Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Children of the Alcoholic Family

Outside the home, no one knows of the prison we live in. As mothers, and fathers, we know the feeling of being trapped. We know the gloom of the home of the raging alcoholic. We can take comfort in our tools we learn from Al-Anon. We can learn to detach, stop engaging, focus on ourselves.

But our children.

For them, it is a different matter. How can they possibly understand that something is wrong? How can they understand that mommy's and daddy's bickering and fighting is about one person trying to fix and control the chaos and other - the alcoholic - someone who has no control of what they are doing.

In fact, with the alcoholic, it is like dealing with two people. Except, you are mostly if not always dealing the alcoholism. Remember, "cunning, baffling and powerful."

Our children do not understand this. And we, if we grew up around it, we also did not understand. But we tried to cope (we didn't call it this). We were too young to learn real coping mechanisms. Often the alcoholic took it out on us. In some cases, the sober parent lashed out at us, only because of the frustration and not knowing who to turn to and how to relieve their frustrations and stress.

It is not called "the disease of the alcoholic." It is called and known as the "the disease of the family." It is unlike any other disease on earth. It affects the entire orbit of the family. The enitre family system. All the children and the grandparents and others who come in contact, were and are extremely affected, without their even knowing it.

I read to you from the book, From Survival to Recovery, an Al-Anon book. I was asked to chair the meeting Sunday, and was asked to find something in this book. So I did. I never had such a response from a group of grown men and women before. Every one of the people were moved. And they spoke up, so candidly, about the affect the alcoholic and the alcoholism played on them or their children.

Here are the passages I read this past Sunday, written by those who struggled in the home as children; (from page 14)

In the alcoholic family, the need and demands of the alcoholic frequently dominate all other needs. Preoccupied with the alcoholic, the other family members may be too exhausted, irritated, or overwhelmed to provide for the children;s needs as well. Some children try to help their families cope by being quiet, good, and asking for nothing. While mastering the art of disappearing into a remote part of the house, or going to a friend's home, or becoming invisible in the midst of a crowd, those of us who "got lost" also lost a sense of self and the belief that our own needs had any validity. Some of us became human chameleons who changed our personalities to fit whatever social and personal environment we encountered.

Growing up with the chaos and unpredictability created by alcoholism cause many of us to mask our confusion, anger, and shame by trying to be perfect. To prove to ourselves and the world that there was nothing wrong with us or our families, we scrambled hard in school to get straight A's, or work feverishly at home to keep everything neat and tidy. We became star athletes, artists, corporation leaders, humanitarians, and outstanding citizens. Inside, however, we feel driven, terrified by failure unable to relax or play, and lonely. Toward less responsible people who seem to make our efforts at perfection harder, we often became self-righteous and angry. Convinced that something terrible will happen if we lose control, we run ourselves ragged trying to take charge of everything and never know how much is enough. Until we begin to recover, many of us are trapped in a compulsive need to give more, love more and do more.

Now I skip to page 17 in the same book.

Each member of an alcoholic family tries to adjust to the problem in his or her own way. Our adjustments depend on our situation in the family (whether we are a spouse, sibling, child, relative) and on our individual emotional temperaments. We have in common the tendency to keep changing ourselves to try to fix something that is not in our power to fix, someone else's alcoholism.

I add these words, to the final sentence instead of "someone else's alcoholism" - "that we did not cause, cannot change and cannot and should not take responsibility for. We are not responsible."

I think about that passage as it relates to my daughter.


Syd said...

I lived what you are writing about. Fortunately, there are no children involved but I was the child who went through the motions and emotions in a house where my father drank. It was painful.

The solution that I found was in working the steps, having a sponsor who cares, and going to meetings where I hear that I'm not alone. I have gradually found myself. I am sorry that you are in pain Joe. And I'm sorry that your innocent daughter is affected by alcoholism.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, you've described my personality and my childhood. I was the golden child. Invisible. Once I heard my mother tell one of my playmates at the front door that I wasn't home. I was home, just in my room, so quiet no one knew I was there.

The jury's still out on whether my family was alcoholic. My father had a mood disorder, so it was basically equivalent in unpredictability and the family being swept up in whatever storm my father was in. The Jekyl/Hyde nature of never knowing whether he was going to be happy dad or unhappy dad.

Joe, I feel a kinship with you. I feel I worked very hard in my earlier years trying to shed the patterns of my upbringing, working on "my stuff" so I wouldn't end up inflicting on the next generation what I had experienced at home. I beat depression. I beat an eating disorder.

Then I picked an alcoholic. I see now how that plays into how I grew up. But I'm at the point where I can stop the next generation from happening. I can say, No, I will not go down this path.

But I digress. My heart goes out to you, trying to do your best for yourself and your daughter. My heart aches for her, for the ways that your wife is unavailable to her.

If I can say one thing of encouragement, it's that at least you know. You are able to interpret and explain to her what is going on. If someone would have, at any point, come to me as a child and said, "This is not your fault. This has nothing to do with you. You can be as good or bad as you want and it will not change." it would have made such a difference. But we didn't know what we were dealing with. My mother didn't know either.

Catherine said...

This stuff with kids really is the saddest.

My mother grew up in an alcoholic home that sounds, from what ~very~ little I've heard from her and grandma, to have been just hell. It's heartbreaking to think of her and a sibling as little kids going through it.

As my siblings and I grew up, there was no alcohol in our home, but our dad suffered from a life-threatening disease that caused mood swings and other unpredictable behavior. My mother, already a skilled codependent, used those coping tactics to deal with him and with us kids. Why wouldn't she? Those are her tools. So, when faced with small failings like bad grades or pimples, she became a crazy, blaming control freak. But when faced with serious family issues like major illness, mental illness, family rifts, she became mechanical and cold and focused on how everyone appeared to the outside world, often minimizing the real problem.

I learned a lot from my mother and do love her, but my siblings and I are trying very hard to unlearn a lot of the unhealthy tactics that she taught us.

It's pretty clear that alcoholism is a family disease, but so is codependency. I know cos I'm third generation (at least!).

Anonymous said...

In a meeting the other day I heard someone say "I have been affected by the disease of alcoholism." That really resonated with me for some reason. Both of my parents were active in their disease while I was growing up. The effects of the family disease of alcoholism are astonishing in my life. I suffer from the disease just as much as they do.

Even today I constantly strive for perfection in everything. I always feel that I'm not "enough." Not good enough, not thin enough, not career oriented enough . . .Not (insert whatever word, thought etc here) enough. All I know for sure is that working my program can help me to come back to a connected place and feel ok about things.

Joe, I only know of your situation from what I read here. And all I can say is that it is so apparent how much you love and care for your daughter. And how lucky she is that at least one parent is active in recovery.

Keep comin' back.

Joe said...

Thank you all for your thoughts. Having a tough time right now.