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When a Man Loves A Woman

28 Apr 2017Film Essays

The movie When a Man Loves A Woman starring Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia clearly represents some psychological concepts discussed in class (cause, effects, denial, recognition and rehabilitation). I had seen the movie before and enjoyed it, but now, since taking this class, I understand so much more about the movie and the characters. This movie is one that clearly depicts the many and varied effects of alcoholism on a family. Emotional, psychological, and even physical effects are felt by Alice Green and her family members. Alcoholism is not an easy thing to deal with especially when combined with depression and/or some bipolar or manic aspects.
Alice Green is the main character in this movie and the person that the movie revolves around quite literally. With her, everyone is happy (even when they aren’t) and without her the situation is miserable and the family unit falls apart even further. Alice is typical of a white female alcoholic in many ways, but in other ways, she breaks the mold. Alice drinks both inside the home and outside. She is almost as likely to go out for a drink after work with friends as she is to drink from the many bottles hidden all over the house. She says that she began drinking in high school and never quit. She is almost rather manic in her actions and moods, but the diagnosis is not bipolar disorder; it is alcoholism.

Alice’s children adore her, even when her alcoholism negatively affects them. Her children are young enough to where they don’t really know what’s happening. They only know that mommy sleeps a lot and slurs her words. When she is sober, she is the perfect mom—fun and exciting. Her children are thrilled just to be in her presence. In many ways, Alice is like a single parent, which obviously contributes to why she drinks so much. Every parent needs “me time,” and Alice really doesn’t get much of it. While her husband flies all over the country, piloting planes, Alice works as a high school guidance counselor and takes care of her children. Ironically, she counsels troubled teens and is good at it. As we know in counseling, Alice may be trying to work her way through some of her own issues while counseling others. In many ways, Alice is trapped in her high school years or has regressed to them. She is all about fun, not very responsible, and life revolves around after work. After Alice goes into treatment, Jess tries to take on the role of her mother by cooking breakfast for Kasey and trying to do her hair.

She lies. She is depressed. She engages in risk-taking behavior. She is dependent. She is aggressive. She is avoidant. She is anti-social. The real problem is that it is so hard for the viewer to understand what characteristics are part of her real personality, and what characteristics are a part of or akin to her alcoholism. Not having any experience with this disease, I’m not sure. Meg Ryan does a really good job of portraying a raging alcoholic and making us really feel what it is like and what it does to a family. She also portrays the uneasiness of recovery and the need to develop a whole new personality to compensate for the lack of alcohol
The children of alcoholics witness many events where their parents display their alcoholism and they feel that they can stop it themselves. There is one particularly disturbing scene in the movie when Jess is supposed to finish her homework, and Alice is at her wit’s end. Jess watches her mother down aspirin with Vodka then attempt to shower and fall through the shower door. The full ramifications of seeing this horrifying event will never fully be able to be measured. Children of alcoholics often display a host of effects, like unwillingness to commit, abandonment issues, or alcoholism or drug abuse themselves in adulthood. These children are alternately showered with attention and then neglected by Alice. She has even committed some rather abusive offenses, like slapping Jess really hard in the face and driving her kids around drunk. Habitually, she is not abusive or neglectful, but I certainly think on occasions, she could be charged with child abuse and/or neglect.

Supposedly, there are no marital problems between the couple other than drinking although as the movie goes along we begin to realize why. Michael is a full-fledged enabler and often in a caretaker role for Alice. When she is sober, she runs the household. When she is drinking, she becomes Michael’s third child. Michael has some control issues or feels the need to be needed because he simply takes on this caretaking for his wife. He enables her and yet makes her feel horrible about herself for drinking, which leads to more depression on her part. Michael enjoys, in many ways, playing the role of the big, strong man who rescues his damsel in distress. In fact, when Alice begins to get sober, he clearly is not as enamored of her. He loves her but has become accustomed to his role in the marriage. The viewer questions Michael’s upbringing as in this marriage, he is frequently a victim of abuse. Yes, he is condescending to his wife, treating her like a child. He also is the victim of her wrath and seems more than willing to just put up with it. There is no question that they are co-dependent. She gets drunk, and he takes care of her. When things get really bad, she tries to blame him for this, but this co-dependency is both their faults.

Alice finally does admit her problem after she falls out of a canoe, and goes into treatment. Her withdrawal symptoms, irritability, sweating, vomiting, etc. are typical of an alcoholic detoxing. And as Alice begins to get better little by little, Michael seems to get worse. He is unprepared for his wife behaving like a grown-up for one thing. He is also unprepared for her selfishness as she recovers. She must be selfish in order to aid her own recovery. She is smart enough to consider a halfway house because she knows she can’t just jump back into her life as it existed before. Success involves finding new ways to cope with her stresses. She is lost coming back home to try to fill her old spot. She feels empty without her alcohol as she has always existed with it. To cover her emptiness, she tries to throw all the guilt and blame back at Michael, which leads to a separation. She is full of shame and guilt and has no way to get it out. Typically, she seems like the type to “stuff” her feelings until things get too much for her, then she blows up. Hopefully, by attending Alcoholics Anonymous she is learning how to deal with this explosive part of her personality. It would benefit her to receive some individual counseling as well.

Michael really tries to be a martyr taking on more and more responsibility. He is fairly common in that he is unexpressive and male. He is in unknown territory with his wife once she is recovering. She no longer needs or wants a caretaker. They can’t go out and have fun like in the old days because alcohol was always the catalyst. The viewer has sympathy for him because he really has no idea what to do, and he doesn’t want to put his children through a divorce. He realizes the emotional ramifications of divorce at an early age, especially for girls. He can no longer be breadwinner in his family, so his own self-esteem really begins to plummet. He ends up taking the job in Denver.

This movie could be described as a journey of healing for this entire household. Alice learns to kick her addiction but most learn all over again what it is to be a wife and a mother. It is certainly not an easy journey for her. I would say there is a possibility of her developing some kind of adjustment disorder since this change is so huge in her life. Her children learn what it is to lose their mother for a short time. They will have to re-learn how not to be so sensitive to her moods. They must learn to live and grow as their own people, not as extensions of their mother. With Alice no longer being the center of attention, these children will begin to thrive. I feel confident that she and Michael will, in fact, find their way back to each other with some counseling. They both need to learn their roles in the relationship. They need some counseling in specific communication skills that would improve their marriage. They need to work on conflict resolution and forgiveness.

They have said and done some terrible things to each other but not without love. They must get counseling to save this marriage that has so much potential.
Overall, this movie is certainly not completely accurate, but it does depict, for the common man, what alcoholism really looks like in a family. Sadly, Alice is probably a better mom than most women who are alcoholics. And Michael, while he relishes his role of protector, is willing to stand by his wife no matter what. That could not be said of all men. The children are young enough that hopefully much of the effects of seeing the behavior of their mother can be “undone” in later years.

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