In the book on adult children of alcoholics After the Tears: Helping Adult Children of Alcoholics Heal Their Childhood Trauma by Middelton-Moz and Dwinell, the alcoholism or dysfunction in a family is referred to as the “elephant in the living room” which I find to be a very apt description.
There is this elephant living in the house. Sometimes it is a nice elephant and sometimes it tramples over everything. There are pictures of you and your family (elephant included) on the walls and there is a big bag of elephant feed in the kitchen. People take turns feeding, watering, and caring for the elephant.
However, no one in the family is allowed to speak about the elephant and everyone must pretend that it simply doesn’t exist. It is only the young children who haven’t learned the elephant etiquette yet who dare ask, “Why is there an elephant in our living room?” The other families look over to them in horror and shake their heads. “What elephant?” they say. “There is no elephant!”
The child, confused, looks over first to the elephant, then to the pictures on the walls that all include the elephant in them, then to the kitchen where there is a huge bag of elephant feed. The child sees all of the evidence for an elephant but is told that they are just “making things up,” “seeing things,” or “manipulating others in the family into seeing things that aren’t there.”
In a short span of time, the child also learns to pretend that there is no elephant in the living room and the cycle continues of feeding and tending to the elephant that no one will admit exists.