Written by: Danielle Leach
Treating individuals with alcoholism can be a lengthy and challenging process. Counseling families where there is chemical dependency is a much more complicated and extensive process that requires an intimate look – not only at the relationship an individual has with a substance, but also a deeper look into the impact the substance has on the entire family system. From my research, I have learned several eye-opening facts about alcohol and the detrimental impact it can have on an individual and subsequently the children of the individual with alcoholism that I explore within the context of this article. These revelatory truths are pertinent for any clinician working with recovering alcoholics, especially mental health counselors and it’s important to first dispel the myths concerning addiction recovery, beginning with the assumption that once an alcoholic becomes sober, the rest of the family will get better automatically.
It goes without saying that what affects one person affects those around them. In the context of addictions counseling, this anecdote rings true. When a husband leaves work and stops at a Seven Eleven to pick up a 12 pack of beer, goes home, flops down on the couch and immediately cracks open one can after another until the whole pack of beer is no more, it will inevitably raise a concern. His wife, who is clean and sober and expects her husband to have enough ego strength to resist temptation and deal more effectively and responsibly with the stress from his workplace, ignores her husband’s behavior and goes into the other room to watch TV. Their three year old son and one year old daughter trail behind the mother, hollering and screaming. After chugging the last can of beer, the husband yells, “Honey, get in here.” The wife, while in the other room, sighs and wipes a tear from her eyes and kisses her son and daughter on their foreheads. The husband stands up, bumps the table, knocking half of the cans onto the floor and pushes open the bedroom door and screams, “Bitch, didn’t I tell you to get in here!” The wife, tells her son and daughter to go into their bedroom and then bows her head. The next 10 minutes, the husband spends yanking his wife by the hair and punching her in the face. Familiar with her husband’s uncontrollable behavior, the wife stands up from the bed, goes into the bathroom and washes the tears from her face. Looking into the mirror, she notices a purple patch around her eye and a busted lip. She pulls her scrunchie out of her hair and notices a chunk of her hair missing from the front. She turns off the light, walks silently into her kitchen and pours her a glass of wine. Her husband snatches up his keys from the table, and before stumbling out of the house says, “Be back babe. I’m going to the store for another pack of beer.” After the keys are in the ignition and the sound of the engine vibrates through the front door, their son and daughter run outside of their room, jump on the couch with koolaid smiles plastered across their faces and ask, “Mommy, where is daddy?”
“He’ll be back,” the mother sighs while sipping her glass of wine. Although this scenario is a fictional story I made up, it is the reality for many families living across America and serves as a template for explaining the dynamics of the impact alcoholism can have on an entire family system. So if what affects one person affects everyone around them; in theory, when one becomes sober, it should not be assumed that the rest of the family will magically and automatically go back to normality. It is important for those working with people of addictions to understand how addiction not only affects the user/abuser, but also how it affects everyone around them. Nevertheless, understanding the “why” of addiction can shed some light in understanding the “how” of treatment.
As Dr. Tian Dayton so eloquently put, “People who use drugs and alcohol are often times attempting to numb disturbing emotional and psychological pain that they don’t want to feel” (2010). So typically, the more a person drinks, the more pain they’re trying to cover up and heal from. As in the above scenario, on the surface, the husband’s drinking can be attributed to work related stress. But if a skilled psychologist or psychotherapist were to take a deeper look, he/she may find that there is some childhood trauma in the husband’s history that has impacted his ability to cope and deal effectively with stress. In her article, “The Hidden Pain of Addiction,” Dr. Tian Dayton explains how trauma leads to addiction: “Addiction engenders trauma symptoms and trauma symptoms engender addiction.” So that a person who experiences some type of trauma is at an increased risk for developing an addiction. If he or she doesn’t become addicted to alcohol, he or she will seek out other forms of self-medicating (i.e. food, sex, money, or a hybrid combination of the three) (Dayton, 2010).
Considering the above scenario, based on statistical analysis of families with alcoholism (as it relates to the cycle of addiction), the son and daughter are at an increased risk of developing an addiction. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, more than 78 million Americans or roughly 43 % of the adult population has been exposed to alcoholism in the family (Gold, Mark). 26.8 million of them are children (Weintraub, P, 2007). With numbers as staggering as these, it is apparent that there is a dysfunctional cycle of abuse at work within families of alcoholism that needs to be interrupted at the earliest stage possible.
If the numbers aren’t enough to make you raise an eyebrow and scratch your head, take a look at the effects of what life is like for many adults who grew up with an alcoholic parent. Janet Geringer Woititz created a list of 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholics. Here are several I found to be quite alarming: difficulty with intimate relationships; overacting to changes over which they have no control; are either responsible or super irresponsible (there’s no middle ground); are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved; are impulsive (they tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. Then they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess) (Weintraub, P, 2007).
On AdultChildren.org’s website, you can find a laundry list of 14 traits of an adult child of an alcoholic. I have listed several here:
- We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
- We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill or sick abandonment needs.
- We have overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults.
- We became addicted to excitement.
- We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
- We have “stuffed” our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (denial).
- We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
- We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
- Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
- Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.
Conceptualizing and treating families with alcoholism from a systemic point of view allows for the clinician to work from the ground up, addressing issues from childhood that could have played a role in developing the addiction and therefore assessing and addressing the risks for children of alcoholic parents, in preventing them from developing an addiction. Looking at alcoholism from a family systems perspective can also be helpful in treating the addicted user by bringing the other affected members in and showing them how their own behavior can contribute to the identified patient’s addiction. After all, what affects one of us, affects all of us. So alcoholism isn’t just a problem for the person who goes to the store and buys a pack of beer twice a day. It’s a problem for all of us on a national and global level as well.
According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the annual costs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse to alcoholics/abusers and to society is a whopping $148 billion (Jones, A.S. 2001). Generationally, the effects of alcoholism on children of alcoholics can include poor school performance, truancy, repeating grades, and dropping out of school. In turn, these behavioral problems can have a direct effect on the child’s future educational attainment, job opportunities, and wage rates. These in turn, will have a negative impact on the future financial well-being of the child and the child’s future family. On a national scale, the impact of alcoholism in families can have an effect on work productivity costs thus increasing tax revenues (Jones, A.S. 2001). So before we can point the finger at an alcoholic, we should first consider the high probability that he or she may be a product of a family with alcoholism and understand that an alcoholic’s decision to drink excessively is a systemic problem that must be addressed on more levels than one.
Dayton, T (2010) The Hidden Pain of the Addicted Family
Gold, M.S. Children of Alcoholics
Jones, A.S. (2001) COAs and Economic Costs
The Laundry List www.adultchildren.org
Weintraub, P (2007) A Toxic Brew