I was talking to a friend the other day about my childhood. In my early teenage years, my dad’s drinking had become untenable for us as a family. My dad was probably in the lowest place he could possibly be emotionally, ravaged by the grip of alcohol and a life in which he felt trapped.
This manifested itself in anger. A lot of anger.
Such was the anger in my family that we were afraid. So afraid that if my dad was late getting home, my mom would usher us all into bed early, to pretend that we were asleep. Dad would stumble in, crash about and pass out in bed, if we were lucky, after which we would all get up, fully clothed and carry on as “normal”. If not, he would wake us all, yell, throw things, and sometimes, occasionally, become violent. Mostly it was just extreme yelling and throwing things, but never the less the fear was abject and very real.
As I was telling my friend some of the things that happened, a look of real shock emerged.
It was an uncomfortable look.
I don’t talk about the details of my childhood very often.
We are taught to do that as children, to not talk about our alcoholic upbringings. “What happens at home, stays at home.” We are taught to live in secrecy, to protect the alcoholic at all times. And of course, we love our parents, and we don’t want to hurt them. We don’t want people to judge them and we don’t want people to judge us for the parents to which we were born. And so we keep the secret. And we are very very good at it.
But as I was speaking to my friend, I remembered how un-normal my family was. How dysfunctional it was. Her look of horror said it all.
When you are living with it, when you are living in it, you forget. You forget that the anger that is directed towards you, the violence, the mental abuse, the constantly moving goal posts, the chaos, the fear, none of it is normal. You forget that they are signs of a family in crisis, dysfunctional, unable to function.
And as I spoke to my friend that reality hit me once more.
As a recovering alcoholic myself, I have more compassion for my dad than I ever did before I became sober. I blamed him for my drinking habit. I refused to take ownership of my own behaviour. And I convinced myself it was okay because studies have shown that the teenage years are crucial in how we perceive ourselves in later life, that our teenage years are the time we most struggle to make sense of the world we live in, that these years are when we gain our most definitive sense of self. It is when we begin to forge our own paths, imagine a life without our parents and is a completely natural and necessary thing to do. And the alcoholic version of my dad robbed me of that. Now, as a recovering alcoholic, I know he was battling demons I cannot imagine.
I was my mother’s protector. From as young as the age of 8, I can remember standing in front of my mother, squaring up to my dad, daring him to touch her. And from that moment on I felt I had to protect her. It was my mom and I against my dad. Except she would never leave him. She loved him, saw his good and asked me to do the same. I was her daughter, I loved her and so I tried. I put up with the verbal abuse and listened to her as she stroked my hair whilst I sobbed in her arms, telling me that despite the names, the aggression and his wrath, he really did love me.
I knew I couldn’t leave. I wasn’t equipped to leave. I couldn’t imagine a life of my own. I had no sense of self. It was all I could do to keep the chaos from engulfing me. And so when I left school and then left home (just up the road from my parents), I had no ambition to be anything. I was so embroiled in my parents’ lives, even as an adult, that there was no question that I would start a life of my own. They were my life and whomever I married would just come into that fold.
And so I drank. To numb the pain of the disempowerment over my own life I felt. I handed over what little power I might have had to the bottle. All the while blaming my dad.
When I moved to Australia I broke my mom’s heart and the loss I felt, the guilt, at abandoning her – because that is how I saw it – never left me.
And when I arrived in Australia, I was like a teenage Sarah, just learning to forge a life for herself, on her own terms. Yet, I didn’t know how. I felt uncomfortable, awkward, lost, alone. And so my drinking got worse. It would take another three years for me to realise I too was in the grips of alcoholism and only I could empower myself to stop.
But our journey does not stop there. People think it does, but it doesn’t. In sobriety, we have to learn to live life on it’s own terms. We have to find our own likes, dislikes, wants and needs. We have to learn to trust our intuition. We have to face up to the hurt we caused. We have to face our inner demons, work through them and send them packing, so that a new dawn, a new day, a new us can emerge, stronger, better, the person we were always meant to be.
In my family, we don’t talk about what happened in our childhood. “It’s no good to dwell on the past.” “We need to move forward.” “Why dredge up what cannot be changed.” We tell ourselves all of these things. We are still protecting the alcoholic. He doesn’t like to be reminded and honestly, I don’t blame him. I cringe at some of the things that I did whilst under the influence of alcohol. I don’t want to be reminded of the person that I was. I want to look forward, I want to move forward and I don’t want to face the guilt that comes with knowing the repercussions some of those actions created.
But here’s the thing. We NEED to talk about it. If we don’t talk about the damaging effects of alcohol on our families, on our children, then how are we going to make the necessary changes that needs to take place in our society. Alcoholism is on the increase. Domestic violence is on the increase. It affects our families on a daily basis. Most of the incidences of domestic violence are caused by men under the influence, who as sober people wouldn’t dream of harming their families, but whose internal pain is so heightened whilst drunk, they beat and sometimes kill their partners and children. Measured against that kind of violence, I was one of the lucky ones, but violence did occur and certainly anger and fear is a bit part of my story. Scores of adult children of alcoholics are struggling to make sense of their lives because we just don’t talk about it.
I am so proud of my dad. He has been sober for 32 years this year. He has helped countless people become sober since his sobriety began, sponsored so many people. It was through his sobriety that I recognised my own alcoholism and I was able to find my own sobriety.
We lost my mom five years ago and when she was in a coma, near to death, but unsettled, it was only his voice that could soothe her, bring her peace. I have had to make my own peace with the fact that she couldn’t leave him in the dark days and in the end, didn’t want to leave him.
As a child, I took on the mantle of her protector. I don’t know if I had not done that how my life would have turned out. I know I was a child and did not feel I had a choice. I also know that my parents did the best that they could do at the time. My mom could see the good man behind the alcoholic facade. And she stayed with him until the end.
In this article by Dr Tian Dayton, a psychologist, a child of an alcoholic herself and the author of ” The ACOA Syndrome: The impact of childhood pain on Adult relationships“, she speaks of how growing up in an alcoholic household, you learn never to trust. You simply can’t rely on anyone or anything. You are constantly firefighting an ever increasing state of stress, a world that is glorious the one minute, and a war zone the next. Psychologically, you just cannot cope. In fact, it is becoming more and more apparent that adult children of alcoholics suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They carry the unresolved pain of childhood into adulthood.
I am working very hard at letting my resentments go – an absolute necessity for the recovering alcoholic. But I do wonder if my journey to sobriety might have been quicker if we had been more open, been more willing to work through what happened instead of assuming things would sort themselves out, assuming that life goes on, assuming that the very act of sobriety itself was enough to heal the family. Because it isn’t. It absolutely is not enough.
We need to talk about this. We REALLY need to be talking about it.
Until next time,
If you feel you have a drinking problem, please contact Alcoholics Anonymous
If you are an adult child of an alcoholic, or in a relationship with someone who is an alcoholic then please contact Al-Anon
Adult Children of Alcoholics is an organisation that specialises in the emotional recovery of growing up in an alcoholic family. It is an American organisation, but full of useful information