Can you hear what the neighbors are saying? "If he didn't drink so much, he wouldn't get so out of control and beat up his wife ..." "If she didn't drink so much, he wouldn't get so angry and hit her ..."
We have a lot of ideas about the role substance abuse, particularly alcohol, plays in the crime of domestic violence. Substance abuse and domestic violence seem to be inextricably linked. While the two occur in high correlation with each other, alcohol as a causal factor in domestic violence is more myth than fact, according to Annette Coggins, executive director of AWARE.
"Many people think alcohol causes domestic violence, but in reality, many perpetrators of domestic violence do not drink heavily, and many alcoholics do not beat their partners," Coggins said. "Substance abuse will not cause someone to batter their partner, but it often makes the violence worse."
Still, alcohol and other intoxicating substances are popular scapegoats.
"Alcohol and other drugs can cause people with violent tendencies to become more violent, and it is often used as an excuse to behave violently," said Pam Stigall, a former substance abuse counselor for the Women Empowered Safe and Sober program offered through AWARE and Juneau Recovery Hospital.
No matter what substances may be involved, domestic violence is still the result of one person choosing to use tactics of force and fear against another.
For victims of domestic violence, alcohol and drugs are often used to dull the pain of their injuries and emotional abuse, which in turn compromises their ability to defend themselves against further attack. The victim then suffers from the ills of addiction in addition to domestic violence. The substance abuse paralyzes the victim's ability to function well and to make healthy decisions.
Batterers know that alcohol and drugs disable their partners, and often use it as another tool of power and control. A survivor of domestic violence described how alcohol was used in her victimization: "He started forcing me to drink with him. If we went out and I only wanted two beers, he wouldn't just let me walk away. He would say, 'No, you have to help me finish this. This is good beer, we're not going to waste money.' "
But not all survivors of domestic violence turn to substance abuse.
"I don't think victimization makes you an alcoholic," Stigall said. "It has more to do with your coping mechanisms. It's more a way to numb the pain, and if you have no other coping mechanism that's what you do."
Many perpetrators suffer from alcohol or drug addiction as well, and substance abuse treatment is often seen as the solution to end the domestic violence. But this only addresses half the problem, according to Stigall.
"A person who is addicted and is violent needs both batterers' intervention and drug and alcohol treatment, because if you put someone through drug and alcohol treatment without the batterers' treatment, what you get is someone who is a better shot," she said.
They might not abuse substances anymore, but the belief systems and values that support domestic violence are still there.
Each of us probably crosses paths with a survivor of domestic violence every day, without ever knowing it. Of all the ways in which survivors are judged, they are perhaps most harshly condemned by society for using drugs and alcohol. Clearly, substance abuse offers nothing to solve the problem of domestic violence, but extricating oneself from the pattern of abuse is no easy task. Survivors of domestic violence need support and encouragement to find safety, and in many cases, gain sobriety.
Help is available through AWARE, the Juneau Recovery Hospital, and many other substance abuse programs in Southeast Alaska. For more information, call AWARE at 586-1090.
KTOO-TV will air a special program on domestic violence, "Breaking the Silence, Journeys of Hope," at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20. Also, the station's "Alaska Week" program will look at the subject of domestic violence in Alaska at 9 p.m., Friday, Nov. 23.
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