The White Elephant
The term white elephant refers to a large obstacle that one tries to get around. It also means that there is a big issue that everyone is aware of but chooses to ignore. The white elephant in the room has been used in substance abuse treatment and recovery to describe the person in the family with an addiction. It can also be used in a family home where a mental health disorder is present. The family member’s addiction or mental health disorder is considered the white elephant; all family members know it is there, but they choose to ignore it.
In a family with an alcoholic parent, the other family members may make excuses for the addict. They may explain away missing appointments or social obligations by saying that the person is too tired or has been working too hard to attend some function. Everyone in the family walks around the white elephant of the parent’s alcoholism and tries to pretend that it does not exist. Children of alcoholic parents experience the white elephant and are told not to discuss the problems in the family, as it would make other people upset. The general feeling in the home is one built on secrecy and shame. Do not discuss the white elephant in the room with anyone. Family secrets need to be kept quiet.
Communication in a home where there is a white elephant is generally poor. Children and spouses learn that it is not a good idea to upset the white elephant and consciously deny its existence. Children may also learn to feel that there is something wrong with them because of this white elephant in the room. Many children grow up thinking this way of life is normal and may reproduce the white elephant as adults. Many family members have been living with this white elephant for so long that they do not know how to cope and would rather ignore it.
Secrets and shame only add to the dysfunction in the home. Each family member is affected by the white elephant until such time as either the addict or other family member decides to break the silence. The best way to start eliminating the white elephant in the room is to seek help from a trusted individual. Maybe there is another relative who does not reside in the same home or maybe there is a trusted friend to confide in. There are also others you can talk to like a priest, minister, or school counselor. ;However the silence is broken, the addict and other family members can begin a process of recovery where white elephants do not exist and honest communication can begin.