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Atwater: Alcoholism hard to understand from the outside

Published: Friday, June 20, 2014 4:14 p.m. CST

I know alcoholism is hard to understand. Most people are normal drinkers. They don’t think about drinking all the time.

They’re not obsessed. They don’t worry about being discovered or remembering where they stashed a bottle of vodka or wine. Drinking is not their hobby/lover.

They don’t feel defensive about how much they drink because they just don’t think about it, and they usually haven’t felt the need to quit to prove to themselves or somebody else they can.

They usually don’t drink to avoid or forget painful things, and their families don’t pray fervently for them to get a DUI so they’ll finally get some help.

But some people have just crossed the line. They’re “off switch” is broken, and although it can be an intermittent switch problem, the intermittent switch problem inevitably becomes stuck in the on position.

The people around the person tend to hope the switch fixes itself or magically gets better. They focus on the times the light comes on normally rather than the increasing percentage of the time it flickers or doesn’t work at all.

“Dana” had her wild times in college, but when she met “Bob” and settled down, the wild times came to an end for her. Not for Bob. Dana kept thinking he would settle down like she did, but it just wasn’t happening.

Looking back, she would tell you she pulled some pretty crazy stunts to get him to quit drinking and pay more attention to her. Sometimes she played sick so he wouldn’t go out with his friends on Friday nights. But he only resented her for it, saw through the manipulation and went out anyway. She started to use the kids against him, over-protecting them and subtly turning them against him. He pulled away further and blamed her.

Because she did the grocery shopping and bought the “known about” liquor, she would purposefully buy brands he didn’t like hoping he would discard them. He only got angry and ended up buying his own plus a little extra so he wouldn’t have to go to the store that often.

She screamed, she begged, she tried logic, she even tried drinking with him for a while thinking at least they would have that in common, but nothing seemed to work on him.

The problem was that Bob had alcoholism. He was a guy with a busted switch, and no amount of logic, pleading or manipulation would change that. The only real path was for Dana was to learn about and accept his alcoholism and to begin to get better herself. She eventually went to an addictions counselor who suggested she also try Al Anon. Dana did get better, and so, eventually, did Bob.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email at

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