Rayne E. Golay
- Have you had the morning after drink?
- Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?
- Does your drinking cause problems at home?
- Do you tell yourself you can stop any time you want although you keep getting drunk?
- Have you neglected your duties because of drinking?
- Has anybody suggested you should stop drinking?
If you answer Yes to any of these questions, alcohol may be a problem in your life.
During my many years as an addictions counselor, I’ve worked with a large number of alcoholics. They all have one misconception in common; they have the firm belief their drinking doesn’t affect anybody else. Countless times, I heard them say, “I only hurt myself.” There is a great deal of research to prove that this is not true. Alcoholism is said to be a family disease because everybody in the family system is as sick as the alcoholic. The alcoholic’s behavior and mood affect every family member as well as coworkers and friends. As alcoholism is a chronic, progressive and fatal if left untreated, it is not to be taken lightly.
The most vulnerable to the effects of an alcoholic parent are the children. The parent is the child’s first and foremost role model. When this role model dysfunctions, the effects on the child are painful to experience, heartbreaking to witness, and have far-reaching consequences. These effects may last a lifetime. The child ends up having deep-seated psychological and emotional problems. The hazardous consequences of parental alcoholism are very similar to the effects of child abuse and neglect, which are evident in my award winning novel “The Wooden Chair.” In this book, my protagonist, Leini struggles as a victim of her mother Mira’s abuse and neglect while she also suffers from Mira’s alcoholic drinking.
Not all children react to parental alcoholism in the same way. Most of them don’t know what “normal” is. They live in an insecure and unstable environment, and don’t experience a normal family relationship. Because the alcoholic parent’s behavior is unpredictable, terrifying, destabilizing, the child learns to avoid bringing friends home, not knowing if they will be met with a welcoming smile, harsh words or worse.
In my novel “The Wooden Chair,” Leini, typical of the child of an alcoholic, hasn’t learned how to have fun. In the alcoholic home, so many birthdays, holidays and family events have been ruined because the drinking parent got drunk, became argumentative, querulous and outright mean. The child is filled with shame of the parent who passes out at the dinner table, and soon learns it’s safer not to bring friends home. The family’s dysfunction becomes the heavy secret the child carries.
Most likely the child didn’t see expressions of tenderness and affection between the parents, didn’t experience it for him- or herself. Consequently, this child has trouble with intimate relationships as an adult.
Like Leini in “The Wooden Chair,” children growing up with an alcoholic parent have huge trust issues. Parents are the individuals who normally would not lie, break promises, keep secrets, but when they do, the child soon learns to be distrustful. If they cannot trust the most significant persons in their lives, how can they trust anybody going forward?
In the home with an alcoholic parent, a lot of arguing, shouting, fighting is going on in part because the parents are very angry. The child becomes skilled in recognizing an angry person, is afraid of angry people because the anger may turn on the child, resulting in both emotional and physical hurt and suffering. Having experienced disruption, arguments and fights growing up, as an adult, the child gravitates toward partners with similar behavior as the parent. The adult child of an alcoholic stays in this toxic relationship in which more suffering is the daily fare.
From a very young age, the child is guilt-ridden. It’s very obvious that something is wrong with mother or father. Because of mood swings, crying, and staying in bed because the parent isn’t feeling well, the child carries a heavy sense of responsibility that the child should be able to fix what’s wrong, to make the parent well. The child also has the misguided belief that if the parent loved the child, the parent would be healthier and happier.
Because the alcoholic parent is absent most of the time, both physically and emotionally, the child feels ignored and becomes terrified of being abandoned. When Leini was four years old in “The Wooden Chair,” Mira left her alone at a busy marketplace. Leini was lucky in that a police officer came to her rescue, but not all children are this fortunate. Alone and defenseless, the child might be abducted, kidnapped, trampled by the crowd, sexually molested.
Many children who grow up in an alcoholic home believe they are different from their peers, that they are not good enough. As a consequence, they tend to avoid social situations and are inclined to isolate.
The big and so far unresolved question is whether alcoholism is a genetically predisposed disease or an acquired way of coping with stress and difficulties because that’s what the parents did. I have encountered adult children of alcoholics who are normal social drinkers. Then there are those who started drinking in their pre-teens, following a pattern of alcoholic drinking established by their grandparents and parents.
It may seem that the outlook is very bleak for the child of an alcoholic, that he or she is doomed to an unhappy, dysfunctional, miserable life. My motto as an addictions counselor is, “I alone have to do it, but I cannot do it alone.” In “The Wooden Chair,” Leini has the option of living with the emotional and psychological scars inflicted by Mira’s neglect and alcoholism. Fortunately for herself, her future husband and children, Leini decided to heal and recover through psychotherapy. There are competent counseling therapists and psychiatrists with loads of experience who can help the adult child of an alcoholic. Self-help groups like Al-Anon for the adults and Alateen for teenagers (www.Al-Anon/Alateen.org) are non profit groups whose support, love and understanding are invaluable tools to the person looking to turn his or her life around.