Pain and anger are the hidden burden for children with an alcoholic parent
When Mary Smith pulled the car off the road to answer her mobile and hear the news of her father’s death, she felt just “a calm relief”.
“Really, I had lost my dad many years before. His mind had gone at least four years before,” said Smith (not her real name). “Sometimes I think about what we went through and I can’t quite believe that we got through it. There were a lot of bad times.”
Her father was an alcoholic who drank himself to death. All the help his young daughters and his wife tried to get him, from detox programmes, to rehab, to psychiatric sessions, had failed. “He chose to drink, and he chose that over us. It took me a long, long time to accept he had a disease, but my anger had gone before he died.” Smith, now 27, spent her late teenage years trying to protect her younger sisters, support her mother and get help for her father. There was little time for her to enjoy her youth.
“I did take the brunt of it. No one should have to beg their mother to get a divorce, or their father to stop drinking and choose them over alcohol.”
Smith and her three sisters are among the 3.6 million people in Britain who have had their childhoods scarred by the drinking of one or both of their parents. The latest research suggest that almost one million children in Britain are today living with an alcoholic parent, but campaigners say the true number is far higher, obscured behind the front doors of a society where drinking is so much the norm that even social workers don’t take it seriously.
“If a social worker goes to a home where a parent is smoking heroin or cannabis, action is taken straight away,” said Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern. “But if alcohol is being taken, they won’t even bother recording it. We are finding a lot of problems with alcohol abuse not being included in case notes.”
He said that far too much policy consideration was given to drugs users, while the far bigger picture, the problem of families living with alcohol addiction, was being overlooked.
“It’s the forgotten issue, but it’s actually on a far greater scale than drug addiction,” said Shenker, who is calling for better training for social workers to recognise alcohol-related issues. “The support services are not there, certainly not working with the families. Even where alcohol dependency is being treated, no one is saying to these people, ‘And do you have children? And how is your drinking impacting on them?’
“It’s just not talked about… The kids don’t want to talk about it because they will feel guilty, the parents who are drinking [feel they] have something to hide, and society doesn’t really want to come out against alcohol. So there’s this mismatch where families at risk through drugs get strategies, but those at risk through alcoholism do not.”
But there is now a growing support community for children living with alcoholic parents, set up and run mostly by people who have been through the experience themselves.
This week marks the second Children of Alcoholics Week, run by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa), to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by millions who are, or were, parented by alcoholics. The charity saw the number of calls to its helpline double to 38,000 during a 12-month period over 2007 and 2008, and believes the hidden issue is blighting many more young lives than previously thought.
The campaign is backed by celebrities including Lauren Booth, Calum Best, Virginia Ironside and Geraldine James, all themselves children of alcoholics.
“As children, we were never allowed to talk openly about our mother’s drinking,” said actress James, who said she desperately wished there had been help. “I remember my brother being slapped very hard when he asked my father if she was drunk – ‘Never use that word in this house again.’
“I grew up feeling ashamed, frightened, lost, guilty and lonely; feeling unconfident, unsafe, unlistened to, unprotected, unloved, unlovable; feeling there was no one there, inside or out. But there was literally no one to turn to.”
It is a sentiment shared by Emma Spiegler, 26, a Nacoa trustee who started Children of Addicted Parents in 2006 after realising that children living in shame and guilt would find it easier to use online forums where they could have anonymity. Her own family was “pulled apart” by her mother’s drinking.
“There was nothing out there at all, and I know how lonely and isolating it can be. It’s all about loyalty and the guilt and the shame, it’s just so massively hidden.
“Mum was a social drinker from when I was about four upwards. She was in rehab when I was 10. But she drank at night, so it wasn’t until I was about 13 and starting to stay up later that I realised, and realised it wasn’t normal, the wine bottles lying around and her falling asleep downstairs. Unlike a lot of people, my mum wasn’t a violent drunk or aggressive, just emotional, so she would cry and get very vulnerable and say, ‘I’ve been a bad mother and I’ve messed everything up’, and I’d have to comfort and emotionally reassure her.
“I was a very angry child, really unhappy, and she was too involved in her relationship with the bottle to ever be there. I didn’t tell anyone and I don’t know why. I saw my dad at weekends, my parents were divorced, but I never talked to him about it. I think children just don’t. I lived my life for my mum.”
Spiegler’s mother has now been sober for four years: “I don’t think she really realises what happened.”
Statistics back the damage that drinking does inside Britain’s families. Growing up in an alcoholic household was inextricably linked to abuse, with 55% of domestic violence incidents happening in alcoholic homes and drink being a factor in 90% of child abuse cases. The NSPCC reports that one in four cases of neglect reported to them involves a parent who drinks.
A study by the Priory Clinic group in 2006 found that children who grow up with alcoholic parents bear emotional, behavioural and mental scars and their early lives were characterised by chaos, trauma, confusion and shame and, quite often, sexual and physical abuse. Studies have also shown that a third of daughters of alcoholics experienced physical abuse and a fifth sexual abuse – up to four times higher than in non-alcoholic homes.
The report said that children reacted in one of three ways: they became withdrawn, went into denial or used the experience to benefit themselves by becoming stronger. They also struggled to develop strong personal relationships. The report added: “Their feelings about themselves are the opposite of the serene image they present – they generally feel insecure, inadequate, dull, unsuccessful, vulnerable and anxious.”
Dr Michael Bristow, an addictions expert at the Priory, said: “There is a widespread misconception that addiction is all about the addict, that it is solely the addict who suffers. The reality? Alcoholism affects the adult alcoholic’s entire family, particularly the children.”
Partly because of their genes, children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics than the one in 20 average in the population that currently have the condition, and 50% will end up marrying an alcoholic.
Natalie McArdle, 26, is a new mother with a three-month-old son. After nine months of not drinking and missing the odd glass of wine, she is grateful that after having her baby the desire to have a drink has gone: “I am quite like my dad in temperament. And I am the kind of person who can’t have one glass of wine when I could have the bottle, so I am very aware and very conscious.
“From the age of about 11 my life was about walking on eggshells. My dad always drank at home, alcoholism is an antisocial thing. You don’t really understand until you start going to friends’ houses that not all dads are like that, obliterated by drink and argumentative. Christmas Day was an utter nightmare because he’d get drunk first thing, then go to bed, then get up again and drink more. You’d dread hearing the sound of him upstairs getting out of bed.
“My dad finally left when I was 16 and didn’t come back, and for us it was the best thing in the world. Most kids are devastated when a parent leaves, but we were just so happy. We could breathe in our own home again.”
But McArdle is still in contact with her father and helps with his care at a nursing home, where he is suffering from early onset dementia because of his drinking.
“At the end of the day he is still my dad and I love him more now than then, even though I get very frustrated that he can’t tell me why he did it to us. He can’t feed himself or go to the toilet and certainly can’t explain himself to me, and funnily enough he is back to being very aggressive because of dementia, so I’m a little bit afraid of him still.
“My mum comes with me to visit him sometimes and she is very good. I don’t blame her for not leaving him as she loves my dad and always thought it might just be his last drink. But it never was.”
What the late Mo Mowlam, who was patron of Nacoa and whose father was an alcoholic, called the “hidden suffering” of UK families is getting worse as excessive drinking becomes more of an issue.
“If this could happen to me and my family, how many other families must be suffering in silence?” said Mary.
Alcohol’s Hidden Costs
- More than 2 million adults in the UK claim to have been raised by parents who drank too much.
- 33% of children of alcoholics go on to develop related problems in adulthood.
- Out of 1,000 adults, 47 are likely to be dependent on alcohol – double the amount of people who are dependent on illegal drugs.
- A chemical known as THIQ only occurs in the brain of an alcoholic. It has been found to be more addictive than morphine and an effective painkiller.
- Some 40% of violent crime, 78% of assaults and 88% of criminal damage cases are committed while the offender is under the influence of alcohol.
source: The Observer