Joanna Lowy comments:
As Children of Alcoholic’s Week draws to a close, we ask whether it’s ever possible to heal completely.
“I grew up with a mother who was and still is an alcoholic and a father who was away at sea for 9 months out of every 12. We were perceived as a nice middle class family by the church, our schools and the numerous organisations that my mother frequented. But behind closed doors, my sister and I lived in a constant state of fear and apprehension.
“We were hungry, and for days on end we would have ice-cream for breakfast as that was all there was in the house. We were constantly tired because going to sleep meant dropping one’s awareness levels and that was when she would come into our bedrooms to shout and scream at us for perceived betrayals, misdemeanours or naughtiness, or to stand and stare at us before hissing such ‘loving’ comments as ‘your daddy doesn’t love you.’
“There were a number of times when she would come into our bedrooms and try to suffocate us with our pillows, sometimes raging about this or that, other times crying that this was the best option for us as we were failures.
“Having friends over for tea or to play didn’t feature in our lives, let alone the idiotic notion of a sleep over, and consequently we didn’t get many invites to others’ houses. We spent our days tiptoeing around ‘the dragon’ as my mother is still known to us. We didn’t wake her if she had passed out, but took the opportunity to doctor the whisky bottle with cold tea or watering down its contents.
“We learnt that sometimes it was easier to be divided in order to survive and sadly ‘the dragon’ used our own fear to turn us against one another, and then pick us off. Over one Christmas period my mother flounced into the room and told my sister that I had been telling lies about her and my mother and this is what happened to liars. She then pulled out the carving knife from behind her back and went to stab me, my sister frozen with fear as I fought her off.”
For many, including Katie Watson, growing up with an alcohol-stained childhood is the norm, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy. From physical and mental abuse, to unhappy family role-reversals, the effects of adult drinking on children are vast. But with the theme of this year’s Children of Alcoholic’s Week being ‘Hope and Healing’, NHS Online asks: can a child ever fully recover?
Alcohol and childhood
“Children can suffer profoundly when their parents have drink problems”, says Family Lives Chief Executive, Jeremy Todd. “Parents may mean well and wish to do their best but drinking can lead to violence, neglect and often results in children feeling shame and anxiety, or having to take on a caring role for their parents, other siblings or themselves when in fact they are the ones who need looking after.”
“There are a number of characteristics that children of alcoholics may have”, explains clinical psychologist Dr Cheryl Rezek. “The environment in which these children are raised isn’t normal. It is filled with disruption, dysfunction and fear. Everything is revolved around the alcoholic’s mood, behaviour and demands.
“In essence, the children of alcoholics aren’t allowed to trust their environment as it isn’t a safe place. They need to always be on the alert for signs of danger so they become hyper-vigilant. They often do whatever it takes to keep the peace and safety as well as protecting themselves and others, so they become over-responsible, self-critical, struggle with closeness, and feel shame about themselves and their family.”
Abuse, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, is also paramount to the alcoholic’s behaviour towards the child, and so forming relationships will also be incredibly difficult. “They don’t know what is appropriate or acceptable in terms of interactions, behaviours, communication skills or relationships”, Dr Rezek continues. “They know that their environments are strange so they often don’t make friends or bring them home. Their role modelling has been skewed so they don’t know how to manage life, difficulties, feelings or relationships. They will be over-protective, feel the need to put things right, stay caring and loyal, even when it isn’t appropriate, and frequently seek out approval. However, they also fear being in situations where they feel they don’t have any control because it is then unpredictable. Most tend to be over responsible but some do go the other route and are impulsive and have difficulty being appropriate and responsible.”
One of the main concerns of living with an alcoholic parent is that the propensity to drink will be passed on to the child. “The child of the alcoholic often lives in a state of denial usually referred to as ‘the lie’ with a fear of being found out”, explains addiction interventionist at Sober Services, Julian Xuereb. “This child is attached to the illness and lives in constant shame and guilt, which affects their personal relationships and the growing up process with a strong possibility to drink themselves in order to ‘fit in’ with the negative crowd. There is often a mushroom effect seen with this illness which can often be passed onto the children.”
However, it can also work in favour of a sober adulthood. “In some cases the child can see the destruction caused by alcoholism and can drink responsibly or leave it alone”, he continues. “They may not necessarily have the ‘genetic bullet’ which means they have lost the power of choice and have no bodily control.”
“All too often I hear stories from clients who say they had an alcoholic parent and so they were determined that they wouldn’t go down the same route- and yet here they are”, adds Sober Services founder Ian Young, “and then I’ll speak to a sibling with exactly the same history and determination not to drink, who goes on to live a perfectly normal life. There is a lack of specific research to prove conclusively that the children of an alcoholic have any long term effects, because there are so many alcoholics who cannot trace it back to their parents, but there is certainly a clear case for genetic dispositions in addiction.”
But whether or not the child also becomes an addict, one thing’s for sure; growing up with an alcoholic parent can result in a plethora of other, less tangible consequences. “They may take on far more responsibility at work or in relationships than is required”, explains Dr Rezek. “They may struggle to know how to act and engage, particularly in close or intimate relationships, or to express themselves, especially in an open an appropriate manner. They may also feel anxious and unsafe, being unable to believe that others can be trusted, predictable, nurturing and kind.
“Full recovery is perhaps unrealistic”, she continues. “Adults are products of their childhoods, and because the foundations have been skewed, distorted and disrupted, naturally it will affect the individual as an adult.”
However, although it may not be possible to rewrite your childhood, it is possible to move on from it. “People can shift their lives and don’t need to carry all the pain, fear and shame with them forever”, says Dr Rezek. “It takes commitment and work to make things different or to feel differently about oneself but it is possible.”
Founding Director of Children of Addicted Parents (COAP) and Trustee for National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), Emma Spiegler, agrees, and believes that sharing your experience with others is tantamount to recovery. “Attending support groups is where the journey of recovery begins”, she says. “People need to understand that they’re not alone, and that it’s not their fault. However, every situation is completely individual, so whether it will affect them in adulthood depends on what type of experience they had and what type of person they are.”
For Katie, past Trustee and current Child Protection Adviser of NACOA, creating something positive out of her troubled past has been key to moving on. However, she’s the first to admit that she will never fully recover:
“The knock-on implications continue into our adult lives as issues of trust and openness rear their heads”, she says. “I joined the army at the earliest opportunity and fled from home, but still the alcohol perceptions leaked into my life and it wasn’t until I was 33 with my own family that I was able to break all contact with ‘the dragon’. What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but it is a hard road to walk.
“We children of alcoholics may be invisible to the naked eye, but we exist. Support NACOA to support us.”
If you are the child of an alcoholic parent, visit either www.coap.co.uk or www.nacoa.org.uk for help, advice, or support.