This is going to be a very different letter today, as I plan on being very humourless and very serious.
You see, last week I read a wonderfully brave post by Ambling and Rambling, about how she has fought her way through the tangled mists of alcoholism and is now living a sober, fulfilling life. I read that post with tears in my eyes and anger in my heart—not directed at the author of that piece, because I have nothing but admiration for her.
Rather, that anger is towards our parents, both of them. Mum and Dad. Both alcoholics, both invested in having their children help keep their addiction a secret, both of them lashing out should we dare to suggest something was wrong in the household.
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought recently and feel the need to give perspective on alcoholism from the point of view of a child.
My son and I were comparing kitchen injuries yesterday and he asked how I’d got a particular scar on my hand. “I got this one when I was 10″, I replied.
“And what about that one?” he asked next.
“Oh, around that same age”, I said, a little surprised at my clumsiness in that particular year.
I realized that when I was 10 or 11, things were bad enough at home that I was preparing my own food (both cuts were sustained while cutting carrots with a huge, honking knife). Having alcoholic parents, I was too scared to tell them that I’d hurt myself and maybe needed stitches.
I taught myself how to bake cookies at the same age, because Mum never entered the kitchen except to open a bottle of beer or to rescue a cremated roast she’d put on 5 hours earlier.
From ages 10–15, things went from bad to unbearable. I no longer made anything except quick exits. I avoided the kitchen, I avoided the living room, family room…my bedroom was my safe place. I learned to lock my door to stop them entering unannounced and unwanted. To this day, I lock doors behind me, having learnt my lesson the hard way 40 years ago.
Even when Mum and Dad were sober, they weren’t, not really. I discovered many years ago that they weren’t ever sober, they were simply “maintaining”. When they woke up in the morning, they needed a top-up to get their day started. Without it, they were grouchy, irritable and in need of caffeine and nicotine to help stave off the jitters of withdrawal.
When Mum and Dad appeared normal and sober, it’s not as though we could relax and enjoy being ourselves. We knew they could change in a heartbeat, their goodwill turning to judgment, harsh and ugly criticism, maudlin tears, or a horrible combination of all the above.
An alcoholic parent makes spies of their children. We were always on high alert, ready for anything, never letting our guard down even in the quieter moments. For a parent to believe they’re hiding their addiction from their loved ones is just delusional thinking. Alcoholism really is the elephant in the living room. We need to look above, below, and around the elephant in order to see clearly. We can never look through.
I was listening to the radio this morning and an appeal for an association in England called NACOA (National Association of Children of Alcoholics) came on. I listened very carefully and heard that over 1,000,000 children in the UK are suffering as we did. 1 million!
Geraldine James, patron of the appeal, is also a child of an alcoholic and she spoke eloquently about how she was unable to bring friends home from school because she never knew what state her house or her parents would be in. I identify with that. I had one friend I trusted enough to handle the strain of our household and guess what, her dad was an alcoholic. She knew, without discussion, what I was going through, and vice versa.
You and I were lucky to escape and manage our lives after leaving home, but our parents have left everlasting scars. I’m unable to watch people drink without wondering, “Have they had too much? What will happen if they go too far?”. I think that of myself as well, and am my worst critic if I think I’ve gone over my limit. I lived with the fear of turning into my parents for most of my teen years. Being the child of an alcoholic made me question every motive of my friends and of myself.
The legacy of an alcoholic household doesn’t fade when the alcoholic recovers or dies of their addiction. It is passed down through the generations, like water in the stream. Eventually, I hope the rocks in the stream filter out the impurities and leave our children and theirs after, free of this worry and this pain.
For me, it never ends. I’m lucky to have a warm and loving family surrounding me, but I wonder how many children of addictive parents can say that.
Today, I’m going to donate to NACOA, to help those who are too young to help themselves. Unlike you and me in the silence of our childhood, they need to know they are not alone.
- Getting off the crazy train: Resilience and adult children of alcoholics (afterthekidsleave.com)
- Wife, Mother, Catholic, Alcoholic (catholicalcoholic.com)
- How Does My Addiction Affect My Child? (everydayfamily.com)
- Children Of Alcoholics Face Ongoing Struggle (news.sky.com)