INTRODUCTION: RAISING HEALTHY CHILDREN IN AN ALCOHOLIC HOME
WHY AM I OKAY?
I am definitely weird in the eyes of my friends. I play in a rock band, you know. And in rock, everybody has a story. Believe me, there are good reasons why musicians drink and drug and hang in the clubs every night until they drop. I just don’t know anybody that has a “normal” family. Nobody’s parents are sober, or sane. Nobody’s family is still together. My buddies think it’s very strange that I walked away from booze and coke, and got myself a day job and that I visit my parents whenever I can. They can’t believe that it makes me happy to see my parents. They can’t even believe my folks are still married.
I have a story too, though. My father was a heavy duty drinker when I was growing up. He had—well, he still has—a terrible temper, and a way of talking to you that really makes you feel like dirt. He can also be this great guy who wants to take you hunting and fishing and will play ball all afternoon if you have the day off. Sometimes I think that was the worst part of it for me. Like, which father will be there when I get home tonight? But, Dad got sober two years ago. He’s been going to AA, and at least he knows now that there’s something wrong with him and that he really hurt us all those years.
I can still cry sometimes when I think of what it was like when I was younger. But if I try to figure out why I’m not messing up my life big time, like all my friends are, it’s not hard to see that, bad as it was, I had some big things going for me. Look, when I do cry now, or just feel really bad, I can talk to my mom. I’ve always been able to do that. She knows how bad things were, and she always helped me figure out how to deal with Dad. She told me from the beginning that his problem was booze, not me. I never believed I was a loser, like he said I was, because she told me different. I had somewhere to go when things got really bad. I still have that. My friends don’t. They work it out with a bottle. The bottom line? Why am I okay? I know there’s love out there somewhere.
Alcohol, used compulsively, and to excess, is an extraordinarily destructive drug. It not only attacks and weakens every organ system in the human body, but also distorts the drinker’s ability to perceive and interpret reality, so that she is largely unable to recognize, or resist, the deterioration of her health and the deformation of her personality.
We know now that many of the most harmful effects of alcohol addiction are rather easily transmitted to people who love the drinker, or who depend on her in some important way. This is why alcoholism is called a “family disease”, and why families with alcoholic members so often become “dysfunctional” families. Partners of alcoholics may remain sober, yet become so desperate to rescue the drinker from blind compulsion that they neglect other responsibilities, including self-care, and begin to suffer a serious decline in their own emotional, psychological or physical health. Some become so obsessed with controlling and concealing compulsive drinking that they cannot adequately care for children in the family. This preoccupation with the drinker and her disease is the phenomenon known as “codependence”. A family with an alcoholic member is just a family coping with a major illness until codependence enters the picture. It becomes a dysfunctional, “alcoholic family” when the disease begins to dominate family life.
Children with alcoholic and codependent parents are extremely vulnerable. They become preoccupied with the illness, just as adults do, and even more easily, since their world view is a very “self”-centered one. Children, especially younger children, believe that they are the origin of all important events. Therefore, when their parents are in pain, they assume that they are responsible for it, and that they are obliged to “fix” it. A child’s need to repair ill, or injured parents is made even more urgent by his powerful love for them, and his realization that his own continued well-being depends on the health, and the strength, of the adults who love him. Children of alcoholics often display a fiercer devotion to the alcoholic than do codependent adults. Furthermore, their determination to free an alcoholic family from its suffering may be far more stubborn. Driven by powerful feelings of guilt and responsibility, as well as intense fear, children will take extraordinary measures to meet a troubled family’s extraordinary need. Though they feel small and fearful, they will nonetheless struggle to become sufficient unto themselves, if their parents are too ill to care for them. Then, they will turn to do whatever is necessary to provide nurture and comfort to their impaired caretakers. Some will become family “heroes”, with achievements and honors to compensate for the family’s “shame.” Some will become delinquent and compulsively destructive “scapegoats”, if this is what is needed to distract parents from their own torment. Some will simply withdraw into themselves as they recognize that their needs threaten the family’s precarious emotional balance.
All of the methods children employ in an effort to ease an alcoholic family’s pain require them to deny some substantial portion of their own emotional reality. Children from dysfunctional alcoholic families, in which both parents are too preoccupied, and too exhausted, to provide basic physical and emotional care learn to ignore their fears, to deny their disappointment, and to swallow their anger and despair. Some are able to suppress all awareness of trouble in the family, and to block the perception of their longing for love, comfort and guidance as well. Children do these things to accommodate the family’s need, and also to enhance their prospects for emotional survival when they are emotionally and psychologically isolated from both parents. Those who are able to obliterate the pain and need they feel, are, for a time, less vulnerable to physical or emotional breakdown than children who are keenly, and constantly, aware of their own disappointed longing.
Detachment from pain, and denial of reality, are effective holding actions for the child who hurts, just as they are for the alcoholic. But children from alcoholic families eventually pay the same high price their parents pay for a defensive flight from self and truth. They cannot work well, and they cannot love well. Most importantly, they cannot love themselves.
Many children from alcoholic families enter psychotherapy when they reach adulthood. They usually describe great difficulty forming and maintaining rewarding intimate relationships. Some also report that they have trouble making long-term commitments to education, or a career, and many indicate that they are struggling with compulsive problems of their own. Alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders and compulsive spending are common problems among this group of psychotherapy patients. Most of the
adult children that I see in psychotherapy are caught up in an “alcoholic lifestyle“—whether they drink or not, they are habitually, and painfully, involved with partners and activities that endanger their physical, psychological and spiritual health.
Some adult children consciously relate their present problems to the struggles of childhood. Others do not. Almost all, however, express a sense that they are flawed, and critically deficient. They feel that they have missed some pivotal experience in childhood, that they are absent some vital body of knowledge, and lacking some essential skill, or faculty, that could impart the conviction of competence and confidence they sense in others, but cannot find in themselves. A large number have survived trauma and abuse that could have
been expected to destroy them, and many have established careers and material lifestyles that others envy, but they still feel unworthy, emotionally detached from themselves, and isolated from the experiences and satisfactions of the “normal” people around them. They are pessimistic about the prospects for acceptance from people who seem healthy and whole. Many adult children believe that they are so deeply defective that they will never be able to establish a normal family life. They feel that alcohol, drugs, and food represent the only reliable source of comfort they can ever hope to know.
In fact, most of the adult children I see in psychotherapy have missed something important in childhood. For one thing, because they were so narrowly and so desperately fixed on the need to survive, and to maintain their families, they missed many of the critical peer interactions and school experiences that children use to build up a feeling of personal value, as well as self-awareness and a capacity for creative self-expression. This failure to confront, and master, key developmental challenges during childhood does represent a significant loss, and does lead to a sense of insufficiency and uncertainty in dealing with peers. It also makes it harder to cope with academic and vocational challenges that arise later in life.
However, the damage that ensues from loss of experience pales in comparison with that which flows from loss of love, and the absolute devastation a child feels when he loses two parents to an obsession with alcohol and alcoholism. When both parents become too ill to demonstrate the love they feel and neither one is able to provide guidance, support, or emotional understanding, trust is destroyed, and hope is vanquished. Ultimately, self-esteem fails as well, because children do not understand that their parents are ill. They only understand that their parents are not there, and they conclude that their parents do not care to be there. Far too often, they conclude that it is their own unworthiness that has driven their parents away. It is then that feelings of deficiency set in; that a question forms in the mind, and begins to torment the heart: “If my parents can’t love me, who possibly can?”
Recovery aims at rebuilding self-worth, and restoring a feeling of hope and faith about human relationships. In support groups, and in psychotherapy, adult survivors of alcoholic and codependent families are encouraged to acknowledge and grieve the losses of the past. When the time is right, they are helped to engage, and gradually master, the current challenges at work and in relationships that seem so daunting, and so maddeningly elusive. As adult children allow themselves to depend, just a bit, on the insight, good will, and emotional support that therapists and fellow survivors extend, they come to believe that other human beings can be trusted. They also begin to believe that they can be loved.
The prospect of recovery and renewed growth for adult survivors of alcoholic families is quite good today. Mental health and addictions professionals are better informed about, and better trained to help with the problems faced by children who grow up with alcoholic and codependent parents. Still, recovery in adulthood is typically a lengthy and painful process. Reasonably enough, adult children are terrified at the prospect of emerging from the citadels of emotional isolation, denial, and self-sufficiency that they constructed at such cost during childhood. They hope that recovery will be a largely academic enterprise, involving the mastery of various intellectual exercises and personal meditations, and that there will be lots of home-study. In short, they pray that they can pull it off alone, as they have just about everything else. Most are horrified to learn that healing can only occur in the context of intimate human relationships. Many adult children spend the bulk of their time in recovery struggling to master their terror of depending on other people for emotional care and comfort. As they see it, their longing for love and care almost destroyed them when they were small, and it seems worse than foolish to let such feelings emerge once more.
Recovery is smoother, and unfolds more quickly, for those adult children who have had some contact, during childhood, with a compassionate, supportive elder—someone who provided shelter from the emotional storms raging at home, who shielded them from extremes of abuse and neglect, and who helped them to an understanding of their parents’ mysterious and frightening behavior. Whether such help comes from a grandparent, from an aunt or an uncle, a family friend, a therapist, or even an older, and wiser, sibling, it is always a powerful force for health, and continued growth. Any sustained effort to provide emotional support to a child in crisis, inspires in him feelings of faith about the basic goodness of the world, and strengthens his feeling of value. Someone cares. To the child, this means that he is worth caring about. Children from alcoholic families who have an opportunity to form a relationship with a healthy and helpful adult guide, come to recovery with solid feelings of hope, and with far less fear, than those who were left to struggle alone.
Parents are, of course, the most powerful figures in the life of a young child. It is their love, and their guidance, that is most cherished, most curative, and most eagerly sought. Some children are unable to accept the assurances of teachers, peers or therapists. They never feel truly lovable, or valuable, until they are able to secure the understanding, acceptance, and care of their parents. Things may go horribly wrong between parents and children, and families may remain divided, tormented, and angry for years on end, but children will still want to hear that their parents care, and that they want to work to make things right.
Parents, on the other hand, often feel so miserable about making serious mistakes with their children that they continue to pull away from their youngsters. They are afraid that they can never rectify their errors, and they choose to surrender the game rather than face the possibility of a heartbreaking rejection. They find it impossible to believe that their children can forgive the past.
Even though children may be deeply hurt, and intensely angry, they do not insist, and healthy development does not require, that parents get everything right on the first, second, or third try. Children are helped, impressed, touched, and healed, by a parent’s willingness to acknowledge mistakes, to attempt change, and to make amends when their behavior has created pain for the family. In the end, most children will forgive anything if they believe that their parents are still trying to love them, and still trying to be their parents.
What Recovering Parents—and This Book—Can Do
This book is designed to help recovering alcoholic and codependent parents keep trying with their children—because children can forgive, and because they are able to heal faster and less painfully as children than they can as adults. In fact, though a family’s alcoholic crisis may be extended and severe, with turmoil and anguish that run very deep indeed, the compassion, support, and understanding of just one parent can actually prevent serious damage to a child’s sense of self, and serve to strengthen and extend his feeling of selfworth.
Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home is not a general guide to child development or child care. It is, instead, a guide to understanding the life of the alcoholic family, and the impact of parental alcoholism and codependence on the developing child. It explains the ways in which family life tends to break down in the presence of alcoholism and codependence, but it also describes a strategy for reducing and repairing damage that has occurred. This strategy, which calls for parents to provide an emotional safety net for their recovering children, can be implemented even if the alcoholic parent continues to drink.
The concept of the emotional safety net refers to critical elements of physical and emotional security which recovering parents must provide for children to heal, and to grow. Children need basics—food, shelter, clothing, and protection from physical harm. But they also require stability from their parents, and emotional honesty,and a warm, welcoming response to their pressing emotional needs. These are precisely the functions that are most likely to break down under the pressure of parental alcoholism and codependence. And so, Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home provides a plan that aims at helping parents to build, or rebuild, a family structure that is constant, credible, and emotionally responsive. It proposes that recovering mothers and fathers can become therapeutic parents, creating an atmosphere in the home that is not only healthful, but restorative to the child in pain.
What You Will Find in Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home—and Where You Will Find It
This book is designed to provide support and guidance for parents who are familiar with the issue of familial alcoholism and knowledgeable about the process of recovery, as well as parents who are very new to these topics. The experienced reader may wish to skip or skim the next two chapters of this book which describe the impact of parental alcoholism on the family. Chapter 2 explains how the drinker and his partner change under the influence of chronic alcoholism, and Chapter 3 describes how children in the family may be hurt by parental alcoholism and codependence.
Chapters 4 through 10 should be helpful to readers at all levels of understanding and experience. Chapter 4 provides critical details about the concepts of therapeutic parenting and the emotional safety net. Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8 help parents to fashion the safety net. These chapters present a plan for the establishment of emotional honesty, emotional stability, emotional responsiveness and physical security in the recovering home. Chapter 9 provides information that should help parents decide when their children need professional assessment, in addition to parental support, and Chapter 10 discusses how parents can locate professionals who are qualified to provide assistance to families that are recovering from alcoholism and codependence.
If you are in the early stages of your recovery from alcoholism or codependence, you have probably found that there are days, and sometimes weeks and months when you feel overwhelmed by powerful feelings of fear, vulnerability and helplessness. It sometimes seems that this dark time will never pass. However, as your sobriety becomes stable, and easier to maintain, the apprehension and despair that have been such constant and unwelcome companions will start to recede. You will feel the beginnings of hope, and sense the possibility of true recovery, and even joy. Whether you are struggling to control your urge to drink, or trying to relinquish some other compulsive, hurtful behavior, your decision
to seek sobriety is cause for great optimism, and exhilaration. People do get better. Families do heal. Parents and children rediscover their love, and their collective strength, and begin to grow again. Anxiety, discouragement, and even periods of severe depression are a normal and inevitable part of the recovery process for most people. At times they will hamper your efforts to support and guide your children, but they are not a measure of your ability or inability to become a therapeutic parent. You can shepherd your children through this period of crisis and doubt in their lives. You can work with them, a little bit each day, to impart the strength, courage and wisdom they require in order to meet and master the challenge of their own recoveries. As you keep trying to sense, and provide what they need, you will instill in your children an enduring conviction of their own value. And you will inspire in them lasting hope about the endless possibilities for change and self-renewal in life. Then, they too, will be able to keep trying.