Alcoholism, a child’s perspective

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Dear Karen,

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.

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When you hear the ice clink in the glass, lie low.
(Photo: Caren Alpert)

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.

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Rule 1 in our alcoholic family: trust no one. (Image: alcoholaddict.info)

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. EmptiesI 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.

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Have I drunk too much? How do I know if I’ve crossed the line? Where is the line? Is there a line?

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.

Love,

Wendy

43 Comments

  1. Wendy,

    It took me three readings, fifteen minutes, and quite a few tears to put my fingers on the keyboard to compose a reply to this stunningly beautiful post. And I know that no matter what I say, it won’t be enough to convey to you how much it has touched me.

    What an honest and sobering post (no pun intended). That I played some small part in your writing of it fills me with no small amount of pride. That I played a significant part in creating a child of alcoholism fills me with pain, sorrow, and regret. I often worry that she’ll never get over it. I know that she says (and shows) that she has forgiven me, but I frequently wonder if she should.

    The writer in me applauds this post for it’s eloquence and for it’s message, the alcoholic in me can’t help but be reminded of the damage I’ve done. I like to remind myself that, like everyone else in the world, addict and non-addict alike, we are all works in progress. We can’t undo our mistakes, but we can (and should) learn from them. We have no choice but to live with them.

    From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for writing this. For reminding me, once again, that my choice to get and to remain sober, is the most important gift I will ever give my child. On behalf of alcoholic parents everywhere, particularly those of us in recovery, you have both my everlasting gratitude and my most sincere apologies. It is what I have to give and, I think, not only what you need to receive, but what you have earned.

    I’m going to hit “Post Comment” now. Because if I don’t do it now, I fear that I will erase this whole thing and, in it’s place, write something insipid like, “Great post. Thanks for the mention.” And you deserve better than that.

    Love,

    Jackie

    • Thanks so much for writing, Jackie. It really means a lot to me – your very heartfelt post earlier this week touched me, as you’ve shown me (and everyone else who read it) what happens when sobriety IS the answer.
      You’ve given “children of” hope, by showing us that there’s a way out of this dark snake pit.

      As for your daughter forgiving you, I can’t say anything about that as I don’t know her, but…I can tell you, if my parents had got help and sorted out their lives as you so obviously have, I’d have forgiven them in a heartbeat. Truly, I would have.

      I can see you travelling down a very healthy road and it makes me very happy for you and your family.
      Congratulations to you and to all of us for surviving this terrible addiction.
      Big hugs to you,
      Wendy

  2. The power of what happens in childhood at the hands of those we are supposed expect only love and care from never really leaves us and can pop up at the most unexpected times decades on. I am sorry you suffered so as a child. I like the saying you get two childhoods, the one when you are a child and the one you give your kids.

  3. Beautiful post. Like Jackie above, my biggest shame comes from being an alcoholic mother—that part of my past I believe will always haunt me, wondering what damage I’ve done to my precious, precious boys. In recovery and in meetings, I’ve learned what I can do is make perpetual, living amends to my children. By continuing in sobriety, one day at a time I can hopefully with God’s grace give them the mother they deserve. I read your post and it moves me. I have to commit to myself and pray when I read things like this though because if I let the shame take over then I’m not of any use to anybody either. Prayers for these 1 million children and bless you for donating to such a worthy cause!!!!!

  4. Having taken a long look at your blog, I think you’ve got a lot of wisdom to share regarding addiction and recovery. I am really glad you came by to comment today.
    I agree with you about not letting the past rule your present or future, I try to do that as well.
    Thanks for writing and all the best to you,
    W.

  5. Thanks for sharing, Wendy!

  6. Hi Wendy! I’ve just found you- and am so enjoying your posts. This one is a real zinger. I’ve yet to talk about this on my blog, but, I’m still trying to understand the chaos in my childhood home life. My mother and father didn’t really drink much, but he was still so strange/violent/unpredictable and my poor mother just spent a lifetime trying to calm the waters. Your post has given me the inspiration/strength to revisit this place.

    • Thank you for commenting – violence, verbal or physical, has no place in the home, and I’m very sorry you had to live through that in your childhood. It’s tough looking back on an unhappy situation and I wish you strength and peace on your journey.
      W.

  7. Very thoughtful and brave post. I like the reply about two childhoods, really something to think about. Thank you for sharing and being so brave.

  8. Reblogged this on Ambling & Rambling and commented:
    Wendy, over at “After the Kids Leave” writes about her childhood in this incredibly moving post. If you have a minute and you want to read something very special, please read this.

  9. Wendy, “We were always on high alert, ready for anything, never letting our guard down even in the quieter moments,” perfectly describes how my children and I lived. I still wonder how much I was able to shield my kids from their dad. I think that it was when I could no longer protect them, I got him out with an “order of protection.” Still, damage was done.
    My heart breaks for you, because you had no grown-up to protect you. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s takes strength and bravery to speak the truth. However painful, there is beauty in that truth, because it is real and it touches our hearts.

    • It’s so difficult to know the right thing to do when you’re in the thick of it, as you were. I think, living in that particular sort of hell, you dealt with the situation the best way you could. I’m so glad you were able to get out of there.
      Thank you for sharing your experience here, I’m sure it’s not an easy one to tell.
      Hugs,
      Wendy

  10. Thank you for this. Daughter of a Narcissist and alcoholic here. Your stories ring many bells, and although I drink socially, and sometimes in private, I am *always* nervous about crossing that line.

    So many of our generation had a family that looked like Leave it Beaver on the outside to casual observers, and was scary and unsafe on the inside.

    • My friend used to say “scratch a happy family and you’ll be surprised what you’ll find underneath”. That fits most dysfunctional families and certainly does mine. Our parents were Mary Tyler Moore and John Wayne to the outside world – both worked, were respected and acted like normal adults – but to their children? Not so much.
      Like you, I’m a social drinker but am constantly assessing my behaviour, not wanting to cross the line or even see it in the distance.
      Thanks for your observations,
      W.

  11. Your article aroused all my compassion.

  12. Very thought provoking post. I know a few people who could really relate. Will share. And bravo for you for having the guts to write it.

  13. Wendy this is so touching it is hard to find the words to reply. Your writing here is the best example of why blogging exists. From the comments above it is clear how many people you have touched and as this beautiful post winds its way thought the social media network, you will touch many more. Lisa

  14. I am also the child of an alcoholic. You nailed it. The fear, the spying, the never knowing from one minute to the next what would happen next. I also never invited friends to my house for fear of what they might find. I know well the terror of living with someone out of control. Thank you for writing this today. It makes me feel less alone even today to know that there were others out there, and that many of us do go on to live very happy and productive lives, scars and all.

    • I knew, when I started writing this post, that I wasn’t alone in the world, that others have walked and trembled in my shoes.
      What I didn’t know, was that I knew so many people whose lives have been touched by alcoholism. We tend to carry our childhood silence into adulthood; I’m glad I’ve spoken out, if for no other reason than it makes others more comfortable in speaking as well.
      How sad that we have this in common, but how fortunate that we can support one another.
      Thanks, Chloe.
      Hugs,
      Wendy

  15. Right now I hope you feel my arms wrapped around you, hugging you the way you deserve a friend to do. I am so sorry you had to endure this during a childhood that should have been spent having lazy, fun-filled days instead of hiding and tolerating what was going on in your house. I applaud you for your honesty. Marvelous post.

    • Cathy, I can feel them, thank you for your supportive arms! Childhood should be about lazy, fun-filled days, just as you point out. Together with my my husband, I made a point of ensuring that for my own children, and knowing I succeeded goes a long way to helping fade past scars.
      x Wendy

  16. Wow! This is such a nice post. And reading this will give strength to so many people going through the same situation. Well Done! :)

  17. I read Amblin and Ramblin’s post, the one that prompted this. Both are intensely moving and powerful. I’ve never been in the position of having or being an alcoholic parent, but it’s clear from both of you just what both those things can mean.

  18. I was not the child of alcoholics, thankfully, as I have seen and heard too many difficult stories of what it’s like to grow up with someone suffering from this disease. Your post is honest and revealing and scary and sad, but YOU are a triumph. My father was a temperamental gambler whose moods ruled our home, so though not a heavy drinker, he did scare me too frequently.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Sharon.
      The triumph I feel is that, Karen and I have 5 healthy children between us; we’ve broken the cycle of alcohol abuse and violence by refusing to model our lives on our parents’. We had to re-write the rule book and though it wasn’t always easy, it was definitely worth it.
      x Wendy

  19. WOW. What a remarkable and powerful story. Thank you for sharing. This is something no child should ever go through. I am so sorry that you had your childhood stolen. Kudos to you for stopping the legacy for your own children. Hugs to you and your family.

  20. My father was an alcoholic and my childhood was much the same, although I did have one sober (enabling) parent. Both my brothers were alcoholic. There were many years of sobriety for my older brother, but he relapsed and died from alcohol-related medical issues. My younger brother died Monday of leukemia, three months sober. Both of my brothers left tremendous scars on their two children. The scars on my oldest brother’s children are quite evident and quite profound. I don’t know how to help them. I try to reach them and they tell me they’re okay. I know they are not. I know.

    • I’m so sorry to read about the loss of your brothers; what a terrible ending to their lives. I feel for you, their daughter and sister, forced to observe and live through this nightmare again and again. Hopefully their children will seek help; sadly, you can’t force them. My best wishes go to you, along with big hugs and hopes that your family finds some healing in the future

  21. Very powerful post.

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