The first step is admitting it: Carolyn Hax’s blind spot?

You might know that I am into advice columns. One strange thing that I have noticed in my decades of obsessive reading is that Carolyn Hax is reluctant to ever acknowledge alcoholism as the root problem in any given situation.

This is in contrast with, say, Prudence, who is totally flip about lots of other things, but takes drinking very seriously (except for a weird recent aberration, where she insisted that a man hiding his drinking from his wife couldn’t be an alcoholic, because of his stature).

In general, Carolyn resists putting things into neat little boxes. She avoids using any particular category or label as a crutch for making sense of a situation. See: yesterday’s fantastic column about keeping love at arm’s length by assuming that all men can be expected to act a certain way.

She is big on treating each person as an individual, each situation as unique. In her live chat, she resists answering questions at all until she feels she has enough context. I think this is part of what makes her an excellent columnist. But today, man, I think she really missed the point. This column is not about “martyr syndrome” (or at least, that’s just one manifestation of what’s really going on). It is about alcoholism and alcoholic families.

I’ve poured a lot of energy in the last few years into trying to come to terms with my family’s own long-unacknowledged, complicated history with alcohol. (Actually, it’s not really that complicated. It’s pretty straightforward: my family is chock-a-block with highly functional alcoholics, as well as some not so highly functional, who for generations got by and even seemed to thrive, in total denial. Along with their families. Now, we’re all paying the piper. Which is a good thing, I mean, better than not paying and dooming our children to be charmed away, so to speak.) I don’t mean to project my own situation on this column. But the letter is just screaming with it. This line:

This is a normal dynamic for this family — nobody ever speaks the truth about what they need and want.

is like the single defining characteristic of an alcoholic family, and something I’ve been struggling to figure out as my parents get older, my grandparents decline, the economy roils, and I watch from 300 miles away. How can I help? How can I participate in my own family? Am I needed for any of this? Or should we all just keep soldiering on in isolation?

And this:

My mother-in-law, who is taking care of him and trying to make his apartment habitable (apparently it is disgusting), is adamant that my husband not go help. She’s taking all the burden on herself and doesn’t even want her husband to know how much she is doing for her son.

is basically the definition of co-dependency.

And the brother-in-law in the letter is dying of cirrhosis? Hello?

The commenters seem bewildered: “Why the secrecy and hiding?” “The dynamic is weird, but…”

This dynamic isn’t weird. It is textbook. Generally I respect the fact that Carolyn avoids labels, and tries not to do a lot of armchair diagnosis. But come on. It feels like she’s ignoring the real problem just as much as this family is.


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