‘Consultations with young men migrating from alcohol’s regime’

by Lorraine Smith & John Winslade

 

This article was first published in “New perspectives on ‘addiction’,” special issue of Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1997 nos. 2&3, pp. 16–34.

When people who face problems related to their alcohol use seek help, they frequently encounter a language of personal deficit. Familiar terminology in the area of alcohol counselling often ascribes personal deficits immediately, both to those who are seeking to escape the domination of alcohol and also to those who have difficulty in making this escape. However, alternatives to deficit-focussed interpretations become available once the problems associated with alcohol are located in our wider social context. In this paper, we focus on the place of alcohol in the social world of young men and propose that social norms, conventions and practices associated with alcohol are influential in constituting significant aspects of young men’s identity. From a narrative therapy perspective, we propose a ‘migration of identity’ metaphor with which to assist young men to investigate, challenge and disrupt dominant gender specifications and cultural practices that support alcohol lifestyles3. We also illustrate the use of this metaphor with three young men who are engaged in a project of this kind.

Alcohol and discourse

In any field of knowledge or professional practice, certain stories develop and come to hold sway for a time through building themselves into the accepted ways of speaking in that field. The current bodies of knowledge in the field of counselling people beset with the problems of alcohol4 are a case in point. There is a vocabulary associated with this field of work which features a particular range of expressions including: alcoholism, addiction, dependency, diagnosis, assessment, treatment, relapse, recovery, tolerance. There are, moreover, recurrent patterns in the grammar of sentences and in the grammar of social interactions which deploy such terms. Listen in on any conversation between counsellors working in this field and you will likely hear a familiar, consistent vocabulary and way of speaking being deployed, regardless of where in the world you are.

It is not our concern to establish the wrongness of any specific aspects of this discourse, or to deny the usefulness of much work done by exponents of this familiar language. We are, however, concerned about the baggage that comes with any discourse.5 We think it is important for any professional field to engage in reflexive examination of the kinds of relations established through its dominant linguistic practices. Therefore we are interested to notice some of the relational positions (Davies & Harre 1990) established by the usual practices of counselling people struggling with alcohol problems in the familiar ways of talking.

Typically what we see provoked by the discourse of ‘treatment’ of alcohol problems is the kind of thinking which features individual personality deficits or moral failures like lack of will-power or commitment on the one hand and chemical and biological strictures on the other hand. These are the familiar explanations for the difficulties people face in developing a more distant association with alcohol or in separating themselves entirely from its embrace. They position persons experiencing difficulties with alcohol in such deficit terms (Gergen 1994) and imply for the professional person a position of superiority by virtue of the absence of such deficit conditions. The grammar of the relationship is established as, ‘You are alcoholic, I am not’. Relations established from these positions are therefore likely to be imbued with a power that legitimates the position of the therapist over the client and requires from the client acts of submission (such as ‘admitting’ that they are ‘alcoholic’). An easy consequence of this power relation is that a client’s perspective on his or her experience can easily be discounted and not listened to by using disqualifying descriptions like, ‘S/he’s in denial’.

These familiar ways of speaking about the ‘problems of alcohol’ foster both lay and professional understandings of these problems. However, the very familiarity of this language makes it hard to see the work it does under our very noses in the production and reproduction of the problems of alcohol (Winslade & Smith 1997). Although the social contexts in which people learn their knowledge of drinking, the social interactions that surround and support risky drinking practices and the functions and purposes served by alcohol consumption within gender, race and class relations are sometimes thought of as relevant to health promotion work, they are seldom considered relevant to the counselling process.

It is our intention in this paper to think about therapeutic practice in a way that gives more prominence to the relations within which alcohol use becomes problematic. Our belief is that making changes in our relationship with alcohol means challenging or disrupting the taken-for-granted assumptions, beliefs and practices that are woven into the fabric of living. Therefore, counselling practice can benefit from incorporating a detailed personal investigation into the social norms and conventions and longstanding cultural practices which are intricately woven into ‘normal’ day-to-day lifestyles.

The social constructionist perspective (Gergen 1985, 1994; Shorter 1993) suggests that counselling interviews can be thought of as significant sites for either the production of discourse or its reproduction (Fairclough 1992). At critical moments in our lives, we often seek to engage in a reflexive examination of the problematic aspects of our experience. It is at such tunes that we sometimes consult therapists. Through such reflexive processes, new forms of discourse are produced. While there may be other professional processes (e.g. medical treatments) that focus on the chemical and biological aspects of alcohol problems, counselling can quite legitimately focus primarily on the discursive world in which people construct their relationship with alcohol. In the process it is possible for the opening of space for new forms of relationship with the chemical and for discursive shifts to take root.

But we should not underestimate the difficulty of this task and the restraints that operate upon it. The discourse of alcoholism has stressed chemical and biological restraints, through the emphasis on ‘addiction’. We would like to refer here to some of the restraints that exist in the discursive aspects of identity formation and social practice, particularly those which help to constitute alcohol problems in young men.

Alcohol and gendered identities

The stories of masculinity that young men encounter offer them ready-made identity templates to absorb and ways of being and relating to take up. These commonly involve particular drinking practices and ways of being in relation to alcohol. Examples are: drinking after work, reciprocal rituals for buying drinks, drinking toasts, competitive drinking games, after-match drinking, stag parties, etc. These practices are supported by common expressions that are quoted to persuade young men to join in drinking rituals. Examples are: ‘One for the road’, ‘A real man holds his beer’, ‘He’s a man’s man’, ‘Have one for the ditch’, ‘He drinks like a girl’, ‘Don’t be a wuss! What are ya? A lady’s blouse!’ ‘He can’t handle his piss’, ‘Get it down you!’, ‘Your shout’, etc. Such expressions are not owned or invented by any individual. They are repeated like mantras on specific social occasions. Nor are they produced by manipulative brewery advertising, which is not to say that advertisers miss opportunities to capitalise on them. Such discourse supports heavy and rapid drinking as a cultural norm and promotes delusions of invincibility represented by the use of phrases like, ‘six-foot tall and bullet-proof’. Discourse also links drinking to desirable experiences of camaraderie, good times, group cohesion, male bonding.

In this paper we intend to focus on the place of alcohol in the social world of several young men and to honour their struggle to make significant changes in their relationship with alcohol. Our belief is that alcohol plays a substantial role in conferring acceptance and belonging in certain groups of young men and often plays a major role in the negotiation of rites of passage into adulthood in the modern world. In this way, alcohol use becomes, for many men, closely entwined with the publicly available versions of masculine identity and the socially conferred status of manhood (Paton-Simpson 1995; Postman et al. 1987). It should come as no surprise then to find intimate links between drinking alcohol and both the internalised sense of ‘self’ that many men experience and the kind of relations they participate in.

Making changes in his relationship with alcohol may place enormous pressure on a man’s sense of personal identity and may significantly reduce, or destroy his social acceptance and sense of belonging to a community. For example, Paton-Simpson (1995) has argued that reactions to light drinkers or abstainers are crucial factors in abnormalising non-drinking or light drinking styles. His research showed that:

Abstaining and lighter drinking men have often been viewed with surprise, suspicion and interest … More seriously, they have sometimes been on the receiving end of negative comments concerning matters such as their masculinity, sociability, and willingness to have ‘fun’. In extreme cases they have been physically manhandled and assaulted, (p. 103)

From a therapeutic perspective, this argument invites counsellors to consider alternative readings of the difficulties some men experience in their efforts to escape from ‘alcohol lifestyles’. Instead of reading such difficulties as originating in characterological deficits or biological imperatives, we might, in counselling, explore fully (i.e. deconstruct6, White 1992) the impact of discourses that specify alcohol consumption as definitive of adulthood and masculinity. We might explore how making changes in relation to alcohol may mean dramatically changing lifestyle habits that are closely identified with a person’s sense of identity, with others’ perceptions of him, and with his sense of belonging to communities of work colleagues, sporting associates and social acquaintances.

Such an emphasis leads us as counsellors away from a reliance on expert knowledge about the nature (biologically) of alcoholic ‘syndromes’ and towards a need to learn from each client about the precise details of the relationship between alcohol and this person’s social world. It inspires a joint researching, in collaboration with the client, of the relational field in which drinking norms are produced and reproduced. Such exploration is not easy, since the prescriptions of alcohol are often implicit and unspoken and their unearthing requires the development of an ear for what gets taken-for-granted and overlooked in the normal run of conversation. However, when we can engage clients in such an inquiry, an unmasking occurs of the beliefs and assumptions that have recruited young men into alcohol’s service, enslaved them and prevented their escape.

As such a conversation begins to make visible what has been hidden in a discourse, a space opens up for an evaluation of these notions and of their influence in a man’s life. He can make a judgment about the extent to which alcohol’s ways work well for him and the extent to which they work against him. In other words, the deconstructive inquiry clears a space for reflexive thinking. As a person takes up a position in this space with regard to the normalising discourse, he begins to become agentive in the social conditions of his own life. These can be the first steps in the development of a new story which features not just changed patterns of drinking behaviour, but also the crafting of a different relationship both to alcohol and to the cultural discourses (such as those which specify masculine identities) which support ‘alcohol lifestyles’. This process may be experienced by some men as actually claiming their lives back from being storied by alcohol and generating for themselves new descriptions and understandings of self, relationship and community.

Identity migrations

In another therapeutic subgenre7, that of counselling women who are separating themselves from abusive relationships, Michael White (1995, p.99) has spoken about this process of re-authoring with reference to the metaphor of a migration of identity. He states that if women come to ‘appreciate the extent to which this project engages them in a migration of identity, and if they come to understand the processes involved in such migrations, then it becomes possible to see this project through’. He then shows how the use of this concept can be developed by mapping and graphing the migration journey, and he reports that women have found this helpful when they encounter despair and confusion or desire to return to an abusive relationship. These experiences can be interpreted within the context of the migration journey and therefore seem less of a threat to the re-authoring process.

We find this metaphor a pleasing alternative to other candidates and have found it useful in counselling people struggling to separate themselves from an abusive relationship with alcohol. Any metaphor brings with it baggage in the form of the connotations that it carries. What strikes us in this case is that the metaphor of migration focuses attention on the social processes of shifting from one territory to another. It is a spatial metaphor which suggests moments of departure and arrival, the setting-off out of the familiar and routine world into the unknown, the trials to be faced and improvisations needed in any journey, the hopeful focus on what may lie on the horizon, the passing of milestones along the way, and the choices involved in selecting a resting place or a new stopping-point.

It also suggests the grief of separation, the company of fellow travellers, and the disorientation and confusion that can accompany being a stranger in a new land. As well as the performative aspects of making a journey, there are also the inner experiences that go with the journeying, the moments of reflection when we feel encouraged and full of enthusiasm or discouraged and tempted to turn back, or where we make sense of the episodes we encounter along the way.

Of course, in the land from which someone is seeking to emigrate, we can refer to the colonising influence of alcohol. We can also notice how in any process of migration a person carries with them their cultural training and must go through a process of learning the new culture of the new land. To an extent, the immigrant must become a bicultural person and may need to consult at times with a local informant, a travel agent or an immigration consultant. The latter roles may at times be fulfilled by a counsellor or by other people in a person’s life. Maps, of course, can be of great use to any traveller, as can other documents or stories produced by those who have made a similar journey on previous occasions.

There are limits to any analogy and we want to make it clear that we are not proposing a ‘theory’ of alcohol counselling based on this analogy. Rather, we are seeking to investigate the possibilities of a metaphor without hoping to discover any essential truth in it. We do prefer, however, the connotative baggage that accompanies the migration metaphor to that which might accompany metaphors referring to physical or mechanical processes (like resistance, repression, defence mechanisms, the release of pressure built up in steam chambers and the like) or biological processes (such as metamorphosis, transformation, stages of development, organismic regulation, evolutionary functionality, etc.). The migration metaphor renders much more visible the social construction of our experience of reality rather than just the physical and biological imperatives of our existence.

In the following sections, we shall illustrate the embodiment of this metaphor in practice. To do so, we shall refer to the therapeutic story of Patrick and include for corroboration further examples from similar stories from Sean and Jason. For the purposes of explanation, we have divided the following therapeutic examples into five ‘themes’ that seem to have some common relevance in these young men’s migrations of identity:

• Deconstructing alcohol’s place in one’s relations with others.

• Deconstructing the identity claims of alcohol.

• Renegotiating the place of alcohol in one’s life.

• Renegotiating one’s relationship with one’s own experience once free from alcohol’s domination.

• Renegotiating one’s relations with others.

It is important to note that we do not see these themes as ‘categories’, as separate or distinct aspects of either therapeutic conversations or of lived experience. They all inter-relate and, as stories unfold, as alcohol’s supports and effects are unmasked and as new ways of being are generated, they continuously feed back into each other as a reflexive loop. It is also not our intention to imply that these ‘themes’ are universal or follow each other in any correct sequential way. They are not stages of the counselling process.

Patrick’s story – an overview

Patrick, aged 23, initially consulted me (Lorraine) in late 1995, after being released from jail, and shortly after the death of his 25-year-old brother. His brother had lost control of the car he was driving while drunk. I remember this interview as very sad and painful as Patrick, raw with shock and grief, struggled to contain his emotions and tallied up the toll alcohol had required from him and from his family – a formidable list culminating in the loss of his brother’s life. In the following sections, we shall refer to selected aspects of Patrick’s journey, which is still in progress, from ‘the domain of alcohol’ to a life living outside this dominion.

The metaphor of ‘the domain of alcohol’ is used in this context to describe a lifestyle in which alcohol, and alcohol intoxication, was fully a part of general family and social life for as long as Patrick could remember. It is a metaphor representing a lifestyle in which alcohol is a taken-for-granted and unquestioned part of normal, everyday life. As he described it: ‘Well, it’s hard to think about when I first started drinking … you know … everybody does … you know … you just … you know … grow into it’.

Patrick gave a lengthy and substantial account of the personal costs to him of living under the dominion of alcohol. This list included nine criminal convictions over a period of eight years, all related to ‘excess blood alcohol’ charges or driving without a licence; holding a driver’s licence for two weeks in eight years; being constantly in and out of jail; and numerous other effects including loss of money, opportunities, vehicles, jobs, friendships and relationships. All this resulted in low self-esteem and feeling like, ‘I’ve got no future’.

I met with Patrick again almost a year later. In the interim, he had been working in the South Island8 in a shearing gang. He explained to me that he had got this job shortly after our first meeting and had gone away wanting to make a fresh start. At this time he was facing legal and relationship problems and was struggling against suicidal thoughts. In the midst of this struggle, he began to evaluate his relationship with himself and with other people and to scrutinise the influence of alcohol in constituting these relationships.

Over the following months, we tracked the influence of alcohol in his life. He began to identify alcohol as not only operating in the realm of intoxication, drunken behaviour and their consequences, but also as significantly limiting the options available to him in other areas of his life. Patrick appreciated and valued much about life in the domain of alcohol: ‘I’ve always been just a party person – you know, just on the piss and never give a care for anything, just easy-going you know’.

As he weighed up making a fresh start, such a move was difficult to even contemplate and was initially evaluated as making a sacrifice. However, in the year following his brother’s death, alcohol provided more than just the facilitation of ‘good times’: ‘Alcohol helped me survive, you know – it cheered me up and made me worry free for a while … a way of survival so people didn’t see the real depression I was in’.

For a year Patrick tried to numb the pain and hide his despair from himself and others, clocking up yet another driving-without-a-licence conviction, losing an important relationship, and continuously struggling to resist the invitations of suicide. However, during this time, he had noticed that alcohol no longer fully delivered its ‘feel good – be happy’ promise: ‘It’s only for a while, only while you’re drinking … like it takes away your headaches for a while, but really your problems are still there, it doesn’t make them go away … it just like pushes them under the carpet’.

He even came to recognise that alcohol was becoming associated more and more often with suicidal thoughts. Such knowledge about the ways of alcohol, generated by Patrick from his own substantial experience, was used to help him ‘turn the corner … and follow the light at the end of the tunnel and begin his escape from the domain of alcohol’.

Rather than viewing Patrick’s stand against alcohol as being due to ‘hitting rock bottom’, I understood it as being proof of the incomplete nature of alcohol’s domination. In spite of much evidence to the contrary, alcohol had not succeeded in completely blinding him to the possibility that life could be different. It had not succeeded in completely eroding his belief that he was entitled to something better than what an alcohol lifestyle provided him with. We viewed it as proof that, rather than being weak, he had withstood a year of torment and pressure, and over this time had gathered information about alcohol that would assist him to negotiate his escape. This information gradually freed him to discover alternative ways to grieve for his brother and to relate to others – ways that were not available to him in alcohol’s domain.

Patrick had also had the experience of living free from alcohol while in jail. Although his imprisonment had been attributable partially to alcohol’s influence, this experience also provided him with some important information: ‘Well, you know I didn’t miss it, you know, not being able to get it. Well I didn’t even want it and I didn’t need it … felt good actually … I felt fit and healthy’.

For Patrick, changing what he described as his attitude was just as relevant as changing his relationship with alcohol and the possibility of turning back was not an attractive option, because:

it wouldn’t change anything … I just keep thinking of the light at the end of the tunnel and remembering why I want to keep going. Like, if I keep on without the drink, I’m gonna end up with a licence and a car and a real life.

He began to develop a new version of his own history, one that suggested a contrast between his current direction in life and how things used to be. This new perspective enabled him to challenge old ideas that previously had him believing that his experiences in alcohol’s domain were his natural inheritance:

You know I never really thought much of myself as I was drinking. You know, I just thought this is the way it’s gonna be and this is me and this is going to be me for the rest of my life.

As his investigation and weighing up of the effects of an ‘alcohol lifestyle’ continued, the implications of moving away from this lifestyle came to be seen as less of a sacrifice and more like reclaiming his right to a real life and a real future. Patrick’s own expertise in ‘the ways of alcohol’ enabled him to evaluate this lifestyle as ‘anti-life’ rather than as ‘the good life’, and as creating a small, dark hole of an existence:

I might as well just crawl into a shell, a bloody hole and just stay there you know, ’cause that’s what I’ll be if I carry on with the drink, you know, just blanking out all those problems. None of them are going to get solved with the drink, you know.

Patrick’s relationship with alcohol became progressively more distant as he unmasked the significant but at times covert and subtle ways alcohol had storied his experience of himself and others. As the migration process continues, his increasing sense of agency and different perspective highlights his old lifestyle as representative of a paucity of options of ways of being rather than as the result of ‘alcoholism’ or ‘addiction’. At the time of writing, he has come to value paying attention to life, to value being aware of feelings and emotions I never knew existed, rather than having them swept away by alcohol. In spite of ongoing problems and struggles with depression, he is continuing to resist invitations to return to alcohol’s domain.

In the following sections, we focus a little more closely on the themes of Patrick’s story mentioned above. We also refer to some knowledge about the ways of alcohol that we have learned from two other clients, Sean and Jason.

Deconstructing alcohol’s place in one’s social relations

In the course of our conversations, Patrick said a number of things about the relationship between the dominion of alcohol and dominant patterns of gender relations. As he spoke about the unquestioned prominence of alcohol in the lifestyle of his family, he also commented that his mother was ‘not really into alcohol’. In fact, she didn’t like it holding such a prominent place in her family’s lifestyle. However this objection had ‘made no difference to anything’ and had been seen by Patrick as silly, worrying, nagging and an unreal attitude. Although I didn’t pursue this at the time with him, I was struck by how his family’s life in ‘the domain of alcohol’ reflected and was supported by dominant cultural attitudes and practices that assigned the woman’s/wife’s/mother’s concerns, preferences and discomfort to the realm of ‘silliness’. In this way, the dominant cultural attitudes to women and mothers had worked, alongside alcohol, to blind Patrick to the possibility that his mother’s response signposted a valid, alternative route to the lifestyles of alcohol. Instead, gender discourses had supported him in viewing his mother’s attitude and practices as ‘unreal’ – as not representing any valid reality.

From a social constructionist standpoint, therapeutic conversations can render transparent the supportive relationship between dominant patterns of gender relations and an ‘alcohol lifestyle’. In this example I could have been curious about how it was that he and his family lived in this domain, in spite of his mother’s dislike of the lifestyle. Was this, in his experience, a common occurrence in his wider community? I could have asked him about what position he might guess his mother was placed in when her beliefs and concerns were either not heard or ignored. He could have been invited to speculate about what contributed to invalidating his mother’s beliefs and concerns and about the ways in which alcohol or alcohol intoxication contributed to this. I might have been curious about whether Patrick saw his mother’s concerns as any more ‘real’ now that she had lost a son forever to alcohol.

Patrick had also been subject to patterns of relationship with workmates that promoted an alcohol lifestyle. He explained to me how alcohol was a part of the after-work ‘winding down’ ritual every night in the shearing gang. Drinking would begin in the shearing shed, often with the farmer supplying the beer to ‘thank and keep on side with the boys and, you know, to make a good atmosphere’. In this context, Patrick described alcohol as not just providing a good atmosphere but also as marking the end of work time and the beginning of relaxation time. He could not imagine being part of the gang and not drinking heavily: ‘Nah, it’s not possible, you know, you’d … well, you ‘d be on the outside, you know, you’re all in this work together’.

So alcohol’s sphere of influence in this environment, from Patrick’s experience, appeared complete, providing no out. It served to secure his place as a member of the gang and provided, via this membership, support, belonging and camaraderie. Patrick is not the only one who has shown us the value of such reflexive thinking. Sean, in the process of evaluating and acclimatising to an alcohol-free lifestyle, also explained how alcohol had in the past convinced him that friendship and belonging were only obtainable via an alcohol lifestyle. As he reflected on his decision to totally separate himself from the domain of alcohol, Sean identified a crucial turning point. On one particular day, he stopped and looked at where his life was heading under alcohol’s leadership. He said:

One of the main reasons I want to stop now is because when I’m forty, I don’t want to be like I was when I was twenty … some guys out there who I know now … must be fifty, I s’pose, and acting like a sixteen-year-old, and like having a good time and yeah … wasting away … yeah, and if you keep on doing it you can end up thinking for the rest of your life that that’s what life’s about – like it’s the only way to have friends and any sort of social life … I can do it now. If I wait till I’m forty, I’d be too much into the alcohol by then, so if I stopped I’d be thinking more … negative. I reckon that I would have to separate from my friends and I probably wouldn’t find any more.

In Sean’s experience, alcohol was active in not only promoting ‘long-term adolescence’ but also in blinding those living an ‘alcohol lifestyle’ to any alternative ways of life. Locating this personal knowledge of the ways of alcohol provides opportunities to deconstruct beliefs and assumptions that alcohol relies on for its survival. For Sean, this knowledge was relevant in helping him to distance his own life from alcohol, to decide that ‘when I’m forty I don’t want to be like I was when I was twenty’ and to decide to challenge dominant understandings in alcohol’s domain that in the past asserted that alcohol lifestyles provided ‘the only way to have friends or any sort of social life’.

We believe that such topics of conversation which study the landscape in which alcohol lifestyles reside are important in the journey of migration. Making visible the social relations which alcohol is implicated in constructing provides the opportunity to both review (evaluate) and unravel (clarify, extricate) cultural practices that support ‘alcohol lifestyles’. This unmasking opens space from which persons can more widely view the influence of alcohol over their lives. It differs from the narrower evaluation which focuses only on the effects or consequences of ‘alcohol intoxication’. From this landscape overview, persons are able to generate new options for threading their way through, or resisting, dominant discourses that either directly or indirectly support ‘alcohol lifestyles’.

These sorts of conversations involved Patrick and Sean not just in a description of life circumstances but also in the establishment of a lookout platform from which to view the landscape of these experiences in a more reflexive way than they had in the past. The moments taken to establish such platforms were important steps in the journey they were making. If the platform for reflexive thinking was strong enough (storied fully) it was more likely that they would not be as easily made subject to alcohol’s dominant stories again.

Deconstructing the identity claims of alcohol

Discourses establish sets of relations which offer ready-made positions from which experience is built (Davies & Harre 1992; Drewery & Winslade 1997). In the constant struggle to establish coherence in our lives, we are faced with the task of making sense of our experience using the tools given to us by such discourses – words, meanings, stories, ways of speaking, legitimate topics of conversation. As we address this task, subjectivity is inscribed and identity constructed. Just as we are never in complete control of the meanings of the words we use or of the stories that circulate in our cultural contexts, we can never be in complete control of the identities we construct.

From this perspective, it makes sense to engage in the kind of externalising conversation9 (White & Epston 1989; White 1989a; 1995; Roth & Epston 1996; Tomm 1989) that renders more visible the role of discourse in constituting our cherished descriptions of who we are. It seems clear that alcohol can insinuate itself into our personhood through the discourses in which its use is patterned. This position needs to be distinguished from any insistence on an alcoholic personality in the Modernist sense: that is, a personality which is stable, inborn and naturally emergent in the right context (Gergen 1991). We are talking about a notion of an identity that is unstable, provisional, produced and reproduced in the to-and-fro of conversation, and subject to the ongoing negotiation of personhood in relation to the discursive contexts in which we live.

The corollary to this argument is that the kind of identity which alcohol becomes accessory to can also be opened out for inspection in particular kinds of counselling conversation. In the conversations that we had together, Patrick began to articulate and to re-examine some of the self-descriptions or identity claims that alcohol had recruited him into. An example has already been mentioned: ‘I’ve always been just a party person, you know, just on the piss and never give a care for anything, just easy-going … you know’.

While being easy-going might be the positive aspect of alcohol’s identity for him, he also found himself confronting some more disturbing ways of being that up until now alcohol had both fostered and enabled him to avoid noticing or caring about:

Like now with not drinking and … you know … with thinking a lot more and that, I’m realising things like what a selfish and disrespectful bastard I am … you know … alcohol … like it just covered that up and made me feel good sort of when I never really thought much of myself and now… but not really, it was like a vicious circle … I never used to give a hoot what anyone thought of me or how my actions affected any one else but now I can see what I’ve been like.

This insight was like a signpost along the way. It stood at a crossroad in which the despair of seeing oneself as selfish and disrespectful could indicate a need to turn back to the relief of alcohol or to continue on round the corner to the possibility of developing a new description of oneself.

Making the decision to go on round the corner was a significant milestone for Patrick along the way and was fully storied. For example, at this time he decided that disrespectful and selfish actions did not support him in developing the sort of relationships that he would like, that ‘disrespectful’ and ‘selfish’ were identity descriptions that he was no longer comfortable with and which he described as working together with alcohol to make him feel bad about himself. He decided that he would prefer to ‘give a hoot’ rather than to continue as a person who ‘did not give a hoot’.

There were other descriptions of himself that he had carried around and had acted in relation to these. For example, he had thought of himself, and been described by others, as a ‘hopeless’ or ‘pathetic’ person. Such descriptions had undermined his hopes for his own life. At my invitation, he began to investigate alcohol’s complicity in the construction of such self-descriptions.

At this point we would advocate some caution. It is easy to misread externalising conversations about alcohol as excusing a person from responsibility. Alan Jenkins’ (1990) concept of offering invitations to responsibility in the face of the restraints constituted within problematic discursive positions is more useful. It is a fitting emphasis for counselling persons struggling to contain alcohol’s influence in their lives. Hence it was important not to undermine Patrick’s evaluation of himself as behaving disrespectfully to others or failing to make something of his life by simply attributing the blame to alcohol and excusing him from his actions. Rather, alcohol was spoken about as complicit with his failures to be more responsible, as blinding him to opportunities to act responsibly, as implicated in the construction of his limiting self-descriptions (rather than as the sole author of them). Developing the kind of conversation that invites an evaluation of how this happens is not intended to encourage some kind of denial of responsibility. Quite the opposite: developing some expertise about the ‘ways of alcohol’ can indicate a stepping into responsibility.

In fact we would advocate for the development of an idea of a person as an ‘expert’ in the ways of alcohol. Such expertise, often won from harsh experience, can be developed through inquiry into the ways in which alcohol has interfered with the development of preferred identities. Becoming an expert in this knowledge can itself be an alternative identity which leads to a revision of personal history. Once established, the knowledge of self-in-relation-to-alcohol implied by such an investigation can then be capitalised upon in order to strategise counter-tactics to those of alcohol lifestyles, tactics that involve conscious, more responsible practices established in defiance of alcohol’s requirements.

Separating from the domain of alcohol engages people in a struggle to define and redefine the influences of alcohol in shaping their sense of self. However, it also invites counsellors and clients to consider together the restraints that an alcohol lifestyle may have imposed on alternative ways of constructing identity. Consideration of the ways in which a person has resisted fully internalising particular self-descriptions that fit with the story of an ‘alcohol lifestyle’ is also relevant. Such consideration can lead to some speculation about self-descriptions someone might prefer or self-descriptions someone might remember having valued prior to being overtaken by an ‘alcohol lifestyle’.

Renegotiating the place of alcohol in one’s life

Patrick was prompted to evaluate the place of alcohol in his life after the shock of his brother’s death. At this time he considered that alcohol was not a problem for him but that driving after drinking was: ‘Well as far as I see it, well nah, alcohol’s not a problem. It’s driving after drinking that’s the problem’. Although this assessment was wide open for challenge in terms of recommended safe drinking levels (and from Patrick’s own catalogue of the problems of alcohol), from a narrative perspective this evaluation is not named as ‘denial’ but recognised as a unique outcome in the life of someone who has had a series of drink-driving convictions.

Wanting to drink and not drive was exceptional for Patrick. It was a statement that deserved becoming fully storied in his life. Its implications needed to be explored. What it might take to implement such an intention, as well as what had already been achieved to do so, deserved curious inquiry.

To focus on the ‘unrealistic’ aspects of the statement that ‘alcohol’s not a problem’ for a person who has a record of heavy drinking and a series of convictions related to his drinking might set the counsellor and client up for some kind of battle which is only completed once the client has ‘admitted’ that drinking is a problem for him. The traps of such conversations have been storied in the literature on counselling people with alcohol problems (Miller & Rollnick 1991). The narrative emphasis on building an alternative story from the windows of opportunity that can be found in little moments of instability in monolithic problem stories constitutes an alternative approach.

Counselling conversations focussing on the discovery of unique outcomes in a person’s relationship with alcohol often throw up little details, the significance of which can be watered and cultivated until it flowers into a different story. For Patrick this renegotiation involved moving from ‘drinking every day of the week’ to a process of experimenting with finding a new place for alcohol in his life. He was clear at first that he would not give up drinking altogether. He explored over time establishing large chunks of time when he didn’t drink at all, drinking less when he did drink, making deliberate decisions about when he would drink and when he wouldn’t in social situations, getting drunk one night after not drinking for some time, and so on. In counselling sessions we continued to discuss and evaluate together the fit of each of these experiments with his journey of migration from alcohol’s domain. Each was an opportunity to investigate and learn more intricate detail about the ways of alcohol and of the preferred identity he was developing.

Patrick’s initial desire to renegotiate alcohol’s influence in his life only in relation to driving developed into a much wider assessment. As he investigated further and located alcohol as a supporter and promoter of many negative effects, he dramatically distanced himself from a full-on ‘alcohol lifestyle’. Defining alcohol as ‘taking me in the opposite direction to what I want to go’ and as working to keep him in a place he no longer wanted to be (‘I might as well just crawl into a bloody hole and stay there ’cause that’s where I’ll be if I carry on drinking’) precipitated his continued movement away from the domain of alcohol. In a recent assessment of his relationship with alcohol, Patrick stated that ‘the further I push alcohol away the better I feel about myself’.

Another example of a unique outcome that developed into a new story arose in a conversation with Jason. He had noticed the influence of a particular pattern of drinking behaviour among his male friends. They would keep a tally of the number of cans of beer they were consuming and compete to see who could drink the most, without ‘spewing’. Jason commented that he had never counted drinks like others had. This was a small difference between him and his mates. As we talked about it, it started to grow in significance. It meant that he had stepped outside of a competitive way of thinking about drinking. Since he felt good about this difference, he could envision behaving differently in other ways. He even noticed that he had established a counter-competitive game with himself to see how little he could drink rather than how much. He deconstructed the competitive game as an effect of a discourse about masculinity and toughness. He said that he held quite different beliefs from the dominant story about ‘the more piss you can drink, the more of a man you are’. He evaluated his own approach as more mature. It led to him feeling better about himself. He thought it was a helpful step in his mission to take control of alcohol rather than have alcohol be in control of him. Did this mean that his sense of maturity was increasing or decreasing as he took steps to control alcohol’s influence? He thought it was definitely increasing. Was it difficult to take these steps in the face of his mates’ opinion? Yes, it was ‘sort of hard’, but he had been doing it.

The noticeable development in this conversation is the elaboration of a small detail which, through being taken seriously, gives rise to a series of ripples which move further and further outward. Jason begins to understand himself to be taking a stand against a discourse which prescribes masculinity in a precise way in his simple rejection of a particular drinking practice.

Later he described occasions when he had gone out with his mates and had a few drinks without getting drunk. He felt that he had put considerable distance between himself and alcohol but still had further to go, because he wanted to be able to say sometimes that he would not go out drinking at all.

While we have used these examples in this context to illustrate persons’ renegotiation of their relationship with alcohol, these examples also illustrate that this relationship does not stand alone. Each change to drinking practices has implications for the renegotiation of a person’s relations with others and with himself (and vice versa). In the next section we want to highlight a specific aspect of identity reconstruction that has proved significant for some people in their struggle against alcohol.

Renegotiating relationship with one’s own experience

In the year following his brother’s death, alcohol had provided Patrick with more than just the facilitation of ‘good times’. It had mediated his experience of his grief. In this corner of his life, as in many others, it had played a role in shaping his experience of himself: ‘Alcohol helped me survive, you know – it cheered me up and made me worry-free for a while … a way of survival so people didn’t see the real depression I was in’.

From a social constructionist perspective, alcohol, ‘used’ in this way, does not have to be interpreted as a ‘crutch’ or evidence of a ‘weak’ personality unable to deal with life’s problems, or as the typical response of an ‘addictive personality’ to grief and trauma. Instead a narrative therapist might be curious about the social conventions that might lead a person to hide and cover up deep pain, conventions that require ‘good’ people to be happy rather than sad, conventions that require a ‘real’ man to get over it and get on with life. Inquiry can also be directed to uncover other responses to grief and depression which are culturally available.

Patrick’s own understanding of his pain illustrates the dominance of these sorts of normative specifications. Not only did he feel compelled to hide depression from other people, but he also saw himself as being weak and babyish.

I’m just being a big bloody sook and a softie, I shouldn’t feel like that… I should just harden up and take it in my stride … I think I’m a pretty strong sort of bloke, you know, I should be able to deal with anything without, you know, this.

This statement again illustrates dominant discourses acting in support of alcohol lifestyles, albeit indirectly, through specifying a ‘normal’ masculine response to grief and pathologising any failure to ‘measure up’. The standard required precludes the acceptance and nurturing of those experiencing grief and instead requires that pain, despair and depression be hidden away. From this perspective the use of alcohol to hide depression is not individually pathological but a culturally specified way of avoiding the real risk of being perceived as ‘weak’ and not ‘taking it like a man’. Hence we believe that challenging alcohol’s influence in a person’s life needs to include some challenging of the cultural specifications that have supported the drinking.

Patrick also identified alcohol as working in cahoots with ‘suicidal thoughts’. This knowledge came from Patrick’s past experience of mixing alcohol with depression rather than from professionally imparted knowledge and statistics of alcohol’s involvement with suicide.

Well, in the past, with only even like half of what I feel now, I could get like really drunk and be driving along the road and see a car and like think of driving straight into it … now the mood I’m in now I could get drunk and go and jump off a bridge.

Given this knowledge he decided ‘it was just not worth it … too risky, you know, dangerous now, it’s like … I don’t want to end up like my brother … and like putting alcohol with this, it’s just the wrong mix’. As Patrick drew on all these knowledges and on his suspicion that there must be more to life than alcohol, he severely curtailed alcohol’s influence. It became clear that he was doing much more than not drinking. Since alcohol was no longer providing short-term relief from pain and no longer able to put a haze over his strong feelings, he was required to find new responses to things. He found himself negotiating his way through an unfamiliar environment. He was struggling to get used to feelings which had previously been ‘drowned’. Patrick explained that ‘sometimes it all gets a bit much ’cause like I’m not used to it. It’s all really new and feels strange and like I don’t know myself’. Experiencing strong emotions without the numbing effects of alcohol seemed:

draining, confusing, and hard. It’s like starting all over again, you know. Alcohol just helps me to escape emotions … like I’ve never even felt angry, in the past. I just went to the drink. If I felt depressed, I’d just drink, or hurt or anything … you know … just drink it away.

Patrick also noticed the more positive benefits of this shift: ‘I’ve been set free because as the drink is less and less of a thing in my life I’m free to know my own mind … I’m finding out a me that I’ve never known really’.

As the sphere of alcohol’s influence began to shrink, Patrick was able to generate new ways of addressing both problems and pain, such as by:

Having time out by myself to, you know, think things over … talking about it with friends … As the days go on and you don’t use alcohol then you get on top of it, whereas if you keep drinking you just end up with a whole lot more problems. But without alcohol, you know, with a clear head you can actually sort out problems, even if it’s one a month or one a week, it’s a little step closer to where you ‘re going … being really clear-headed you can think and just take one out of the bunch and face it and work it out.

We conceptualise this kind of conversation about a person’s rediscovery of feelings, and developing thinking and problem-solving skills as facilitating a change in his relationship with himself. It may often be accompanied by some sense of disorientation during the process of migration. Such disorientation may itself issue powerful invitations to return to the domain of alcohol.

We don’t think the operation of gender discourse on Patrick’s relationship with himself was an isolated instance. Consider the words of Sean, who, like Patrick, was struggling to free himself from alcohol’s regime. In response to a question about what sort of training he thought young men got that might influence how they learned to respond to stress or anxiety or emotional pain, Sean had this to say:

Well, for problems, it’s like you go and drink piss and forget about it … Any problems? Just drink. You think you ‘re drinking them away but you wake up in the morning and it’s still there, man … I’ve heard a lot of people over the years say that are stuck with something … ‘ah fuck this … I’m gonna go and get pissed’ sort of thing, you know? But all it does is empty your pocket and you’ve still got the same problem.

At this time, Sean was clearly determined to change the place alcohol occupied in his life. As he stopped using alcohol for this purpose, he was discovering other ways of handling stress, ways that involved more thinking than drinking:

I get on my bike and go fast … Yeah, and go down by the river track and then sit down and think about it. I find it easier to be alone when I’m depressed.

Renegotiating relations with others

As Patrick’s determination to separate himself from alcohol’s embrace took charge, he found himself alone much more often. This was the result of his choosing to keep away from alcohol by not going to pubs and parties. Although at times Patrick found this time-out from an alcohol environment difficult, he also came to value it as an opportunity: ‘to think things out … you know, to work out what’s actually eating me … and think about all this hassle with my girlfriend’.

Over time he identified alcohol as both promoting disrespect and supporting him in not facing up to the consequences of disrespect in his relationships with his girlfriend, his mother and his sister. He also identified other instances of ‘irresponsibility, like not paying my bills … and not talking, you know… and trouble, like just being a drain on everybody and in and out of jail’.

He understood these instances as influencing the way people saw him. He concluded that he didn’t like the way ‘some people look at me, you know, with no respect’, and that he wanted his mother to be proud of him and ‘not always worried or angry … I want to be someone she can look up to’.

He also noticed that alcohol, irresponsibility and disrespect worked together to prevent him from developing the sort of relationship he wanted to have with his young nephew. After his brother died, he resolved to be more active in his nephew’s life, but, ‘you know, when you ‘re drinking and that, you sort of forget about other people or just, you know, let it go’. During these conversations Patrick came to the conclusion that both alcohol and disrespect capitalised on: ‘not thinking very much of myself and then pushing everybody that you care about away … and treating other people like they’re just like you, like they’re not worth very much’.

Changes in the positions from which Patrick entered into relations with others were entwined in the process of identity migration. Recognising that alcohol supported ‘dragging myself down instead of, like, trying to build myself up, sort of like my self-esteem’, Patrick began to reject ‘being not worth anything’ as a true and correct description of himself. He began to see himself as a person who would prefer to give a hoot and as a person who wanted to give respect and be respected. He decided that it was preferable for him to ‘deal with emotions and face problems that I usually drink away’. He also began to think about experimenting with new ways of responding to his mother, girlfriend and sister and ways to become the uncle he wanted to be.

We mentioned earlier Sean’s intention to separate his friendships from alcohol’s control and his belief that it would be easier to do so now than later when he was nearer forty. As he renegotiated his relationships with his friends without alcohol, he found himself more likely to have a variety of friends rather than just the set that alcohol had picked out for him. On this basis he was then able to say: ‘Everything’s totally different now thinking about forty now, compared with when alcohol was in control’.

He was still associating with many of his drinking friends and even going to the pub or to parties with them without drinking. He was somewhat surprised to find that they still included him and stated that he never would have guessed that this could happen. ‘I always used to think no alcohol, no friends’. Even though he sometimes felt a little out of place, his friends were not turning their backs on him. On the other hand, he was noticing some changes in his friendships. He was able to enjoy other ways of having fun without alcohol dominating his enjoyment of social occasions: ‘Like, now we do some things like go to Rotorua to the luges10 and things like that, they don’t drink either’.

Although it is common practice to assume that an ‘alcohol lifestyle’ will impact on relationships, we are advocating a thorough investigation into the intricacies of this influence both within the domain of alcohol and once the separation process has begun. Storying this influence carefully can make visible the subtle nature of alcohol’s impact on constituting these relationships.

For Jason, not surprisingly, reduction of drinking had a significant effect in his relationship with his girlfriend. However, our conversations on this topic uncovered for Jason the way in which alcohol was silencing him on matters which he rated as very important and which he had been trying to address in the relationship for some time.

Prior to Jason putting some distance between himself and alcohol, alcohol had had a complex negative effect in any argument that developed between them. It had influenced him to take a stand on the matters that were of concern to him but also led him to go ‘over the top’ in communicating his concern and anger to his girlfriend, fanning the flames of argument rather than assisting the discussion that he wanted to have. The result was that he ended up not being heard about what was important to him. Moreover, his girlfriend was inclined to dismiss what he was saying as, ‘He’s only pissed’. She would hear alcohol speaking rather than him. To make matters worse, the next day when he was apologising for alcohol’s outrageous liberties, he still didn’t get taken seriously. What’s more he was usually feeling so bad at this point that he also couldn’t find room for talking about what had bothered him in the first place. In this way, alcohol helped catch Jason in a cycle of relationship in which he ended up feeling bad and ‘taking full responsibility for all the problems, no chance to say my bit. I’m too busy saying sorry all the time’.

As he separated himself from alcohol’s influence, another argument happened: ‘We had words and then I left and then the next morning I wasn ‘t feeling ratshit or anything and she took me a bit more seriously … I discovered that through not drinking very much the argument was different … We talked about it and I said I was sick of being made to feel bad and to hate the way I feel … It felt good, ’cause I think she comprehended, you know … She knew that I wasn’t drunk, you know … She normally says, you’re drunk, I’m not listening to that … and that pisses me off’.

This was a significant unique outcome for a person who said he could never say what was on his mind. He attributed the major difference in his experience to ‘not getting too carried away with the beers’. The door opened for further discussions about the new ways of responding he was learning without the influence of too many beers. Jason also discovered that, without alcohol’s input, he was freer to assess his relationship, rather than ‘feeling in the wrong all the time, like always on the back foot … now I can think about what’s happening between us’.

Alcohol’s contribution to relationships includes its impact on the range of options readily available for responding to conflict, grief, frustration or hurt. In counselling we can explore with clients the kind of interactions they might prefer to engender, interactions that might more fittingly embody their feelings towards those they care about. Such an exploration shows up the training which alcohol provides regarding ways of responding and relating to girlfriends, partners and children. A review of these practices includes an assessment of how the girlfriends, partners or children might experience these practices. Then, as people put distance between themselves and alcohol, we can account for the relationship differences that appear, story them fully, follow their development and value the achievements they represent.

Concluding remarks

In all of the above, we have been exploring the possibilities suggested by a particular metaphor. The ‘migration’ metaphor initially came to mind through noticing the many travel metaphors that come up in conversations with clients, for example: ‘moving in a different direction, changing course, turning a corner, getting back into the driver’s seat’. But we would like to reiterate that this metaphor is but one way of making sense of therapeutic conversations about alcohol trouble. We are recommending its usefulness rather than its ‘truth’. The advantages it offers include the temporal space opened up by the idea of a journey, the attention to cultural rather than just biological aspects of alcohol problems, and the range of topics that can be traversed in counselling persons with alcohol problems. It also enables a focus on the multi-dimensional and constitutive influence of alcohol in people’s lives and relationships, as well as a focus on the ways in which entrapment in an alcohol lifestyle is shaped by multiple discourses about gender, class and occupation (among others). Within such discourses, norms and conventions are laid down and ways of being are prescribed which link alcohol with masculinity, acceptance, hospitality, generosity and identity.

From this perspective, we cannot entertain an approach to counselling that isolates a drinking problem from the rest of a person’s life and ‘treats’ it in a discrete fashion as a particular personal deficit. We hope we have said enough to illustrate how the inducements to alcohol lifestyles are entwined in the identity and relationship templates offered to young men in mainstream Modernist culture. We think this accounts for the difficulties people face in separating from alcohol’s influence at least as much as any addictive qualities of the chemical. To those who do set out on this journey of migration, we believe counsellors should offer much admiration and respect. It is a courageous thing to do to take a stand, albeit unwittingly at times, against the dominant stories of a culture. At times it may seem that the landscape traversed in such a migration is largely hostile. We would suggest that those embarking on such a journey need allies and supporters more than they need detailed unilateral assessments and expert prescriptions of correct treatment regimes.

The question that follows is about how best to show this kind of respect and support. We have shown examples here of some strategies for demonstrating respect. They include a willingness to learn from the client and to invite the person into a collaborative investigation into the ways of alcohol and their influence in a person’s life. They include a spirit of inquiry that persistently pursues the possibilities for building new stories, new cultural forms in the landscapes of personal experience. They also include some themes that we think are deserving of attention in this inquiry, not necessarily as separate topics because they are all entwined with each other, but as possible foci for the development of new forms of life. If we can implement these strategies we stand a chance of encouraging the performance of meaning around the particularities of the migration journey through mapping the terrain, or storying the migration in all its fullness. The intimate knowledge of the landscape developed within such conversations provides migrants with a platform from which to appreciate their achievements but also from which to make sense of difficulties and setbacks.

However, creating these kinds of conversations is not always easy for us as counsellors, because of the influence of the discourses that have informed our knowledge about ‘addictions counselling’. We spoke about this at the start of this paper. In my conversations with Patrick, I (Lorraine) had to deliberately set aside the influence of words like ‘resistance’ and ‘denial’ in order to hear what Patrick was saying about himself as making sense. Patrick’s story touched me, at times it frustrated me, but mostly it challenged me. It challenged me again and again to find ways of understanding his experiences that were so far removed from my own. As an example, initially Patrick seemed, to me, not to connect his extensive list of the costs of alcohol with any need to change his relationship with alcohol. I struggled at times to accept his assessment and to work respectfully with his agenda rather than impose my own, or some objective evaluative criteria on his situation. It took me some time to realise that his recognition of driving after drinking as a problem and his desire to change that was a new thing for him. As it turned out, it was an important landmark on the way to him evaluating and leaving life in alcohol’s domain.

Finally, let us list some generic questions that might guide us as counsellors in generating such conversations. As with other lists of generic questions (e.g. White 1989b; Winslade & Smith 1997), these are not formula questions. A conversation informed by them may not even have one of them asked. Rather they may act as a guide to the spirit of curiosity that might shape our responses to someone’s struggle with alcohol’s influence. They direct our attention to the statements people make that may in some way answer what these questions ask.

  • What sorts of things does alcohol get you to do that without its influence you would prefer or choose not to do? What sorts of things is alcohol able to assist you in, or enable you to do?
  • In what ways does alcohol influence how you see yourself? What impact does alcohol have on your thoughts, feelings, relationships?
  • What are the promises of alcohol? Are these promises always kept? What other things support these promises?
  • What are some of the things that strengthen alcohol’s influence in your life?
  • In what ways does alcohol influence how your parents, partner, children see you?
  • In what ways might alcohol promote and support the development of indifference to the concerns, requests or needs of partners and children?
  • What strategies does alcohol use to side-track you from carrying out your plans and decisions?
  • What plans or ideas might alcohol have for your future? How well do these plans fit with your own plans for your future?
  • In what ways might alcohol have influenced the hopes that you have now for your future?
  • What sort of contribution has alcohol made to your reputation amongst your workmates/colleagues? Team mates? Friends? Family?
  • In what ways do you value this reputation? How well does this reputation fit with the sort of reputation you would prefer to have?
  • How might this reputation affect your efforts to put some distance between yourself and alcohol? In what ways does this reputation work on the side of maintaining an ‘alcohol lifestyle’?
  • Will separating yourself from an alcohol lifestyle move you closer to your preferred reputation or further away?
  • Does this reputation promote closeness or distance between you and your partner? Between you and your children?
  • Does this reputation enhance your respect for yourself or detract from your self-respect? How does this influence your relationships with others? Does it increase or decrease others’ respect for you?

Notes

1. Lorraine Smith can be contacted c/-Cambridge Community Counselling Service, PO Box 663, Cambridge, New Zealand.

2. John Winslade can be contacted c/- Department of Education Studies, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand.

3. We have deliberately used the expression ‘alcohol lifestyles’ throughout this paper despite the fact that it uses a noun as an adjective. Our concern was to avoid the adjective ‘alcoholic’ because of the pathologising baggage that comes with this usage, and because we believe that counsellors frequently encounter problems associated with alcohol’s place in people’s lives that no-one would consider warranting the description of ‘alcoholic’. Alcohol poses problems in many aspects of people’s lives other than those that are usually placed under the heading of ‘addiction’. Expressions like ‘alcohol-dominated’, which we considered, also convey strongly a focus on the individual and on the problems of ‘addiction’.

4. The expression ‘the problems of alcohol’, may surprise some readers because it departs from the usual way of speaking in this field of practice. We deliberately chose to avoid an expression like ‘alcohol-related problems’ because we wanted to signal early on an intention to avoid internalising language and to stress the need for narrative counsellors to lay the groundwork for externalising conversations carefully in the way that they speak about problem issues.

5. Discourse: we use the word (after Fairclough 1992) here to refer to a set of ideas embodied as structuring statements that underlie and give meaning to social practices, personal experience and social institutions. Discourses often include the taken-for-granted assumptions that allow us to know how to ‘go on’ in social situations of all kinds.

6. Deconstruction: the process of opening to view and subverting the taken-for-granted assumptions underlying social practices that masquerade as truth or reality.

7. Bakhtin (1986) refers to the development of language forms within conversational genres, much as different literary genres generate styles of writing.

8. South Island: There are two main islands in New Zealand. Hamilton, where we live, is in the North Island. Most sheep farming in New Zealand takes place in the South Island.

9. We have not spent time explaining the use of externalising conversations in this paper. That task has been done elsewhere and we have written about it ourselves in relation to alcohol counselling (Winslade & Smith 1997). In this paper we have used externalising language all the way along with the aim of demonstrating its natural incorporation into our repertoires of speech. Anyone not familiar with this repertoire would be advised to read about it and to notice the deliberate choices of externalising language we have adopted in this paper.

10. Luges: This is a popular hillside tourist attraction in a theme park in Rotorua, New Zealand.

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Copyright © Dulwich Centre Publications 1997

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