by Jowita Bydlowska
“You make my mom go away. You make me feel hatred,” a kid read out loud from his letter to addiction, a part of an exercise in the Children’s Program at the Renascent Treatment Centre in Toronto. He hugged his mom afterwards with such intensity, it was as if he wanted to get fused into her body, as if the hug itself could provide the kind of protection her body had provided once when she was pregnant and he lived inside her. Eventually, they broke their embrace. The Children’s Program group clapped, all the kids ran toward the table where one of the counsellors laid out snacks, the grownups tried to not look at each other as they wiped their eyes.
I first learned about this program when doing research for a children’s book I was planning to write. In the beginning, I had a hard time agreeing that kids in the program were lucky to partake in it — a trip to Disney would be much better, no? Maybe, depending if the parents were sober or not on the trip. The Renascent group was much more effective in terms of damage control because, as one of the counsellors told me, “They’ve seen their parents get high or drunk. Now they get to see them get sober.” And I was reminded that there are hundreds of families who don’t even know about such programs and there are thousands of children in the city whose parents would never recover.
What is it like to be a child of addicts? I don’t know from experience. But I’ve heard many people share in AA meetings about their upbringing and growing up in “alcoholic homes” where drinking was not unusual, where a child had to develop special skills to be able to tip-toe successfully around their parents — metaphorically and not. Those skills were not familiar to me. My parents weren’t drinkers, though I remember one party when I was seven. A friend was sleeping over and it was her parents who were partying with my parents in the living room. In the middle of the night, my mom woke me up to say she wanted to take the puppy — I got a puppy for Christmas a few weeks prior — out for a walk. She was giggling too much, her voice was different somehow, and then she picked up the fat, floppy puppy and left the room. I felt scared. The friend who was sleeping over told me it was no big deal, her mom was like that all the time.
Toronto, Canada’s Julie Elsdon-Height says, “Growing up as the child of heavy drinkers, I knew no different until I began going to friends’ homes where their parents didn’t go to a pub every night. It was a bit of a [a-ha!] moment at 10 when I realized that my friends’ houses weren’t centered around booze. I learned at a young age not to interrupt the adults’ party time, and in hindsight, I know my father’s lack of involvement fostered my feelings of unworthiness.”
My AA friend K, who also said he felt ignored for most of his childhood and who still struggles with intimacy, jokes that he has a “superpower” as a result of his parents’ alcoholism. This superpower is his exceptional sense of hearing that he’s developed, because as a child he learned to become closely attuned to the sound of the front door closing when his father would come home from work. When he’d hear the door shut carefully, exaggeratedly, it often meant that his father was drunk — it was like a performance of a door closing. My friend said that drunken arguments were better because an argument is an obvious occurrence; paying attention to how the door hinges sing is exhausting and makes you crazy.
This kind of reaction is known as hyper vigilance, which, according to one definition, is “a heightened state of awareness, a part of the fight/flight response…This state is akin to being locked into permanent ‘battle stations;’ brain resources on constant alert, causing inappropriate or even aggressive reactions in everyday situations.” My friend’s constant auditory — and otherwise — scanning of his surroundings as a child was the result of his father’s alcoholic habits and lack of consistency (there was no method to his father’s madness; the drunkenness could happen three times in a row or not for days). According to one study, for some Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), hyper vigilance can transfer into adulthood and cause an ACOA to misread verbal and nonverbal communications. This misinterpretation stems from frequently present conflict, criticism and — as in Elsdon-Height’s case — rejection during childhood; a grown ACOA might be conditioned to expect the worst. My friend said that it felt “safer” to walk around preparing to fight; he was suspicious of people’s motives all the time. And he still listens, carefully, to the sounds of doors closing wherever he happens to be.
There’s lots of research that suggests some of the ACOAs experience symptoms that indicate post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); many children learn to detach (a condition called “psychic numbing”) as the result of prolonged chaos, inconsistency, abandonment and physical abuse. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, PTSD occurs when trauma happens. “Traumatic events may include crimes, natural disasters, accidents, war or conflict, or other threats to life. It could be an event or situation that you experience yourself or something that happens to others, including loved ones.” This “trauma is often unexpected, and many people say that they felt powerless to stop or change the event.”
Children are the very definition of “powerless;” they live by the rules of the grownups around them and there is no escaping bad parenting. True, not everyone who goes through trauma of living in an alcoholic home will develop PTSD, but for some children, growing up in such an environment can have lifelong negative consequences. In these homes, children experience a daily environment of inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. If present, PTSD also leads to “psychic numbing,” a feeling of detachment from one’s surroundings, a mechanism learned due to the self-preservation that some ACOAs had to employ to simply survive.
According to a research paper by Tian Dayton, “The Set Up: Living with Addiction,” there are a number of other characteristics that ACOAs might present such as anxiety, depression, distorted reasoning (“convoluted attempts to make sense and meaning out of chaotic, confusing, frightening or painful experience that feels senseless”), poor self-regulation, survival guilt, high risk of becoming an addict, and more. The desire to be perfect, to be approved of and placing others’ needs before one’s own is also common with ACOAs, according to PsychCentral’s Dr. Mark Gold.
Julie Hunter of Woodstock, British Columbia, who says she’s an alcoholic and ACOA, pinpoints loss of identity as one of the results of growing up with parents who drank. “I recall coming home from a gruelling shift waitressing. [I worked] so hard my toes actually bled,” she says. Her parents were drinking when she arrived, blood leaking through her shoes, but she minimized what had happened and turned her injury into a joke meant to placate and entertain her parents. She cried in her room later on, wondering, “Who the hell was I just then? It was the first time I realized I didn’t know who the hell I was.” She says trying to be someone else contributed to the fact that she drank for most of her life. “It was a performance no less than how I performed for my parents. Alcoholism progressed. I functioned that way for many years.” She is sober now and says that it wasn’t alcohol that made her an alcoholic — it was the loss of self that made her drink in the first place.
When I read and hear the grim prognosis of alcohol’s effects on children, I feel overwhelmed with guilt. I am an alcoholic. And I am also a mom of a seven-year-old. I was hoping that my son’s exposure to my drinking wouldn’t go beyond my spectacular relapse when he was a baby — in other words, I was hoping that he would grow up with a sober mom. Alas, that’s not how it went. I broke one promise I made to him and to myself, and he has seen me intoxicated. I am sober now. And I have taken him to a place where we could work on getting our bond repaired. I have heeded the words of that counsellor: “They’ve seen their parents get high or drunk. Now they get to see them get sober.”
The ship to perfectly sober parenting sailed a long time ago, but now that I’m better, I still get a chance to repair the damage I have done. I don’t want my son to grow up unsure of what kind of mom he comes home to. I don’t want him to ever feel ignored because a bottle is more important than his needs. I can’t tell how much my drinking has affected him, but I can hope that he’ll never have to fear the sounds of the door closing. During the family program I signed up for, the kids learned to express their feelings, their grief and their anger. In one room, the kids talked about broken trust. In the other room, we, the parents, talked about how to regain that trust. Later, there were letters to the addiction. And, finally, there was a puppet play about mom coming home drunk, which was pathetically sad and funny, but mostly sad, mostly absolutely heartbreaking because of the tiny voices lending their pain to the puppets.