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FAMILY LIFE

Trickle-Down Policy Applies to Children of Drinking Familes

February 08, 1990|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actress Drew Barrymore's story of pre-teen drugs and alcohol abuse, along with her latest attempt at recovery, has been well-documented.

What isn't discussed is a family history that most probably destined her for this particularly ugly fate--a father and an aunt who made headlines themselves before their untimely deaths from abuse, and a grandfather, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, who died the same way.

The grandfather, John Barrymore, became a pitiful parody of himself in order to make a living before his liver gave out. Even his old friend, W. C. Fields, a notorious tippler and himself finally a victim of booze, refused to be around Barrymore because he said he couldn't tolerate slobbering drunks.

This is a family tree densely populated with enormously talented and very sick--even self-destructive--people.

Now before you start tsk-tsking over the fate of the Barrymores, you had best understand that their family tree doesn't stand alone. It's just one in a forest representing about 20% of all American families with long histories of alcoholism.

And studies show that one in three children of alcoholics--maybe more--will develop the same problem, with today's generation likely to couple it with drugs.

Scary stuff, indeed.

One would assume that little Miss Barrymore was not raised in dreadful ignorance, that she knew the family history and, consequently, would have been loathe to ever touch a drop.

Unfortunately, it doesn't automatically work that way.

"Children of alcoholics tend to fall into two approximately equal categories," says psychiatrist Edward Kaufman, chief of UC Irvine's Chemical Service, co-editor of the Encyclopedic Handbook of Alcoholism, and one of the nation's recognized experts on the problem.

"Those in one category practice abstinence while those in the other become alcoholics. There is a very narrow window of opportunity for them to ever drink moderately," he explained.

Kaufman points out that even those who reject the idea of alcoholism being a disease--who blame environment rather than genes--recognize that it does run in families.

So, the logical question is: How do we prevent this marked group of kids from jumping off the wagon before they have ever really had a chance to hop aboard it?

"First, it is important very early on that they are made aware of the problem," Kaufman says. "It's important that they know the facts and that they understand it's best that they at least attempt to live a life of abstinence.

"And the parents must exercise what control they can by saying, 'Look, as long as you're living in my house with my rules, there will be no drinking. After that, it's your choice, but if you do choose to drink and you find it even slightly out of control, you'd better understand that in 5 or 10 or 15 years, you're going to be just like Grandpa.' "

Of course, he says, "you also must have a loving, communicative relationship with your kids or they're not going to listen to you anyway. As a matter of fact, they might do just the opposite."

On the disease-environment debate, Kaufman says he tends to lean toward the latter, both as a cause and as a cure.

"There is no question environment can make the problem worse," he says, "so you have to believe that environment can also make it better."

"Regardless, it all goes back to a closeness of the family. Kids need the support of the family. and they also need a religious upbringing and a tight structure with certain freedoms.

"We find significantly less abuse in what we call 'intact' families, families in which there is a close association between parents and siblings . . . where kids listen to their parents," he continued.

Some people in the field believe that the children of recovering alcoholics have a better chance of avoiding the problem than those whose parents continue to drink.

One such believer is Jack Platt, coordinator of clinical services for the substance-abuse program at Capistrano by the Sea Hospital in Dana Point.

"One great advantage they have is that the subject is in the open; it has to be because the recovery process itself demands a recognition of the problem and the significant role the family plays in it," he says.

Living with a recovering alcoholic generally means a first-hand knowledge of both horror of the malady and the miracle of successfully fighting it, he explained. "You won't, for instance, find any of the general public misconceptions about Alcoholics Anonymous in such a family. If, God forbid, the kids wind up with the problem themselves, they know where they can go for help."

Kaufman would agree to a point. If the family has achieved the closeness and communication level he sees so vital to breaking the chain of alcoholism, he says that it might indeed have an advantage.

Otherwise, as with the core problem itself, there is no magic wand.

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