Help for Adult Children of Alcoholics
“If you grew up in an alcoholic family, you have to straighten out the distorted learning and emotional confusion that came out of that up-bringing. There’s no way around it.”—Dr. George W. Vroom.
A CRITICALLY wounded soldier lies bleeding on the battlefield. Help quickly arrives, and the injured combatant is rushed to a hospital. The soldier has survived, but his problems are far from over. His wounds must be treated, and the trauma of his ordeal may last for years.
For children of an alcoholic parent, home can be like a battlefield wherein basic human needs come under attack. Some children are abused sexually; others are assaulted physically; many are abandoned emotionally. “It’s the same kind of intense terror a kid might feel when he hears bombs falling or machine guns being fired around his house,” says one young man, reflecting on his childhood. Little wonder that many children of alcoholics display the same posttraumatic stress symptoms as do combat veterans!
True, many children survive these traumas and eventually leave home. But they enter adulthood with wounds that, though not visible, are just as real and persistent as those of the injured soldier. “I am now 60 years old,” says Gloria, “and my life is still affected by the traumas associated with being born into a family with an alcoholic parent.”
What can be done to help such ones? ‘Share their sorrow,’ recommends the Bible. (Romans 12:15, Phillips) To do this, one must understand the wounds that commonly result from living in an alcoholic environment.
“I Never Had a Childhood”
A child needs to be nurtured, cared for, and constantly reassured. In the alcoholic family, such attention is often lacking. In some cases there is role reversal, and the child is expected to nurture the parent. Albert, for example, was his family’s breadwinner at 14 years of age! In the place of an alcoholic parent, a young girl named Jan carried the brunt of the household chores. She was also the primary caretaker of her siblings—all of this starting when she was merely six years of age!
Children are not adults, and they simply cannot function as adults. When parent-child roles are reversed, the adultlike children of today become the unfulfilled grown-ups of tomorrow. (Compare Ephesians 6:4.) Family counselor John Bradshaw writes: “They grow up to have adult bodies. They look like and talk like adults, but there is within them an insatiable little child who never got his or her needs met.” Such ones may feel as did one Christian: “I still carry a bottomless pit of pain from not getting my most basic emotional needs met as a child.”
“It Must Be My Fault”
When Robert was just 13 years old, his father died in an accident. “I tried to be good,” Robert recalls with his eyes lowered. “I know I did things he didn’t like, but I wasn’t a bad kid.” Robert carried a heavy burden of guilt over his father’s alcoholism and did so for many years. When relating the above, Robert was 74 years old!
It is quite common for children to assume responsibility for a parent’s alcoholism. Self-blame gives a child the illusion of control over the situation. As Janice says: “I thought that if I were better, my father would not drink again.”
The reality is that no child—or adult—can cause, control, or cure anyone else’s drinking. If your parent is an alcoholic, no matter what you were told or what someone implied, you are simply not to blame! And you may need to consider carefully whether as an adult, you still feel unduly responsible for the actions and behavior of others.—Compare Romans 14:12; Philippians 2:12.
“I Can’t Trust Anyone”
Trust is built on openness and honesty. The alcoholic environment is built on secrecy and denial.
As a youth, Sara knew of her father’s alcoholism. Yet, she remembers: “I’d feel guilty for even thinking the word because nobody else in my family would say it.” Susan relates a similar experience: “Nobody in the family ever talked about what was going on, how unhappy they were, or how mad we were at [my alcoholic stepfather]. I think I just tuned it all out.” The reality of a parent’s alcoholism is thus often enshrouded in denial. “I learned to not see things because I had seen enough,” Susan says.
Trust is further broken down by the alcoholic’s inconsistent behavior. He was cheerful yesterday, but today he is raging. “I never knew when the storm was going to start,” says Martin, the adult child of an alcoholic mother. The alcoholic breaks promises, not because of carelessness, but simply because of alcohol. Dr. Claudia Black explains: “The preoccupation with drinking becomes the alcoholic’s number one priority. All else is secondary.”
“I Hide My Feelings”
When feelings cannot be comfortably shared, children learn to suppress them. They go to school with “smiles on their faces and knots in their stomachs,” says the book Adult Children—The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, and they dare not share their thoughts for fear of exposing the family secret. Outwardly, everything is fine; inwardly, repressed feelings begin to smolder.
In adulthood any attempts to quell the emotions with an ‘everything-is-fine’ facade usually fail. If feelings cannot be expressed verbally, they may come out somatically—that is, through ulcers, chronic headaches, and so forth. “Feelings were literally eating me away,” says Shirley. “I had every physical ailment in the book.” Dr. Timmen Cermak explains: “The way adult children deal with stress is to deny it, but you can’t fool Mother Nature. . . . The body that is maintained in a highly stressful, highly tense tone for years starts breaking down.”
Adult children of alcoholics are strong; their survival from childhood trauma testifies to that fact. But more is needed than survival. New concepts in family relationships must be learned. Feelings of guilt, anger, and low self-esteem may need to be addressed. Adult children of alcoholics must use their strength to put on what the Bible calls “the new personality.”—Ephesians 4:23, 24; Colossians 3:9, 10.
This is no easy task. LeRoy, an adult child of an alcoholic, struggled to apply Bible principles in his own family for 20 years. “When I received all the loving counsel from the Society through the Family book and other publications, I couldn’t grasp the concept.a The result was that I did a poor job of applying the information. . . . Without feelings, I was trying mechanically to find and apply rules, like the Pharisees.”—See Matthew 23:23, 24.
For a person like LeRoy, simple appeals to “be more loving” or to “communicate” or to “discipline your children” may be inadequate. Why? Because an adult child may never have experienced these qualities or skills, so how can he express or imitate them? LeRoy sought counseling to understand the impact of his father’s alcoholism. This cleared the way for spiritual progress. “Even though this has been a very painful time in my life, it has been a time of great spiritual growth,” he says. “For the first time in my life, I really feel I am beginning to know accurately what the love of God is.”—1 John 5:3.
A Christian woman named Cheryl benefited from the aid of a social worker experienced in family alcoholism issues. She also confided in an empathetic elder. “It has only been since I got rid of all my ‘skeletons’ that I feel at peace with Jehovah and myself,” she says. “I now view Jehovah as my Father (something I could never do before), and I don’t feel so cheated anymore that I never got the love and guidance from my father here on earth that I needed.”
Amy, the adult daughter of an alcoholic, found that working to develop “the fruitage of the spirit” greatly helped her. (Galatians 5:22, 23) She also learned to confide her thoughts and feelings to an understanding elder. “He reminded me of the approval I really want to seek,” says Amy, “that of Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. Seeking their love and approval is never self-destructive.”
The Bible contains the written promise of Jesus Christ that those who come to him loaded down with anxieties will be refreshed. (Matthew 11:28-30) Additionally, Jehovah is called “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation.” (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4) Maureena says: “I came to know Jehovah as the One who would never abandon me physically, mentally, or emotionally.”
We are living in an age that the Bible calls the last days, a time in which many—even inside the family circle—would be ‘abusive, with no natural affection, and fierce.’ (2 Timothy 3:2, 3, The New English Bible) But God promises that soon he will usher in a peaceful new world in which he will wipe out all tears and sorrow. (Revelation 21:4, 5) Says one Christian who was raised in an alcoholic home: “We hope that all of us can make it together into that new world, where we will receive the total healing that only Jehovah can give.”
A CASE HISTORY
“I am an adult child of an alcoholic. My father became an alcoholic when I was eight years old. When he drank, he became violent. I remember the terror the entire family felt. At a time when I should have had a happy childhood, I learned to bury my feelings, wants, desires, and hopes. Mother and Father were too busy taking care of his problem ever to be there for me. I was not worth their time. I came to feel worthless. At age eight the role thrust upon me forced me to stop being a child—to grow up instantly and shoulder family duties. My life was put on hold.
“My father’s behavior was so shameful that his shame rubbed off on me. To compensate I tried to be perfect. I gave and gave, trying to buy love, never feeling worthy of unconditional love. My life became a performance, with feelings frozen. Years later my husband and children told me I was a robot, mechanical. For 30 years I had slaved for them, sacrificed my emotional needs for theirs, given to them as I had always given to my parents. And this was my thanks? It was the ultimate wound!
“In anger, confusion, and desperation, I determined to find out what was wrong with me. As I talked with others who had been reared in alcoholic homes, a lot of pent-up feelings began to come out, things never remembered before, things that had caused my frequent bouts with debilitating depression. It was like an unburdening, a catharsis. What a relief to know that I was not alone, that others shared and understood the trauma of my upbringing in an alcoholic home!
“I turned to a group called Adult Children of Alcoholics and began to apply some of their therapy. Workbooks helped change twisted views. I kept a journal to unearth additional feelings, feelings that had been buried for years. I listened to self-help tapes. I watched a TV seminar by a man who was himself an adult child of an alcoholic. The book Feeling Good, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, helped me to build self-esteem and improve my distorted thinking patterns.
“Some of these new patterns of thinking became tools, statements to cope with life and relationships. Some of these that I learned and applied are: It is not what happened to us that matters, it is how we view or perceive what happened. Feelings are not to be frozen within but need to be examined and expressed constructively or dismissed. Another tool is the phrase ‘act yourself into the right way of thinking.’ Action repeated can form new brain patterns.
“The most important tool of all is God’s Word, the Bible. From it and from the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with their elders and other mature Witnesses, I have received the finest of spiritual healing, and I have learned to have proper love for myself. I have also learned that I am a unique person with individuality, that there is no one in the universe like me. Most important, I know that Jehovah loves me, and Jesus died for me as well as for others.
“Now, one and a half years later, I would say that I am 70 percent better. Total healing will come only when Jehovah’s new world of righteousness has replaced this present wicked world and its god, Satan the Devil.”
The Bible says: “Counsel in the heart of a man is as deep waters, but the man of discernment is one that will draw it up.” (Proverbs 20:5) There must be discernment if the one helping is to be successful in drawing out from the deep waters of the heart the things that trouble a depressed one. There is great value “in the multitude of counselors” if they have discernment. (Proverbs 11:14) The following proverb also shows the value of seeking counsel from others: “By iron, iron itself is sharpened. So one man sharpens the face of another.” (Proverbs 27:17) When troubled ones communicate, “there may be an interchange of encouragement among [them].” (Romans 1:12) And to fulfill the Bible injunction to “speak consolingly to the depressed souls,” the one doing the consoling must understand the cause and ramifications of the depression afflicting the one to be consoled.—1 Thessalonians 5:14.
a Making Your Family Life Happy, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Blurb on page 8]
Many children of alcoholics display the same posttraumatic stress symptoms as do combat veterans!
[Blurb on page 10]
The alcoholic environment is built on secrecy and denial
[Blurb on page 10]
They go to school with “smiles on their faces and knots in their stomachs”
[Blurb on page 11]
“I now view Jehovah as my Father (something I could never do before)”
[Blurb on page 12]
The most important tool of all is God’s Word, the Bible
[Picture on page 9]
“Feelings were literally eating me away”