Alcoholism In Your Family History and its Traumatic Effects on You!

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

Are you living with an alcoholic parent? Are you still battling against memories of your childhood with an alcoholic parent? Maybe you are/were the alcoholic parent and now you live with crippling regret as you watch your grown child have many consecutive failed relationships because of alcoholism. Whether they are the abused or the abuser in an alcohol-influenced relationship, you may gaze upon them with sadness as you blame yourself.

You are not alone. Millions have their stories to tell. Healing is not beyond your reach.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an esteemed provider of fresh information and statistics, reported that 19.7 million Americans, from age 12 and up, fought against substance abuse in 2017. That same year, 74% of the adults fought against alcohol abuse, 38% against drug abuse, 1/8 fought against drugs and alcohol abuse simultaneously, 8.5 million suffered with a mental health disorder and substance abuse disorder together, and other co-morbidities.  When combining all expenses spent on crime-related activity, workplace concerns, and healthcare linked to substance abuse and addiction, the total was $740 billion. [1] The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) calculated it at $600 billion. [3]

966,000 of those age 12 and up were cocaine users in 2017. 637,000 of them accepted therapy to thrash and crush that demon. But whether they relapsed or remained abstinent hasn’t been found. [1]

Cocaine users are 15 times more likely to also be addicted to heroin. Heroin seduces about 652,000 people and 25% will become ensnared in the addiction. Its accursed, fiendish presence has been on the rise for the past 2 decades. Alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs are said to fan the flames for heroin use and addiction. Many might find it unexpected that non-Hispanic white males between the ages of 18 and 25 are at highest risk. [1]

When compared to the total American population, 14.5 million of us (5.3%), aged 12 and up, is a number that seems to be scanty or negligible. According to Americanaddictioncenters.org, only 10% of American children have an alcoholic parent. [1] Drugrehab.com calculated that 28 million American children have alcoholic parents, 11 million of which are under age 18. [2] However, every year 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes. If you ask me, that is a lot of people and a lot of needless fatalities if alcohol is in third place for the top causes for avertable death in America. What I find to be the subtle and sly tormentor, here, is that over half of all adult Americans have a family history with alcoholism. You may not realize it. You may turn a blind eye. But such a thing wreaks havoc on the psyche. [1]

The answers may be elusive as to how we arrived at this point in our history. What causes a lot of us to do this thing that is so obviously dangerous? The paths leading to this hellish existence may be many and hard to identify, but this fictional story might be able to illustrate:

Pretend that you work a backbreaking job. It could be any arduous job that comes to mind. Consider the life of an auto mechanic who must often work in awkward positions on a hard ground that indurates his skin as he works with sharp objects that pierce his skin too. Consider the life of a Certified Nurses Aide (CNA) who must lift elderly, ill, and obese people into and out of bed every day. Imagine injuring your back due to lifting someone by yourself or lifting wrongly. Consider the life of delivery drivers who always must move fast and carry heavy, unwieldy packages. What are the odds of your getting a substantial injury, even if you are so cautious with every step you take?

Let’s say that one day the injury happens. You would like to undergo therapy, but your insurance can’t cover it. What now? You can’t bear the pain. It’s too distracting. Your boss wants you to work like the efficient, irreproachable, unbreakable beast you were before. How can that be possible when the stabbing, shooting pain all througout your body is slowing you down?

Your family is depending on you, though. You have a mortgage to fulfill, and you are one month behind on payments. The gas company and electric company are threatening to shut down your utilities because you are too far behind on your payments to them. Your car needs some very imperative repairs. Maybe the thermostat is not working properly and causing the car to overheat. Maybe one of your head gaskets is needing replaced. That is a lot of money, and you need to work overtime to cover it all. But how can you work longer hours with your acutely wounded self?

Your children and spouse are already really riled up about the overtime hours you have done, because you hardly have been able to spend time with them. On top of the physical pain, you are daily discountenanced by the stress of pleasing everyone.

Have I painted a picture that is saddening enough, yet?

One day, you think you are going to have just one drink. But that turns into two. Then three. Time flies by and you are many drinks into the most uncouth stupor, imaginable. You feel like a prattling idiot every time you try to talk, but at least your physical pain is numbed enough that it can’t distract you from finishing your work.

You know this is bad, but the emotional pain caused by your nagging spouse and obstreperous, rebellious children coupled with the belittling words of your boss, and your aching, throbbing pains are all worse than looking like a fool. Nothing is worse than that, except suicide. So, you must numb yourself. You feel seamless, fluid, and normal when you drink, but you know you have to hide your alcohol consumption at work, obviously. You reason that if they want you to function well, this is what needs to happen.

There have been days and nights when your children watched you stagger through the doorway after being out, getting wasted. There have been days and nights when your inebriation began inside the house. This lifestyle has made you behave like Jekyll and Hide. Your inebriated self is cruel, rotten, lewd, and highly irascible. You feel angered by anything that can be remotely associated with how your friends and spouse have criticized you about your drinking. You can’t stand the sound of people attacking and undermining the only thing you have left to keep you sane. You are tired of defending yourself. Your logic is incontrovertible, but no one else wants to see that. So, the only way to get through to them is to yell, belch, and thrash about. The children don’t recognize you when you are drinking. The slurring, corrosive words that spew forth from your lips and your pummeling fists make the kids cower and hide underneath their blankets.

Every alcoholic scenario is different. Maybe this is a hyperbolic, grandiloquent version of what happens. Maybe this level of depravity is not as common for the alcoholic as I think, but I have heard similar horror stories. The point of this is to draw attention to how a child might be affected by such abnormality when he/she is in the budding, introductory stages of learning what is a healthy, normal life.

Maybe Elysz, a Recovery Support Specialist at The Granite House for Women, would agree with me that such grody goings-on are typical in the lives of alcoholics. I reference her GRC blog story down below in my source section. [6]

Her mother was a teacher and her father was a mechanic who were skilled at appearing normal to outsiders. Her mother could not stop her alcohol consumption after coming home. A bit unlike the fictional story I told above, Elysz was conditioned to think that it was normal for her mother to frequently drink and always have adult friends over. [6]

Child protection services eventually investigated the family, after which the father ceased drinking, but the mother couldn’t. As Elyz puts it, her mother could cease for a week or more, but would start up again and be worse than before. The father would ignore the problem, but I imagine the problem had to be difficult to ignore when the mother would become violent and call the police on him, so she could play the victim. [6]

Elysz did not have her epiphany about alcoholism until after her father was hospitalized because of a tragic motorcycle accident. Their electricity was shut off, and their car was repossessed. Elysz’ world collapsed.

Her mother hid alcohol in various spots throughout the house. Her mother took alcohol with her wherever she was teaching. Elysz was informed by friends about this, but she felt compelled to deny it. How then could she explain to herself the fact that her mother was being repeatedly fired from schools? [6]

Though Elysz was desperate to escape from the peacelessness in her home, she left home and still found herself in peril elsewhere. She dated a nice man who had a healthy family that “sat down for dinner every night and talked about their day.” But she couldn’t escape the feeling that she didn’t deserve this, and so their relationship crumbled as a result. She states that she had to spend time with people whose lives were inferior like hers. So, she dated a heroin addict. [6]

After being arrested for getting caught with her boyfriend’s marijuana in her car, she had to stay with her parents, a time during which they had a fight and the mother attacked the wheelchair-bound father suffering with muscular sclerosis. A divorce ensued. The stress and dysfunction of her parents’ marriage was placed on her. Elysz and her sister tried to help their mother get into a detox program. Though she completed the program, she would later fail a breathalyzer test at a homeless shelter, from which she would be discharged and start living under a bridge. To Elsyz’s knowledge, her mother is alive but they are not in contact. [6]

Can you imagine the guilt, shame, embarrassment, and regret that Elysz must feel, connecting every stage of her mother’s self-destructiveness to a single cause: alcoholism?  Elysz’ story continues on with her undergoing recovery programs. She isn’t recovering from her own addiction, though. It’s her mother’s addiction. And she has needed to confront the fact that she is powerless over her mother’s addiction and that she is not responsible for being her mother’s savior.

Does a child deserve to be encumbered with such self-blame for his/her parents’ addiction? “If only I can be better and smarter, mommy or daddy won’t feel so stressed out nor be weird and scary.” A child can’t realize that this guilt-ridden assumption is false. Since the parent is the superhero and is always right, the child will always think he/she is wrong. [4]

The child can be impaled with fear. “Will mommy or daddy get drunk today and scream at me? I don’t want either of them to call me nasty names like they had yesterday. What if they throw things around the house and break the nice things we have? What if they hurt me so badly that I must go to the hospital? I don’t want them to spit at me, curse at me, or hit me.” [4]

Mood swings that may involve being affectionate, kind, and loving one minute, but aggressive and blaring the next, is not uncommon from parents with alcohol use disorder and it can terribly confuse the child. Erratic and unpredictable schedules for the child in the household are not uncommon in this context, which is very unhealthy, as all children need consistency. “Am I going to get 3 meals today or just 1? When will mommy or daddy put me to bed? Are they going to make me stay awake until 12 a.m. tonight like they did last night, because neither of them came into my room to tuck me in?” These are questions no child should ever be forced to ask. [4]

Does a child deserve to be expected to maintain secrets? Don’t they deserve to talk about their home life or have friends visit them in the home? This loss of normalcy can be expected with alcoholic parents. A parent’s alcoholism can be so severe that the child must think of clever ways to explain away the parent’s behavior when intoxicated in public, whether in front of strangers or people the child knows. Should a child witness such indecency so prematurely in life? [4]

A child’s anger caused by a parent’s alcoholism can interfere with the child’s school performance, peer interaction, and desire for success. The aftereffects of a parent’s repeated broken promises and untrustworthy decisions extend into the child’s adulthood, where the past impinges upon the child’s worldview and causes him/her to expect others to act similarly. [4]

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported in 1997 that prestigious clinicians, as far back as the 1980s, have observed environments of children of alcoholics (COAs). They labeled these environments as rowdy, undisciplined, and deviant, wherein the child’s normal psychological development and interpersonal functioning are spoiled on extreme levels. Although, the NIAAA concedes that most of these COA descriptions have been anecdotal from people seeking help for various psychological and behavioral problems. [5]

Professional writers, including those from the NIAAA, apparently still endorse the premise that COAs are at greater risk than non-COAs of becoming alcoholics themselves later in life, through both genetic and environmental impacts.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, there has been empirical interest in the damages to posterity caused by alcohol, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it really picked up. El-Guebaly and Offord (1977) documented a plethora of defects caused by alcoholism, including fetal alcohol syndrome. First, we can observe this in the infancy stage. We see it in childhood when emotional difficulties and hyperactivity manifest. Behavioral and emotional troubles occur in adolescence. Then, the development of alcoholism is the final step in adulthood for the child. [5]

Research in this field has needed decades to improve. Alcoholics are a heterogeneous group, and therefore, it is not easy to make valid generalizations about COAs. It is really hard to understand alcoholism’s symptoms and effects apart from the other co-morbid disorders. COAs are often parented by depressed people, agoraphobics, and antisocial personality disorder sufferers.  Whatever psychopathology the COAs have can’t always be imputed to the parent’s alcoholism, because the parent’s other disorders could be causal. For the parent, what came first or caused the other? Did the alcoholism cause the other mental health issues, or did they cause the alcoholism? Important controversies persist on the subject. [5]

It is true that high levels of depression and anxiety reportedly plague COAs, but that doesn’t prove the parent’s alcoholism to be the cause. [5]

The lives of alcoholically victimized children are said to be patterned with “rule breaking, defiance, aggression, inattention, and impulsivity—and corresponds to what is termed ‘attention deficit and disruptive behavior disorders’ (i.e., attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], oppositional defiant disorder [ODD], and conduct disorder [CD]) in the DSM–IV.” [5] Alcoholically influenced children, as a group, express many traits associated with this extensive category of disorders based on reports going back to the 90s. [5]

Early literature on alcoholism in family histories and their behavior disorders were imprecise compared to the literature of today and were written before the most up-to-date diagnostic criteria could be canonized. [5]

But the NIAAA seemed to be confident about some things such as the following:

 “Despite provocative findings concerning the link between parental alcoholism and childhood behavior problems, the existing database is limited. Relatively few studies have included careful diagnoses of large samples of parents and children, and these samples rarely are followed over time. However, this situation is changing rapidly. Within the next few years, researchers should be able to make more specific and definitive conclusions.” [5]

Whatever controversies abound, scientists and other professionals apparently have reached the consensus that COAs are 2 to 10 times more likely than non-COAs to become alcoholics, later. [5]

Studies done in many countries have discovered associations between dangerous alcohol intake and child abuse, whether it be by physical or emotional affliction, fondling of the genitals or penetration, neglect, or commercial exploitation with the consequence of actual or potential damage to the child’s health, survival, psychological development, self-respect or poise in the context of the adult having responsibility, trust or power over the child. 35% of transgressors surveyed in the United States admitted to drug or alcohol use at the time of the child maltreatment event. 32% of transgressors of fatal child abuse in Germany (1985-1990) were intoxicated at the time of the event, and 37% of them were recurring alcohol-abusers. 1.7 per 1,000 live births in the Northern Territory of Australia were reportedly affected by fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effects. Canada reported alcoholic influence as a parental characteristic in 34% of child welfare investigated cases. In London, England 52% of families were affected by substance use in general, with alcohol as the one chiefly abused. [7]

These numbers have been reported by the World Health Organization, despite these studies being scarce and having been solely executed in high-income countries. Juxtaposition between countries has been complicated by methodological differences in each place and the under-reporting of child abuse to health and judicial organizations. [7]    

In some of my final words for this article, I am delighted to read about the World Health Organization’s proposed solution, though many may scowl at it and feel skeptical. An agenda for lessening alcohol availability will mitigate violence toward children. For the United States, it has been calculated that one less alcohol purveyor per 1,000 people will decrease the probability of deadly violence towards children by 4%. [7]

A 10% tax hike on alcohol can shrink bloodshed and cruelty toward children by 2.3% and overall violence by 1.2%. [7]

Screening and brief interventions in general can decrease violence toward children. Screening and brief interventions focused on alcohol mismanagement during pregnancy can decrease the perils of fetal-alcohol syndrome, as well. [7]

That should be stated even if many could argue it will be ineffective.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com

References:

[1] https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/addiction-statistics

[2] https://www.drugrehab.com/addiction/alcohol/effects-of-alcoholism-on-families/children-of-alcoholic-parents/

[3] https://www.cityvision.edu/drug-and-alcohol-abuse-facts-and-statistics

[4] https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/alcohol-abuse/children-alcoholics-home/#gref

[5] https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh21-3/247.pdf

[6] https://www.graniterecoverycenters.com/blog/my-mom-is-an-alcoholic-a-daughters-story/

[7]https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/factsheets/fs_child.pdf




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