HOME AWAY FROM HOME

By Janet Geringer Woititz

Health Communications Inc. 137 pp. $13.95

You know the people described in "Home Away From Home." They're the classic overachievers, and every work place has them: "They are dedicated, conscientious, capable, loyal and will do everything in their power to please." They are valuable and productive employes, and their success is predictable; it's also a mixed blessing.

These people are children of alcoholics, and what's really driving them is not just the healthy instinct to succeed but a deep-seated conviction that no matter how well they do their jobs, it won't be good enough to earn the approval and respect they so desperately need.

When they were growing up, their day-to-day lives were chaotic and confusing. Early on they adopted a variety of coping skills to survive. Now, as adults, they're tough and resilient, but suddenly the habits they acquired as children don't seem to be working too well. The psychological scars they bear from growing up keep sabotaging any chance for job satisfaction and often make life at work difficult for them and their colleagues.

An estimated 22 million adults in this country are children of alcoholics. But only a few years ago did mental-health experts begin to recognize that many of them share a pattern of behavior that makes normal relationships difficult and life seem overwhelming. One of the earliest books on the topic, "Adult Children of Alcoholics" by family therapist Janet Geringer Woititz, is something of a publishing phenomenon. Since it first appeared in 1983, the slim trade paperback has sold more than 400,000 copies, and for months -- with virtually no major publicity -- it has been on the best-seller lists.

In "Home Away From Home," Woititz follows adult children of alcoholics into the work place, where family dynamics are replayed daily -- sometimes with troubling results.

One of the legacies of growing up in an alcoholic family is a blurring of the boundaries of responsibility and respect; traditional roles of parent and child are distorted. Work offers children of alcoholics the consistency that was lacking at home. But because they emerged from childhood with fragile egos, they often make a job synonymous with their sense of self-worth. They overreact to criticism. Accustomed to being criticized at home, they judge themselves without mercy.

Significantly, as Woititz notes, children of alcoholics often lack a realistic sense of their own limitations: "Not knowing what normal is leads to overdoing and overproving." But since there is no way they can meet the standards of perfection they have internalized from childhood, they are always falling short of the mark. Eventually, this obsessiveness can lead to burnout, or even alcoholism and other destructive ways of escaping the constant stress.

In the end, "Home Away From Home" is disappointing: too poorly organized and too thinly documented to be very helpful. Several chapters whose titles promise insight are embarrassingly incomplete. "Children of Alcoholics and Workaholism," for example, is only three pages long -- and most of it is devoted to an account by one of the persons whose experiences are cited throughout the book.

The main problem is that Woititz doesn't seem to know who her audience is. There's a chapter encouraging companies to incorporate therapy for adult children of alcoholics into employe assistance programs. Elsewhere she addresses colleagues who are themselves children of alcoholics, discussing how that experience can influence their effectiveness as counselors.

My suspicion is that this is a padded-out article for a professional journal. And in fact, Woititz says that one of her original intentions in researching the book was to test the assumption that children of alcoholics are disproportionately attracted to high-stress jobs -- a hypothesis that didn't pan out. More than 30 of the 137 pages feature stairstep-type graphs that chart the results of her surveys -- not very palatable for most readers.

Clearly, there is an audience for this book. A major company, for example, recently found that 44 percent of employes using its in-house counseling service were children of alcoholics. But unfortunately, what could have been a valuable contribution to the scant literature in this field is mainly an extended outline for a very useful book that remains to be written. The reviewer is a Washington writer and editor.