The Legacy of Alcohol Addiction: The children left behind

Merely Me Health Guide

    I originally wrote the following article for a chemical dependency newsletter for people who are Adult Children of Alcoholics.  It was an emotionally difficult piece for me to write.  I do hope that my writing will help anyone who either suffers from alcohol addiction or those who are still grappling with the aftermath of growing up with a parent who abused alcohol.  My thoughts are with you all. 


    I have a framed photograph of a young man in his prime, smiling gently into the camera, for his high school portrait.  I have had it on my bookcase shelf for as long as I can remember.  When I look into this young man's face I see hope for the future.  Yet whatever hopes he had for the future were cut short.  The photo is of my father before he succumbed to his alcohol addiction.  It was my father's addiction which ultimately killed him along with all of his dreams.  His life story stops at age 34, leaving behind my mother and me to pick up the pieces.

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    There have been times when I have wanted to smash that portrait of my father into a zillion pieces.  As a fully grown adult with children of my own, I still carry that little girl's rage and despair over losing my father.  Underneath all this passion to hate him, there is also love.  I was only four at the time of his death but I still embrace my memories.  I can see a hazy vision of my dad at one of my tea parties, his larger frame stuffed into one of my little chairs at my play table.  He is pouring one of my stuffed animals a cup of pretend tea.  He calls me "Princess" and kisses my cheek.  And then suddenly the vision is gone.  My mother is crying and my father is simply no longer there.


    I have thought about what my life might have been like had my father lived.  I romanticize it.  I think that it surely would have been better.  I will never know.  Some questions will never be answered.  One of the biggest unanswered questions I have always had is the question of "Why?"  Why did my father die?  Why couldn't he control his alcohol addiction so that he didn't have to leave me and my mother?  Why would someone drink themselves into a coma?  My mother tells me that my father's doctor told him that if he continued to drink, his liver would be permanently damaged and he would most likely die.  And six months later the doctor's prophetic words came true.


    Sometimes the universe provides us with what I believe are synchronicities, meaningful coincidences, which ultimately give us some of our answers.


    I experienced such a synchronicity in my late twenties when I began an internship working with people having a dual diagnosis of both mental illness and chemical addiction.  I was pursuing my second Master's degree in Social Work and needed some hands on credits.  I was working full time and so it was very difficult to find an internship which I could do within my schedule.  My advisors found me the only program open during the evenings so I could complete my requirements.  This was for a day program for those who were dually diagnosed.  I have to be honest here.  This was not an internship I was excited about.  I was afraid to see people who might be like my father.  My father, in addition to his alcohol addiction, also suffered from extreme depression.  He had been hospitalized for trying to take his own life more than once. 


    Would my personal life experiences help or hurt me in my learning?  Would I be strong enough to witness first hand, the struggles of people who walk in my father's foot steps?  Reluctantly, I agreed to follow through with this practicum. 


    I didn't quite know what to expect when I got to the program.  I heard stories of how some of the patients were living in crack houses, some had been to prison, and some had severe mental illness including schizophrenia and multiple personalities.  I decided that if I were to give this my best shot to both learn and to help, I must let go of any of my personal baggage and biases.  I would attempt to enter the situation trying to get to know people as individuals and not as case studies with labels attached.

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    My early days as a student there were rough and often humbling.  It could not be assumed that the patients would like you and quite often it was the opposite.  Armed with only my book studies and in class exercises, I attempted to do my best to validate and to empathize when in truth there was so much I did not understand.  I remember one woman vividly.  She was older than most at the program but filled with so much rage.  Being a lowly student, I provided ample target for her anger.  One day she spewed at me about how I couldn't possibly understand where she was coming from.  And I agreed with her.  I told her that I did not suffer from addictions but that I did want to learn from her and that I would do my best to help.  I told her she had every right to be angry and to feel wary to share with me.  I told her that I would have to earn her trust.  Basically she was sizing me up to see if I was trustworthy.  Most people in her world were not.  When I allowed her to be angry at me her rage did diminish over time. 


    Most of the people there were filled with a quiet rage.  I heard so many stories of both physical and emotional abuse.  In almost every instance, I would be told that they could withstand the physical abuse but the emotional scars would take far longer to heal.  Most carried these scars into adulthood.  One way they found to cope was to turn to drugs or alcohol.  Yet this coping mechanism would be the one to cause them the most self destruction.  While not every person who has addictions has suffered from abuse, in the particular subset of the population I was helping to treat, this was far more the norm than not.


    There were times when I had to deal with my own unresolved anger over losing a father to addiction.  When I saw some patients behave recklessly and hurtfully with their family and especially with children, I had to hold back my own feelings of hurt and outrage.  I had an especially hard time with a mother who would threaten suicide frequently in order to get a reaction from her teenage daughter.  I knew that this daughter had a very difficult life in switching roles and being the caretaker for her mom.  When I asked this mother why she continued to use drugs she answered fatalistically, "I might die tomorrow so I might as well have fun today."  These types of justifications were especially hard to hear and even more difficult to change.


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    I suppose the hardest thing for me to deal with during my time at the drug and alcohol addiction day program was to see the suffering involved in having a chemical addiction.  There were people there who had lost everything including their jobs, their homes, and their families.  Some had even lost their freedom and had experienced jail time.  And some would be at particular risk to lose their life.  And I went back to the question I have had all my life and that is "Why?" 


    The one thing I did learn without a shadow of a doubt during that time spent amongst people who were on a similar path as my father is that chemical addiction is a disease.  An addiction isn't something you can just snap out of and suddenly wake up and have it be gone.  You do need both support and time to get on that road to recovery.  And it won't be easy.  Suffering is inherent in this slow and arduous process. 


    For my father it was too late.  He lacked the resources to treat his addiction to alcohol.  I have stopped hating him and am in the process of forgiving him for letting go.  I have made peace with the fact that my father had a disease he was unable to control.  For others who suffer from this same disease, I do absolutely believe there is hope.  Don't let the story end.  Do get help.  Do seek treatment.  There is so much in life you don't want to miss like being with friends and family or watching your kids grow up. 


    In this way my father lives on in the sharing of my story.  I hope it has made a difference to someone out there who needs to hear it.




Published On: April 19, 2009