| Global Times | 2012-11-28 19:45:08
By Jiang Yuxia
Sufei, a Chinese woman, braced for the worst when the man she wanted to marry told her he suffered from a chronic health problem.
"I was so concerned when he revealed to me he has some disease," recalls Sufei, "but was soon relieved learning it was just alcoholism."
She met her American husband about 10 years ago, after he became sober, and was not aware that alcoholism - or problem drinking, as it is alternately referred to in psychiatry - is a disease until her husband explained it to her.
"At the time to me, like to a lot of Chinese, it was a just a bad habit, like smoking or drug abuse, which was very hard to quit," she says.
Later her husband took her to a support meeting attended by fellow alcoholics, and explained to her the disease is partly caused by the body's allergy to alcohol, she says.
No problem here
Given China's thousands of years' history of entertaining with alcohol, alcohol abuse is not new to the country. Adults are often encouraged to drink on social or business occasions, and drinking excessively is even considered a respectable quality, proof of one's integrity. According a report released by the World Health Organization in 2004, 3.8 percent of China's adult population suffers from alcoholism.
Although alcoholism has been recognized for many years by medical organizations as a disease that involves both physical and mental components, a lot of Chinese simply attribute it to moral defects.
The Chinese government also underestimates the scope of problems caused by alcohol abuse, says Li Bing, director of the substance abuse department at Peking University's Institute of Mental Health. There are outpatient services for drug abuse at several hospitals in Beijing, such as her hospital and the Beijing Anding Hospital, but there are few treatment centers for people with drinking problems, Li points out.
Sufei has become more knowledgeable about alcohol abuse as her husband continues to go support programs for alcoholics.
"I am aware that being addicted to alcohol is the same as having other addictions. Alcoholics are just dependent on alcohol because their bodies are allergic to it," says Sufei.
Li speaks English and Chinese, and has been offering treatment and counseling to inter-cultural couples with drinking problems from time to time.
The mixed couples tend to be more open to talking about the problems than Chinese couples, and tend to be more supportive of their treatment programs, says Li. Besides seeking medical help for detoxification - an abrupt stop of alcohol drinking coupled with the substitution of drugs - at the early stage of treatment, family support is also important in healing the diseases, said Li, who helped set up Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Beijing for Chinese in the early 2000s.
Family members should be aware they have the responsibility to supervise those who have drinking problems and they have the obligation to know about alcohol and the disease, says Li.
Li points out that a number Chinese of wives bring their expat husbands to the hospital.
In fact, although many Westerners believe that pressure from a spouse or friends can't stop an alcoholic from drinking, many Chinese don't see it that way.
Chinese wives take on heavy drinking
Qin Kunying, an artist better known as A Qin among her friends, kept a strict eye on her partner's drinking habits and put enormous pressure on him to quit before he finally gave it up a couple of years ago.
Qin met her husband Jirí Strakova, a painter and Sinologist, when he was studying art in Beijing in the 1990s, and moved with him to Prague in 1997. Lacking control over himself, Strakova used to indulge in binge drinking with friends or collogues when they lived there, and also in the years after he came to Beijing in 2006 to pursue a career in traditional Chinese ink and wash painting.
"After a hangover, he would just turn off his mobile, staying over at his friends'. He thus missed a lot of appointments and stayed away from work, which is rare among Chinese people I know," said Qin. Then rows would break out between them.
To help him quit drinking and make progress in his artistic career, Qin closely kept track of him, even when he was out with friends. "Unlike Westerners, Chinese wives are more likely to interfere with their partners' life or hobbies. I had many talks with him to persuade him to quit drinking, and would make phone calls to ask him to go home when he was drinking with friends, thus bringing a lot of pressure to him as well," said Qin, who is also director of the Czech China Contemporary Art Gallery in Beijing's Songzhuang Artist Village.
Living in Prague where bars are scattered around everywhere and beer is cheaper than water, Strakova was laughed at by his friends for being "pitiful" for marrying a Chinese wife, and some of them even badmouthed Qin for controlling Strakova.
"Like a lot of them, I also wished my husband to be more successful in his career. What I did most of the time is to advise him in earnest, telling him he would be able to be more productive in his painting if he stopped drinking," she explains. When the couple returned to Beijing so she could set up a gallery, she watched her husband's problem drinking even more closely.
"At first he was angered by what I did. After one visit from our home to the gallery, he realized the hardships I went through in the past three years in setting up our gallery, and became more understanding of the efforts I have made for him."
Without seeking medical help or support from alcoholics support groups, Strakova gradually stopped heavy drinking, and he did better in his painting. "Later, he stuck up for me when his friends badmouthed me."
She believes she did the right thing by sticking by her husband and helping him with his drinking problem, and did not consider seeking medical treatment or help from Alcoholics Anonymous. "My husband is not an alcoholic, given the heavy drinking culture in Czech Republic," she says.
Strakova has converted to Buddhism, held a solo show at the Mundane World gallery in Beijing and is organizing more exchange programs between China and the Czech Republic.
Family counseling to repair relationships
Chinese medical professionals agree that family support is key for helping problem drinkers, but urge people to seek professional help.
"Family members can help with heavy drinkers who realize they have a problem, and help them stop drinking for some time," says psychologist Shi Yu from the Armed Police General Hospital. "But the disease is difficult to diagnose and might cause more serious problems if they postpone going to doctors."
Shi suggests couples seek medical help or counseling.
Although the drinking culture is different in China and other countries, the troubles heavy drinkers bring to their families and their relationships can be identical, according to Li.
"Chinese or foreign, when they get drunk, they often show similar behaviors, such as becoming moody or throwing tantrums, and thus creating rows or other problems for their relationships," she explained.
Li says family members can benefit from group support, so they can openly talk about their experience in supporting their partner, make their complaints or grievances heard, and gain support from others with similar experiences.
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