Do We Volunteer For Abuse? It is all too common to hear counselors say to partners of alcoholics, “if you stay with him, you are volunteering for abuse”.
a.) When I was new in family recovery (around 44 years ago), a woman passed me a note at a family-recovery meeting. I had just shared with the group about the abuse I was a victim of and her note said to me, “whenever I am troubled, the trouble lies within.”
I looked at her like she was crazy.
I just figured she had no idea what I was talking about.
I was feisty enough that I knew that NO ONE was going to shut me up – or shame me into leaving the rooms of recovery…shame me by implying that I was to blame for being abused (by telling me “I allowed it”).
b.) What was really going on? Was that woman wrong? Was I wrong?
Neither was “wrong” in a sense. But she was “wrong-er” than I was.
WHY WAS SHE “WRONG-ER” THAN I WAS?
Because, technically speaking, whenever I am troubled, I must look within. And these days, of course I do. It is second nature to do so.
But in those early days of family recovery, whenever I looked within, all I saw was that I was in a situation that I could not emotionally leave. All I had was an alcoholic in my life who actually told me that he enjoyed hurting me …and I could not leave.
What very practical help did help me?
What helped me were the people who ONLY said, “I understand,” “I’ve been there,” “You’ll find your way to deal with it”, “We are here for you”, “of course you love him”, “When and if you want to leave, you will”, “You’re not trapped…you only think you are, but you are not trapped” “You are a child of God and He will show you what you need to do.”
All these statements said to me is that “it’s ok where you are.” NONE of these statements told me, or implied to me that somehow I was to blame for the abuse I subject myself to.
There is an implication when we tell the family member that “whenever you are troubled, the trouble lies within”.
The woman living with an abuser hears this and it sounds like the abuser talking to her once again.
And she is RIGHT. It is abusive to say this to her…
BECAUSE WHEN WE SAY THINGS TO PEOPLE, WE ALWAYS SAY THEM WITHIN CONTEXT.
When I tell a newcomer to family recovery that “your trouble originates from within”, I shame her… she will mumble to me, “You’re right”…she will slink away… she will not return for help… Oh, some will stay in recovery when this is said to them – but MOST will just not return.
I train counselors around the country.
Over and over, they ask me, “How can I keep families coming back for help? They leave after a session or two.”
I ask them, “What do you say to them in the first session?”
The ones who ask me why the families leave treatment, always tell me that they say to the counseling client who lives with an alcoholic, “Why do you stay?” or “he has not victimized you… you do this to yourself”.
The counselors then ask me, “what do YOU say?”
What I say to my clients is what is in my books……. I say that “I totally understand that they are being treated horribly and that they will find a way to deal with it.
I tell them they are “NOT CRAZY” when they tell me how much they are being abused and how he lies about it and how no one understands or believes them.
I tell them that no one has the right to shame them — even unknowingly or subtly– for staying with him and that of course, she loves him.
I put no pressure on her at all, not even any implied pressure —which tells her she must make changes that she is not at all able or wanting to make… it is this total acceptance of where she is at right now that helps her to move forward into whatever place she will feel more peace.
And the biggest thing I watch out for is shaming her.
Anytime I tell a newcomer that the onus of her feeling bad is on her instead of on the abuser who abuses her, I am shaming her.
Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who was internationally famous after World War II, wrote about the Jewish people in concentration camps and wrote about the newspapers that continually asked, “Why didn’t they just emigrate out of Germany?” “Why didn’t they fight back?”…and ended up with the implication that “no wonder it happened to them… they could have done something about it and they did not.”
Frankl coined the phrase, back then, “blaming the victim”.
Yes, there are victims.
In fact, I think there is an analogy between how Germany acclimated Jews to acceptance of what happened and what happens to families of alcoholics.
How so? Well, it is a slow process…and it is a “back and forth” process.
The Germans put out new codes, new laws, one at a time that herded Jewish people into ghettos stopping them from going to school, earning a living etc. . . .
But how they did it was sublime. They would put out a new code of expected behavior, the Jewish people would get angry, then, the German government would say that “it’s all ok…it’ll all blow over eventually… it’s for your own good… look, it’s not so bad… we do care about you… try looking at it this way…etc…and it made it seem “livable”… it calmed scared nerves down.
It made people think it would all be ok, someday…and that living there was still not so bad.
Living with an alcoholic – The process of becoming acclimated to abuse – is so similar.
The disease of alcoholism is progressive.
When we start out with someone who is in the earlier stages…he is nice a lot… he is nice for five days out of seven.
The disease of alcoholism creeps forward usually slowly. We see so much good in him. He is sweet. He makes tons of promises. He tells us how very special we are. He is so wonderful when he is nice, that he is more wonderful than anyone else could ever be, we think.
Slowly, but surely, it turns sour.
…but it is punctuated by niceness, once again, over and over, the awfulness and then the beautiful sweetness, awfulness, then repentance and tears, promises for a good future…then, bam, again…and nice again…and bam, again…
Yes, we ARE victims of this terrible being-acclimated-to-abuse process of this terrible disease.
This disease of alcoholism is, as the A.A. Big Book says, “CUNNING, BAFFLING, AND POWERFUL”.
How could anyone really know what is going on??!!.
For goodness sake, the family doesn’t know…the alcoholic doesn’t know…even the trained therapists still have a hard time understanding this ‘cunning, baffling, and powerful’ disease.
And once you are in family recovery, you don’t just “wake up” and “understand” and “not act like a victim anymore”.
The CUNNING-NESS of this disease…the BAFFLING-NESS of this disease continues.
And just because you intellectually know better, does NOT mean you don’t love him anymore, does not mean you are not any more caught up in the process of victimization…
But, it does not help you .In fact, it hurts you if I tell you that no one can victimize you but yourself.
Only if I tell you that I know that you are being victimized —from my compassionate place, you will know that my heart really goes out to you and that I am WITH you…and that I understand you…and that I understand that this cunning and baffling and powerful disease has done this to you and to the alcoholic…and that of course you were not aware of it.
THAT will help you to recover much faster than if I tell you “you are not a victim…. you are doing this to yourself.”
Toby Rice Drews is the author of the million-selling “Getting Them Sober’’ book series, endorsed by ‘dear Abby’, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and Melody Beattie (author of ‘Codependent No More’). Toby trains counselors throughout the U.S. and Canada, and offers telephone consultations with families of alcoholics. Her books are available on her website http://www.GettingThemSober.com. They are also available on Kindle, The Nook, Amazon and in bookstores nationwide.