Counselors see Clinton as role model for other adult children of alcholics

July 21, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Bill Clinton's candor about his childhood with an alcoholic stepfather who was abusive toward his mother, widely publicized last week at the Democratic National Convention, may serve as an inspiration to other people who have alcoholic family members.

His reaction to a problem fraught with shame and denial is also healthy and refreshing, say counselors who work with alcoholics and their families.

And although no one calls growing up in an alcoholic family beneficial, such a trauma may have taught the Democratic presidential candidate coping skills that serve him well in governing and campaigning.

"He becomes a wonderful role model. He's saying 'This is my life; I have survived; it's workable,' " says Hazel Kuchinsky, program director of inpatient and outpatient chemical dependency programs at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

"He isn't using it [his stepfather's alcoholism] as an excuse for anything," she adds. "It's positive when people are honest about their beginnings and the things they have had to deal with in life."

In recent interviews and in a biographical film shown before Mr. Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, both the candidate and his mother, Virginia Kelley, have spoken openly of the elder Clinton's alcoholism and resulting abuse.

"Roger Clinton was an alcoholic," says Mrs. Kelley in the film. Both, however, have called the late Mr. Clinton "a good man," despite his drinking problems.

This understanding shows healing, says Trish Gaffney, clinical director of the recovery programs at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. It separates the person from his behavior and shows compassion for him.

And because of this, Mr. Clinton may be an inspiration to other adult children of alcoholics. "A lot of their therapy is about instilling hope," says Ms. Gaffney, a social worker.

Bonni Goldberg, a Baltimore woman whose mother is an alcoholic, considers Mr. Clinton's stand "courageous. It's vital it be talked about," she says. The 32-year-old writer and educator has grappled with the realization of her mother's alcoholism for nearly a decade.

"It's very useful that we understand this situation is not specific to a socio-economic level or a certain morality or a certain segment of society," says Ms. Goldberg. "As the American public is exposed to the reality of this issue in every echelon it becomes more acceptable."

Ms. Goldberg says, however, that she hopes Mr. Clinton does not present his troubled childhood as something to "rise above," but rather as a situation a person needs to acknowledge, grieve over and heal from.

"The ease with which he talked about it . . . is refreshing," says Holly Best, a social worker and director of Baltimore's Family Recovery Center, a private program that works with dysfunctional families and the adult children of alcoholics. Many people deny alcoholism for "lots and lots of years," she adds.

In fact, Ms. Gaffney calls alcoholism "an illness of denial." And honesty is an antidote: "When there is honesty around the family, the children seem to fare better. It's the denial and lack of honesty in alcoholism that creates the biggest problem in families."

Alcoholism is known to produce predictable roles among children of alcoholics. As the older son, Mr. Clinton is likely to have become the child who cares for others, often acts older than his years.

These people are often overachievers and can make great leaders, says Ms. Gaffney. In an interview last week, Mr. Clinton was asked about a Time magazine profile that showed "a puppy like eagerness to please," which grew out of his troubled childhood.

The candidate did not deny the characterization. "People who grow up in alcoholic homes sometimes overdevelop their skills of reconciliation and peacemaking and accommodation," he said in an interview with PBS/NBC. "I wouldn't say so much an eagerness to please as an eagerness to work out problems."

Children of alcoholics also often find crises "very easy to handle," says Ms. Best. Living in an unpredictable home most likely gave Mr. Clinton survival skills that could serve him well as a presidential candidate. "He's not going to get rattled."

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