Dear New Shrink,
I grew up around alcoholics and for a long time told myself that I would never be like my family. I am not anything like them yet, but I now find myself worried that it will all catch up with me. It’s almost like a dark cloud following me. For some reason, I started to worry when my father died from his alcoholism about a year and a half ago. My mother is still alive but she is so bitter and is difficult to be around. My siblings are so different you would not think that we are related.
I am a high achiever and do not drink other than an occasional glass of wine with dinner, but I do have a problem trusting relationships. One of my brothers is a drug addict and I have a sister who does not want to be close to any of us. Can you educate me on the basic concerns that I should have or advise me on what I should do or know?
Son of alcoholic parents
This is such an important issue. One out of four families in our country are affected by alcoholism. Moreover, the children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop such abusive behavior than other children.
Knowing that there is a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, if you are the child of an alcoholic you should learn all that you can and be very careful; children should also be alerted when the appropriate time comes. This is because alcoholism tends to skip generations precisely because of what you said about never wanting to be like your family. If you have kids, they won’t see and experience the same things you did, so they won’t be defended against alcoholism. But they will have the genetic vulnerability.
Having said that, armed with this knowledge, you are not a shoo-in for alcoholism. You can override genetic predisposition by making the correct and healthy behavioral choices. In truth, only one in five children of alcoholics become an alcoholic themselves.
However, many children of alcoholics develop emotional or psychological problems from growing up in alcoholic families. It is not uncommon to have relationship problems because you have grown up with them. Alcoholism takes center stage, everyone adjusts to it and around it, tension is high and in many ways childhood is aborted.
You mentioned your mother being bitter and you also say you had alcoholic parents. It sounds like she had a problem also but even if she didn’t, it is not unusual for a wife to try to drink with her husband but she usually gives up when she cannot keep up. Her whole world becomes preoccupied with his every move and her lost dreams. If she can’t get him into treatment, she will usually start reorganizing the family to keep him on the outside. Children can get lost in the shuffle.
Children of alcoholics often become overly responsible and they also become caretakers, a natural role for them. Some act out their hurt and rage like your brother has. Most do not have the time or safe environment to find out who they really are or what they really want out of life because they are too busy surviving and avoiding the conflict. Many become chameleons as a means of survival. And one of the biggest problems children of alcoholics have is trusting others. Abandonment and loss of attentive parents, normal childhood, and predictable, secure homes all contribute to this.
If you couldn’t trust your own parents or family at whatever level, it will be difficult to trust others. You probably have come to believe that others will hurt and disappoint you if you let them get close. You may even find that you don’t trust love or marriage because of what you witnessed in your parents. Lastly, most children of alcoholics continue the same defenses they used in childhood as adults. Out of the situation, these defenses usually do not serve us well. In fact, they often cause us more problems.
Get some help and learn all that you can. Besides psychotherapy, there are 12 step groups and there is the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, which you can contact at www.nacoa.org/
Thanks for writing in. Hope this helps some.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist. She is also APA Certified in the treatment of alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders. Her offices are in Brentwood; visit her a www.drbarge.com. Please send your questions and replies to firstname.lastname@example.org.