Alcoholism is one of the leading causes of a dysfunctional family in the US. As of 2001, there were an estimated 26.8 million children of alcoholics (COAs) in the United States, with as many as 11 million of them under the age of 18.
I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in an alcoholic home, or because I write a lot about what it’s like to be an ACOA parent, or what my sister is going through with her alcoholic ex-husband, or what it is exactly – but in my lifetime I have known many people who are alcoholic: I’ve known active alcoholics, sober alcoholics, spouses of alcoholics, ex-spouses of alcoholics who had to divorce them because of alcoholism, ACOA’s, parents of alcoholics, parents who are alcoholics, and children of alcoholics. When I was a child, I used to think I’d grow up to help alcoholics in some way. But now that I’m an adult, my focus isn’t as much on helping alcoholics as it is on the children of alcoholics – because the truth is, the alcoholic has the luxury of choice.
The children of an alcoholic do not.
They are innocent victims of their parent’s alcoholism and denial. I was talking to a friend last night who had to leave her husband because of his alcoholism. He had gone into AA briefly which had given her and her children hope, but then said it wasn’t for him and sadly, continued to drink. She went over to his apartment to have dinner with him since she still loves him, he is the father of her children, and she wants to have a positive friendship with him. She had told him that no matter what, she doesn’t want him to drink when he is with her, or when he is with the kids. He promised her he wouldn’t.
When she got there, he was drunk. He told her that he was looking forward to having her over for dinner so much, and he “only had one or two beers” (and a lot of vodka). She told me, “I just don’t understand it – if he was looking forward to me coming by for dinner so much, why did he do it? Why did he drink?”
I told her: He drank because he couldn’t not drink. He drank because he is addicted.
He has already sacrificed most of the things that mean anything to him at the proverbial altar of alcoholism – his wife, his home, the respect of his children, his future. He got a DUI, and now – if he keeps drinking, he will most likely lose everything else – custody of his children, his job, all his relationships, his health, perhaps his life.
I keep watching this scenario repeat itself and over again with people I know. The sad thing is my friend’s ex-husband is the nicest man. A heart-based, lovely, intelligent guy who loves her deeply, loves to be a father to his children – but who can’t seem to get it together to get his ass into rehab. I remember seeing this dilemma with my father – that he was a lovely man, possessed by the demon of alcoholism, so he wasn’t really himself: he was someone else altogether. Someone meaner, sicker, crazier, than who he was at his core. Someone who could not stop drinking. My friend’s husband is like this – nice guy that he is underneath the ism, he can’t seem to figure out that it isn’t his ex-wife who’s destroyed his life, it isn’t his boss, or whatever resentment he’s currently stewing over – it’s alcohol.
My friend mentioned to me that one of her kids told her, “Daddy’s drinking a lot more now than ever.”
He works, comes home to his lonely apartment, drinks, passes out. Does it all again the next morning. Sometimes his kids are there, sometimes not.
He thinks – like most alcoholics do – that his kids don’t know about his drinking, that they don’t know that he is an alcoholic. But they do. All kids know. He thinks that people can’t smell the vodka on his breath, but they can. His children can.
The thing that distinguishes alcoholism from other diseases is that it’s self-inflicted. There is a simple cure for it that’s not easy, but it’s simple: abstinence. If you were to tell a Cancer patient that all they had to do to get rid of their disease was to stop drinking alcohol – they would do it, happily. But they don’t have that luxury – their health is in the hands of their doctors, and of fate. Alcoholics have a big, fat luxury: they can get help and stop anytime. They can stop the progression of their disease, simply by stopping drinking and getting into a recovery program. It makes me so angry when I see good people, parents, fucking up their lives and the lives of their children with their daily and unbelievably selfish choice to continue to drink. Which is why I’m writing this, as the adult child of two alcoholics, let me tell you what you probably already know: there is a huge, huge impact from your alcoholism on your children (and on their children…and so on into eternity).
- Statistically, it’s highly likely that your child will grow up to become an alcoholic, marry one, or both. Your child is four times as likely to become an alcoholic than the child of non-alcoholic parents.
- Your child is watching you right now. She is learning all of your addictive habits and attitudes. You are teaching your child that it’s okay to commit slow suicide by drinking yourself to death.
- Your child has one dream: for you to stop drinking.
- You are putting your child in danger, even though you tell yourself you aren’t: by driving drunk or “buzzed,” by driving while hungover, by passing out and not getting up in time to get them to school, by associating with lower companions, and by modeling a dysfunctional relationship with your spouse, or if you are the spouse of an alcoholic, by looking the other way while your alcoholic spouse drives or cares for your children.
- Like me, your child will probably have to watch you die a predictable and horrendous death from cirrhosis – and while it will be horrible for you, it is your choice. It is not your child’s choice – they will have to find a way to cope with the grief and helplessness they feel, either by drinking, or paying for massive amounts of therapy.
- COA’s develop some or all of a set of 13 typical characteristics.
- COA’s show symptoms of depression and anxiety more than children of non-alcoholics. COA’s have lower self-esteem than non-COAs from childhood through young adulthood. They show more symptoms of anxiety, depression, ADHD, acting out, and externalizing behavior disorders than non-COAs. Some of these symptoms include crying, anger, lack of friends, fear of going to school, nightmares, perfectionism, hoarding, and excessive self-consciousness.
I know this little post here on my blog is probably not going to make a difference to you if you are an alcoholic parent or the spouse of one reading this, but I hope it will. If it does, please let me know. If you are the spouse of an active alcoholic, you can get free help from Alanon family groups, and you can help your child by talking to them openly about their parent’s disease, by reading with them about it, and by becoming aware that your own denial is also a breeding ground for a lot of dysfunction your child has to cope with. You can protect your child by not allowing them to be in contact with an alcoholic parent, going to any lengths to refuse to let them get in a car with their alcoholic parent, and by giving them a safe space to talk about their alcoholic parent with you.
Where To Get Help
- A Place 4 Kids – For kids – read how it’s not your fault.
- National Association for Children of Alcoholics
- Kit for Kids – A free 8 page publication for kids of alcoholic parents to read.
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- How to Help an Alcoholic Husband
- From Livestrong: The Effects of Parental Alcoholism on Children