“Please, please, please – don’t let her be drunk.” Those were the words of my little prayer, the one I would whisper to myself every day, over and over, as I walked home from school and stood with my hand on the front door handle to my childhood house — from the time I was in kindergarten, on through high school. You see, my mother (and father) were addicts – alcoholics, actually. My mother was beautiful and loving and charming, and I adored her. She literally was my whole world, and when she was sober she made me feel like the center of her universe as well. But every few weeks, or even months, after I was lulled into hoping maybe, just maybe, she had stopped for good, I would repeat my little prayer, and as I walked in the house I knew immediately it had not been answered that day. She had that “look” on her face – angry, harsh, not really my mother at all, unkempt, clearing her throat in that way she only did when she had been drinking. Or sometimes worse, she would not be standing there, but I knew by the smell, and the feel of the house, that she was back in her bedroom, passed out. Thank God, she was finally able to quit, for good, when I was just over fourteen. But then my father’s drinking got progressively worse, and he became addicted to oxycodone in his later years. He never really stopped.
We hear so often that addiction is a family disease. It really is. It profoundly affects not only the addict, but also each and every member of the family; in fact addiction turns the entire family unit upside down. But here I want to talk in particular about the effects of addiction on the children of addicts. And about what we, the sober adults in their lives, can do to help those children.
So, what does being the child of an addict mean? First, for me, it meant that feelings, and talking openly, about anything, were not allowed. If I asked where Mommy was, or why she was “acting funny” (even then I knew not to say “drinking”), my father got furious. Or worse, he instantly became cold and distant, and often went off to pour himself a brandy. Or, sometimes, if I raised the subject with both my parents in the room, there would be violent, screaming fights, and chaos. Or sometimes the police would arrive, or an ambulance, with lights flashing and sirens blaring. And Mommy would be suddenly taken away, for long periods of time, with no explanation. I soon learned it was much safer to ask no questions, and display no emotions. Anger was scary, and to be avoided at all costs. Displeasure or raised voices or fighting meant something really bad was going to happen, and usually did.
Lorelei Rozzano explains this so eloquently: “Growing up in an alcoholic family, I learned early not to rock the boat. I held my breath and walked on eggshells. I felt responsible for my Father’s drinking and my Mother’s sadness…. Because my parents were so caught up in the drama playing out in their relationship, they never noticed their little girl was suffering…I worked hard to contain my emotions. My needs were minimized. The message was loud and clear. I was not important. The alcoholic in our home got all the attention. Life revolved around meeting the addicted person’s needs.”
Another, related effect, for me anyway, of living in an alcoholic family – I became the ultimate people pleaser. I tried everything I could to maintain peace. I learned to observe, to watch my parents, and other adults carefully. And if there was even the slightest sign of discord, I would immediately try to ward it off by trying desperately to make everyone happy, in any way I could. Being a “good girl”. Getting good grades. Following the rules. Making my own meals, even when I was as young as five or six years old, and often my parents’ as well. Cleaning up messes. Anything, and everything, just to keep them calm. Of course, that rarely worked. As the National Association for Children of Alcoholics puts it: “Children who have been traumatized by living with addiction become very adept scanners; they are constantly reading their environment and the faces of those around them for signs of emotional danger. If they sense emotions in another person that make them feel anxious, they may lapse into people pleasing in order to alleviate potential “danger.” They may have learned as children that if they could calm and please their acting out parent, their own day might go more smoothly; i.e., they might experience less hurt. Such people pleasing strategies also get carried into intimate relationships in adulthood. The upshot of all this is that ACOAs sometimes lack the ability to live comfortably with the natural ebb and flow of intimacy.”
So, as Lorelie Rozzano says, I absorbed the rules in a family of addiction: “Don’t talk, Don’t trust, Don’t feel.” Of course there are many, many other negative effects on children of addicts, including depression, anxiety, lack of self worth, substance abuse, divorce, suicide, physically and/or emotionally abusive relationships, poor scholastic performance, and more, all of which are significantly more common among children of addicts vs. children from non-addicted families. I experienced some of these, but not all. I became the ultimate “good girl”, a good student, a pleaser, the “nice girl” who tried to never, ever make anyone mad. Of course I also had my share of depression, anxiety and unhealthy relationships as a result. For some unknown reason, perhaps some genetic quirk, I never became an addict myself. But I learned how to be an expert enabler for both of my parents, and later for my addict son, Sam, who is now, thankfully, over four years in recovery, and who is, I am very proud to say, giving back to others through his tireless work at Amethyst Recovery.
But what can we do to help such children of addiction, both when they are young, and as they grow into adulthood? By no means do I have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions:
- Talking – Talk to the children in families of addiction, in an age appropriate way. Children in families of addiction need to know it is okay to talk about what is happening, and about their feelings. Naturally, children of different ages will require different levels of language and varying kinds of conversations. A preschooler might only need to hear that Mommy or Daddy is sick, but it is not the child’s fault, and that a responsible adult will always be there to take care of them if the parent isn’t able to. As children get older they become progressively better equipped to understand and talk openly, and in a more sophisticated way, about the addiction within their own families. Here is one excellent article by Dr. Tiffney Yeager that provides more specifics on how to talk to children of different ages about addiction.
- Counseling – An individual therapist or counselor with training in the field of addiction may offer another way to help children with addicted loved ones. I wish very much someone had offered this to me as child; it would have been so helpful and so comforting to talk with an professional who really understood, and could empathize with my experiences, who could guide me with some strategies to better deal with my situation, and who could help me better understand that my parents’ addiction was not my fault, that I did not cause it, and neither could I control it nor cure it.
- Support Groups – There are many wonderful support groups out there, particularly for teenagers and adults who have grown up in families of addiction. Alateen (for teenagers), Al-Anon and Nar-Anon (for adults) can all provide invaluable support, meetings and resources. I remember so well the first time I attended a Nar-Anon meeting, when I first found out my son Sam was an addict. I felt like a door was opening to a whole new world; one I very much wish had been opened for me much earlier.
I can gratefully conclude by saying that my life is finally in a very good place. Both of my beautiful sons are well and happy, and my second marriage is a sound and loving one. But I needed years of therapy and later Nar Anon to get me here, and I am of course still a work in progress. And I should add, I fully recognize that at one time or another, everyone is confronted with difficult challenges in their lives, and many of those challenges are much worse than the ones I describe here. So I am telling my story neither to make anyone sad, nor in search of sympathy, but rather, simply to raise awareness about the effects of addiction – on addicts, on families, and here in this article, on children. My wish is that no child of addiction will have to suffer in silence, and that there will always be someone, some sober and loving adult, who is there to help and to talk and to listen. My heartfelt prayers go out to each child, each family and each addict who is dealing with the horrific disease of addiction. May there always be someone out there, ready and willing to help each and every one of you.
Laurie Kesaris, July 2015