the cause of the problem, nor can they cure it… but they can take steps to take care of themselves and indirectly help the drinker. Often they feel for the first time that they are not alone. Everything said in these groups is confidential and they have a policy of anonymity.
Becoming aware, education about alcoholism, and reaching out for help are the first steps to growth and recovery for the entire family, including the alcoholic.


Counselor on Call,
I feel so stressed all the time between work and family that I just can’t take it anymore. The holidays made everything worse trying to make sure that everyone was happy and having a good time. Meanwhile, I was miserable. Do you have any suggestions as to how to make my life easier and help me deal with daily stress?

I hear that the anxiety in your life is having a profound effect on you. Women are often required to juggle many tasks throughout their day and it does take a tremendous toll. Women often put the needs of others first and this leaves little time to take care of our own needs. The first idea that might be helpful is to consider the vast amount of energy that is used blaming oneself for not being able to “do it all” perfectly and the effects of negative self-talk such as “I should have done this” or “why didn’t I do it that way?” Valuable life energy that may be used to care for oneself and thus make women more able to handle life’s ups and downs can be wasted by burdening oneself with guilt and blame. These powerful thoughts of never living up to one’s own expectations and those of others can lead to both exhaustion and unpleasant physical manifestations.

Letting go of expectations of perfection is the first step in making a commitment to change in this area. The first question to ask oneself might be, “Can I do anything to change the situations in my life that create the most amount of stress?” Upon close examination, there is usually a way to let go of some of the “have-to’s” and focus on breaking up large tasks into smaller ones so that they are more manageable.

Doing for others without taking care of your own needs can create a great deal of resentment as well. When women connect more closely to their own needs first and practice self-acceptance, the result is relaxation in the body and greater peace of mind. So how does one accomplish this?

Making a list of tasks for the week that are critical and those that can wait for another time may be very helpful. It gives women a chance to reevaluate priorities. Secondly, it is often useful to break larger tasks into smaller pieces to give one a greater sense of accomplishment. Additionally, asking for help such as reaching out to other family members to assist with childcare or shopping, for example, can help relieve some of the burden. Reciprocal sharing of tasks with friends can also help. Our to-do lists can make folks frenetic. Staying in the moment and not ruminating about future events can go a long way in stress reduction.

Most importantly, women must create some time each week to have fun, connect with friends and/or participate in a hobby, exercise, or creative endeavor. There are many relaxation techniques that are also useful including deep breathing, meditation, yoga and dance. Local adult schools and recreation centers usually have classes in these areas at a reasonable cost. It is not only possible but probable that with these few adjustments our lives can be a great deal less stressful.