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Providing non-judgmental and non-criticizing support for family and friends of end-stage alcoholics through one-on-one coaching, support groups, blog posts, workshops and public speaking.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Save the children...

I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic home. I had a cousin who died of alcoholism, but as a child I never experience any effects of his alcoholic behavior. I also had an uncle who always drank too much at Christmas and was very funny. I only saw him a couple of times a year, so if he drank more often than Christmas, I had no knowledge of it.

My father served in the Army Air Corp during World War II and was a radioman for bombers. His best friend was a gunman and sat in a glass dome on the airplane. After many missions the plane was shot down, but the first hit was the glass dome. My father tried frantically to get to his friend, but could not reach him. The friend was sucked out of the dome and his body was never found. My father never flew another mission. He went on leave and before he could get back into a plane, the war was over.
My mother told me once that my father had a lot of drunken days when he was first discharged from the Army. The drinking lasted for about a year after they were married. Then, according to my mother, one day my father just decided to let go of the pain and guilt he felt about his friend’s death and quit over-indulging in alcohol. She didn’t know what the catalyst was but she was grateful to whoever or whatever it was that made him “see the light” as she put it.
All that happened way before they had children. It wasn’t for another two years before my older brother was born. So we never witnessed my father in a drunken stupor. Was my father an alcoholic? I don’t think so. He did drink a time or two during my childhood – a highball at Christmas, champagne at weddings, a hot toddy when he had a cold – that was about it. A bottle of whiskey could sit in our cupboards for several years and not go dry.
What if things had not turned out that way? What if my father continued along a path of self-destruction? Would I be the same person I am today? Would any of my four brothers be the people they grew up to be? I think not. I think we might not have grown into the strong determined people we are today. We’ve all had issues. We’ve all been rebellious. But in the end we are turned out to be responsible, caring adults with a strong sense of family and a healthy work-ethic. I think that maybe we might have lost the ability to be those things if my father had not stopped drinking.
Children who grow up in alcoholic families have a tough time in life. They have difficulties in school and lack language and reasoning skills. It is difficult for them to solve problems in work assignments and that falls over into social relationships. If they have a friend and the friendship hits a rough spot, it is often difficult for them to find a way of working it out. These children often have a low opinion of themselves because they cannot control everything that goes on in the home environment. Other children strive for perfection and receive high academic grades. They believe if they are perfect enough, then maybe the alcoholic will stop drinking.
In short, children have an over inflated idea of their responsibility for the alcoholic’s drinking. They do not understand that they did not cause it and they cannot control it. All this leaves them with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
It is not surprising to me that children who grow up in alcoholic families have a tendency to become alcoholics themselves. It is unclear if the alcoholism is a result of nature or nurture. I don’t think there is enough conclusive evidence to make that determination. But I do know one thing for absolute certainty and that’s that there is no room for children in an alcohol infected home.
I have often thought that if my son had not been raised in the presence of alcoholism, he might not have ever started drinking alcoholicly. Maybe my son would still be alive if I had left Riley and removed both of my children from the influence of alcoholism. However, Riley wasn’t around very much because he was deployed with his Navy unit for more than 50% of their childhood. So was Brian the recipient of some biological gene that he inherited from his father? It is just not clear. There were other factors that played a part in his death that had nothing to do with alcohol. But the end result is the same – my son died from alcohol related causes.

On the other hand, my daughter Alea, has no penchant towards over-indulgence in any type of alcoholic beverage. I’m sure she has experienced being drunk and has had a hangover in her earlier, wilder years. But, she is not much of a drinker. So what does that mean? She is Riley’s step-daughter, so she did not inherit any of Riley’s genes. But her teen years were difficult and filled with inappropriate behavior causing me to anxiously await her turn home after every evening that she went out. She protected Riley fiercely – after all he had been her father since she was six months old. They had a special bond that got stronger as she got older.

I just can’t help thinking that if I had left Riley and stayed away from him while the children were still very young, they would have a different life now. Maybe Brian would be alive to enjoy his life and maybe Alea would not have struggled so hard during her teen years. I’ve always believed that it takes a village to raise a child. If I had taken my children back to my village of non-alcoholic residents – my family – and provided them better examples of how to live their lives, maybe things would have been different.

My children are incredible. They are strong, independent, loving and I’m so very proud of them, even though one is gone. But, if I had it to do over again, I would not have subjected them to life with an alcoholic. If I had understood then what I understand now – I would not have hesitated for a moment.

If you are struggling with a decision of whether to leave your alcoholic consider the cost of staying from your children’s point of view. If you have very young children, do some research and find out what they might have to endure while wrapped in that insanity. It is scary to think about. Put yourself in your children’s situation. How would you want your childhood to be?


msterfun said...

Linda I've read your blog for over a year now and u think this is your best written and most helpful post to date.

I'm the product if an alcoholic home life and i do not buy into the alcoholism is a "disease" theory because i think that gives alcoholics an excuse to fall back on when they fail. I've had my problems with alcohol too and they were my fault. My weakness but like your father, i saw the light.

Very good post. Anyone contemplating leaving the alcoholic with children should read it, think about it and do what they need to do. Alcoholism is an anchor that will take anything attched to it to the bottom.

roxanne said...

I grew up in an alcoholic home. I begged my mother to leave for years. Alcoholism runs in both sides of my family. I had aunts and uncles who died from it.... cousins.....(young... one at 35, one at 42). I have two brothers and one sister who are either alcoholic or addicted to Meth. My dad quit drinking when my youngest sister was born so she never knew the life I did. Funny- she is now a meth user. who knows how the genetics play- one thing for certain, children should not be raised in an alcoholic home. it took me years to overcome the shame. I am 55 today and feel it took most of those years to get to the point in life where many others start in healthy homes.

jo said...

i am also a ACOA. we have certain traits, indeed, in common. but i dont drink, never have. dont want to.

what kept me with mine was ,besides having to tend to my parents for yrs...was he would get visitation. how could i keep them safe? i couldnt. i would never blame my upbringing on my adult choices, or let my kids do it. once your 18...sorry. its your choice then.

we all have genes...we inherit. my daughter is bipolar,,,very genetic. she is also a addict. my son is neither.

so if you only are leaving cause of the kids...think seriously of their safety also. and courts and laws. sometimes there is no right choice.


Syd said...

I don't know whether my father was alcoholic but I know that I have the "adult child" traits. I was the perfectionistic one who tried to bring control by getting perfect grades and being a good kid. I am grateful to not have the gene for alcoholism myself. But one of the reasons that we didn't have children is that I think we both knew that any children might have the gene and that our genes on both sides had alcoholism and depression. That's enough right there to deal with. Many people I know who grew up in an alcoholic home have low self esteem but are learning to let the past go. That has helped me a lot.

Anonymous said...

hers is a great post about this very subject

Anonymous said...

For me, leaving seemed more dangerous than staying. Their father would have had weekend visitation, during which he would have done the things I was there to protect them from: most importantly, yelling at or disciplining them when he was drunk or driving with them in the car while drunk. If I tried to prevent him from seeing them or had a court order for supervised visits, I was sure it would send him over the edge -- that's what murder/suicides are made from. I didn't have money for an attourney nor the ability to live on my own. If I had shipped off to a distant relative without custody, that would be kidnapping, and the kids would be recovered to him.

Now that our kids are older, though, I am discovering my own fears (irrational? maybe) as an enabler/caretaker have caused problems as well. For instance, my husband wants my daughter to keep her room clean, but I don't let him yell at her or discipline her, so her room is always a mess. I have hidden report cards and kept numerous secrets about the kids in an effort to protect them from being yelled at(assuming they'd have to endure an irrational drunken rant, criticizing them as individuals) and protect him from thinking the kids were less than perfect. Now I don't know if that was wrong or right (fortunately, I can't change the past, so I won't find out if it would have been worse or better to do things differently -- my guess is always that it would have been worse). They're in early 20's and late teens and don't have problems with drinking or drugs that I know of. But they have always had social problems -- few friends, trouble maintaining friendships plus numerous issues that thwart romantic relationships.

Drinking is the way my husband has always separated himself (he used to go out to bars but has now preferred to drink alone at home for several years) -- he's here every night, but it's like he's not here. He doesn't interact much with us in order to avoid confrontations (drinking exacerbates his depression and self-loathing, which can then sometimes cause him to say hurtful things to us). We all spend our evenings in our respective places, under our litte protective umbrellas, so to speak, every night in order to avoid any potential storm. We all disengage in our own ways -- the kids on their computers, me with my work, and my husband with his drinking & watching sports.

It's not all his fault. I play a huge role in this dysfunction by avoiding confrontation and keeping up appearances. Even if it were all him, I chose him to father my children. Not to be immodest, but I truthfully had my pick of any guy when I was younger. Why would I want an alcoholic? That's an easy one to answer: natural selection. In college, he was the best looking one, the life of every party, the one everyone noticed and liked, the one who could drink anyone else under the table but never even seem affected himself; he was muscular and protective of me, came from a good family -- he was the golden boy they adored; he had nieces and nephews with whom he played & wrestled. In that setting at that time of life, no man was more impressive.

Alcoholism and its effects are extremely complicated. Like you, Linda, my family did not drink much less have any problems with alcoholism. In his family, too, they had "cocktails" but never more than two; he had only one extended family member who was an alcoholic and died from it before my husband was born. Thus, I'm inclined to think of my husband's case as biological.

Gabriele Goldstone said...

If it truly is biological and not environmental - then it's too late to save my children - all young adults now. But what in the world made me choose the alcoholic in the first place? Maybe it was low self-esteem. I grew up in a very religious culture and when I dumped religion, I became a vulnerable young woman.

But who knows? I don't want to see my own children get caught up with an alcoholic. I'm hyper alert now to signs of the disease in someone else. And I've warned my kids that they have a genetic predisposition towards addiction. And then, all I can do is pray. (back to a healthy spirituality, as opposed to the institution of religion).

I so enjoy this blog!

Anonymous said...

This was a really good blog. I can see where my late Alcoholic BF's kids fit in to this...one was an over achiever to the max, almost manic and not only in her work but in her social life and she self imposed these crazy diets without being properly diagnoised. But, I can also see where it affected me--no friends at all as I wrapped myself around the A. Since he has been gone, I have changed so much, actually for the better..more relaxed...wonder why.

Anonymous said...

I believe I was always an alcoholic. Raised in an alcoholic home, too. Maybe it's a little of both, maybe it's genetics. As long as I stick to my program of recovery (I use the 12 steps of AA and I believe they have saved my life)I'm okay with me and I am useful to others. Life is worth living today.

With love,

Anonymous said...

Bless you, bless you. I am out and have been for 2 years, i have 3 small children. Luckily, I have full custody..probably would have stayed if I didn't think I would get it. I know I did the right thing for my kids. Luckily, I have my family and his family that give me wonderful support in all this crazy!

Furtheron said...

But then I grew up in a non-alcoholic environment and still became an alcoholic - my uncle (who I never ever met) had the problem - so my feeling is it is genetic and there is little to be done other than try to educate before it goes wrong, easier said than done I know... I'm very sorry for your loses - I do agree with getting the kids out, my wife didn't and I still worry if I caused any long lasting issues. Both my kids say no and are pleased that they have seen my recovery to date but still I can't help but think back and hope I haven't damaged them in ways even they don't appreciate

Jackie said...

I believe alcoholism is both genetics and environmental. You might become an alcoholic from one or the other OR both may be contributors. My mother's side of the family is loaded with alcoholics. She is an alcoholic, her parents, siblings and many of her other family relations have problems with alcohol. On the other hand, my father and his family members, had very little alcohol dependence. My brother and I don't have the problem, so we have been spared. However I married an alcoholic and we had two sons. My youngest son did some drinking in his younger years but has no problems with alcohol as an adult. (I divorced their father before he was born). My oldest son had started drinking early in his teen years and had a long hard struggle to stop. He is not perfect in this area but is doing a good job at controlling his demons. Both of my sons, who are now young men, are hard working and dependable people with wonderful careers. Both have families, homeownership and bright futures. I give them high praises because they both could have ended up just like their father or grandmother's alcoholic lives. I will always be glad I didn't remain in a alcoholic marriage. I truly believe my wonderful sons would not have had a chance if I had stayed and raised them in that environment. Especially my oldest, he would not have made it.

Beth said...

Whether you stay or leave, I would suggest being sure the children understand that their loved one is suffering from alcoholism/addiction; that we still love them, but this disease makes them unable to make good decisions. The children are not to trust this person or get in a car with him. And if the child/children ever feel afraid or uncomfortable, they need to find you or another sober adult.
As the child of an alcoholic, the worst part was that I knew in my gut something was wrong; but all the adults in my life pretended otherwise to "protect" me. I grew up not trusting my ability to make a decision.

Anonymous said...

I think some people have more of a propensity for addictive self-soothing behaviors. People bite their nails, overeat, drink, smoke, do drugs, or develop any number of habits as a way to give themselves attention where others did not. It seems, too, that the earlier it starts and the longer it goes on, the more a person connects the behavior to his/her identity, ingrains it in his/her culture, and has trouble letting it go. Many non-alcoholics go through phases where they drink a lot and other phases where they don't. True alcoholism is more than an on/off habit, and it definitely has a range of severity. It's comparable to obesity -- some people are morbidly obese, others are significantly overweight, and many are only 5 or 10 lbs over their ideal -- some work hard to develop a healthier lifestyle, and others die due to related complications just like alcoholics. And in the same respect, it can have genetic as well as environmental triggers.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 1:29
I don't think you personally have grown up or lived with an alcoholic (mild or not) or drug addicted person. All the things you said are true BUT the affects other members in the family get from the drinker and drug user will most likely cause a greater deal of emotional, mental stress and abuse. While the other mentioned behaviors may cause annoyance or embarressment. Neither of those emotions will create such an everlasting scar as the scars an alcoholic and drug user will create on their loved ones. Majority of alcoholics and drug users are abusive to family as well. Either in suttle ways or down right fiercely. I personally would prefer to have had an over weight, nail biteing, smoking parent over an alcoholic one any day. I think I would be able to handle that problem more successfully growing up.

Anonymous said...

Linda, I love what you write. Sometimes I disagree, more often I know where you're coming from.

Always I respect what you say and sometimes I think you are harsh. On this occasion, on yourself.

What happened to your son was probably very likely. Yes, predestined. Genes do dictate and without prior knowledge there is little you could do. Today, we could maybe try to deal with things but science is a long way behind biology.

Hang on, enjoy your life and remember your son with love. There is nowhere to put the blame. For sure, it does not belong to you.

Sometime we may have an answer to these problems. Meanwhile we will carry on the best we can.


Anonymous said...

Anon @11:40,
I agree with you. What I said about alcoholism's likeness to overeating was to draw a parallel with respect to nature v. nurture, but the analogy does not extend to the detrimental effects it has on others. I am, indeed, the caregiver for a late-stage alcoholic with whom I have lived for over 20 years. I post periodically, most times anonymously because of my own intense fears and shame (not of my posts but of having my alcoholic or other family members know the honesty I need to release here to people who understand because they don't).
I'm sorry if my previous post was misunderstood. I was focusing on the propensity to become an addict, trying to predict whether or not a child might show addictive signs in other behaviors before starting to drink. The older of my two children does not exhibit any addictive behaviors and seems to have escaped "the gene" as I'd refer to it. The younger of my two children does exhibit many addictive behaviors like the ones I listed and has numerous other personality traits common to our alcoholic. Thus, my focus and analogy stemmed from the fact that I am hoping there is enough in nurture to fight nature if possible (in the same way that a person who is biologically prone to obesity can control his/her weight). Additionally, I was trying to draw a parallel between the different levels of severity in addiction (which is intangible & abstract) to the severity of obesity (which you can see).
Sorry for the confusion or if I offended anyone. I guess I wasn't making the point very well.

Anon @1:29

msterfun said...

Point well made. And i think your child with the tendancies towards addiction has every chance at being a productive member of society, if they choose not to drink. In the same regard as an obese person can choose to eat healthier, the alcoholic can choose to abstain. Let us not lose sight of an alcoholics choices in a rush to give excuse to genetics.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post -- I actually felt my heart get a little bit lighter when I read it :)

msterfun said...

Sometimes you just have to put faith in the job you did taising your children and trust in them to do the rest. Sure, they'll make mistakes and the hatdest thing we will ever do as parents is to allow them to make them, but we all have made them. And we've all learned our most valuable lessons from the mistakes we've made.

I've recently taken the same advice in regard to my alcoholic father. His mistakes are his own to live with.