Alcohol And The Family
For 9 million children living with an adult who has a drinking problem, home can be a confusing place. Natalie shares her story of life with an alcoholic father. Plus, one mom shares her story of recovery and how she conquered her alcohol abuse here.
It was a night like any other at Natalie's house in Salt Lake City, and that's what made the 7-year-old uneasy. Her mom and brother had gone out, and Natalie was alone with her dad. She knew that Daddy had trouble with his "blood sugar level," and when it was unstable, so was he. He'd stagger and yell at Mom out of the blue, and his breath would have a fruity smell.
On this night, he could barely walk. Natalie was terrified that Daddy would fall and get hurt as he wobbled outside to smoke. "I just knew I had to get him in bed, get him to sleep, because that always made him better," remembers Natalie, now 17.
She couldn't coax him in: "I was so scared, I just wanted to leave." So she went to sleep herself, frightened and alone, to escape from home without leaving her bed.
This rather prosaic, anticlimactic scenario -- absent the drama of a made-for-TV movie -- is the predominant reality for a child of an alcoholic parent. It's a slow-burning, secret tragedy of broken promises, violated trust, uncomforted fears, and aching loneliness. Such a child must always wonder what each day will be like. Which Daddy will come through the door in the evening -- the sweet one who brings flowers, or the scary one filled with rage? Which Mommy will be here this afternoon -- the one who plays and dances with me, or the sad one who lies, complaining and weeping, on the couch?
Natalie's father finally landed in a hospital after a toxic alcohol reaction. The crisis -- and a blood-alcohol level over three times the legal intoxication level in many states -- sliced through the family's denial. It wasn't blood sugar that was the problem; it was vodka. Luckily, there's a happy ending: He entered rehab soon after and has remained sober since.
Some experts believe an estimated one in eight kids under 18 in this country lives with an alcoholic parent. Men are bigger drinkers than women: Fathers are three times more likely to be alcoholic than mothers. Research also shows consistently that alcohol abuse plays a major role in family violence and spousal and child abuse.
But there is much that recovering alcoholics, the nonalcoholic spouse, and people outside of the family can do to help children -- and themselves -- triumph over many of the obstacles before them.
Beth Whitehouse is a lifestyle writer at Newsday. She was part of a team that won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize.