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.
Emotional absentia is probably the primary, though most subtle, outgrowth of a parent's alcoholism. Lucille Simmons,* a mother of three in southern California, started drinking—first beer and wine, then brandy—after her husband died. Her children were 4, 9 and 11 when she began, and it was six years before she stopped. She says that she often just was not there for her kids then. "They lost their Dad, and they really lost me for a chunk of their childhood too," she says.
While Pamela Rief, of Miller Place, NY, stayed sober during the day and never failed to drive the carpool or do the laundry, she would routinely drink by evening and pass out on the living-room couch, unable to share the evenings with her daughters, then in grade school, she says.
A drunken parent can also be wildly unpredictable. Rief knows she was emotionally inconsistent when she was drinking. One day she'd be peaceful and loving; the next, after drinking, she'd be "psycho mom," screaming at the girls over the slightest infraction. They never knew which one they were going to find.
David Groff,* a father from Texas who has been sober for the past five years, says that when he was drinking he frequently missed his children's activities, even if he'd said he would be there. Once, when he did show up for a father-son fishing trip, he got drunk and then drove his scared son home.
In Simmons' case, although she managed to run the household and continue her work as a special-education teacher, her kids lived like bunnies with their ears twitching, hypervigilant for changes in her mood. "You look around my house and there's a lot of damage—remnants of the past," she says. She remembers one time when, fueled by alcohol, she became so angry that she heaved the kitchen table toward her older son. He leaped out of the way, but the table kept going—right through the sliding-glass door to the patio.
Children may try to protect themselves emotionally by ignoring or submerging emotions, says Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., director of the Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, CA, and coauthor of The Alcoholic Family in Recovery.
Simmons recalls that her children coped at home by withdrawing into themselves: "Eventually, we were living these separate lives. Everybody would go into their own room and close the door." She told herself the family was okay if no one was screaming. "I was in denial about how much it was affecting my kids," she says. "The appearances were good, so I told myself we had a good home."
Because children tend to see the world as centered around them, they often blame themselves for a parent's drinking. Simmons' youngest told her that she once thought, If I didn't misbehave, Mommy wouldn't drink.
In shame, kids frequently isolate themselves. "I never really liked my friends coming over," Natalie says. "I'd be embarrassed, in a way. If friends came over and saw it, they'd think my Dad was weird and go home and tell their parents. I kind of knew dads weren't supposed to be like that."
*Name has been changed
The Cost of Denial
For alcoholic parents—mothers especially—a critical part of recovery is to overcome the stigma that alcoholism is a moral failing.
"Society hasn't told us we can have this problem and still be a member in good standing," said Mary Pretorius, a former nurse who stopped drinking 25 years ago when her son was 6. "The hand that rocks the cradle isn't supposed to stir the martini." She is now president of the board of directors of the organization Women for Sobriety.
Stirring that martini—or in her case, downing Jack Daniels or sipping wine—was familiar to Pamela Rief, who first went to one of Pretorius' support group meetings eight years ago. Even when the Jack Daniels bottles mounted so high that Rief couldn't fit the lid on her recycling barrel, she was in denial. She remembers joking to herself, "The garbage men are going to think I'm an alcoholic."
It wasn't until Rief went to her 10- and 12-year-old daughters' school for a program that showed parents how to teach their children to say "no" to alcohol that she recognized herself in the descriptions of alcoholics. "The disease isn't the woman getting pulled over for drunk driving, or physically neglecting the children," she says. "It can be the well-dressed woman next to you at the PTA meeting."
For Natalie's father, the decision to go to Alcoholics Anonymous came one week after his stint in the hospital. That's the norm —a cry for help comes when the person with alcoholism reaches the end of his rope, said Ray Daugherty, who cofounded the Prevention Research Institute, in Lexington, KY, 15 years ago to create programs on alcohol and drug problems. Typical crises: A car accident while drunk, losing a job due to erratic attendance, or a physical confrontation with a spouse.
In Search of a Happy Ending
What should you do if a loved one has a drinking problem? A few steps:
If the drinker is violent, get out at once.
While domestic violence should not be tolerated at any time, when there are children in the household, it's critical that they not be placed at risk of getting hurt.
Don't try to do everything yourself.
Regardless of whom you seek help from—a religious counselor, social worker or therapist or addiction specialist—the important thing is to get help from someone. You're far more likely to make a change in your life if you enlist the support of allies.
Go to a support group.
Most spouses seek help to find out what they can do for their alcoholic husband or wife. But at Al-Anon meetings, one of the best-known nationwide support group for the families of alcoholics, the focus is on the rest of the family.
What the sober parent has to realize is that "a lot of children of alcoholics are resentful not of the person who's been drinking, but of the other parent for not taking action to remedy the situation," says Hope Wilson, who runs Y.E.S. (You're Extra Special), a Columbus, OH, program for kids whose lives have been affected by substance abuse in the home. A support group can help turn a parent's focus from the alcoholic to themselves and their family. One line from a video Wilson uses in the program: "I didn't have a mom because she was looking out for dad."
Get the children to a support group.
This will help kids see that they're not the only one with problems, and also help them recognize and vent the feelings they've kept hidden. Natalie, for instance, had pushed all her worries about her dad to the back of her mind. But at her Alateen support group, one of many such groups for teenagers nationwide, she could let everything out. "Getting it out felt almost like a nervous breakdown for me," she says, but ultimately it was a huge relief.
Simmons's youngest child, now 11, was able to discuss her fears that she too might become an alcoholic, and was comforted when the group leader reassured her that by coming to meetings she was increasing the odds that it would never happen (see "Alcohol and Genes"). "It made her feel less like she was the only one going through it," says Simmons.
Continue the rituals of the family.
Have dinner every night together. Go to your child's baseball or soccer games. Every Thanksgiving, have the same people over for the same meal. Don't wait for Dad if he's out drinking; don't cancel if he doesn't show.
The nonalcoholic spouse needs to make family life predictable, to counterbalance the unpredictability of the alcoholic's behavior. "It gives a sense of growing up protected," Ray Daugherty said. Family rituals are important to all families, so "think how much more important they are when a child feels as if the ground beneath him is shifting," he says.
Jerry Moe, national director of children's programs at the Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, California, recommends a bedtime ritual, whether it's saying a prayer or talking about how the day went. Problems seem bigger for everyone after dark, and kids often worry until they fall asleep. The comfort of special time with a parent every night can help.
He also recommends a set time every week to spend with each child—even just 30 minutes—to give him the message that he's special: "Think of it as 'sacred time.' Nothing short of an emergency should get in the way of it."
Get children involved in extracurricular activities.
Sign up for programs after school, or at your church or temple. "It helps a child to have another reality to draw strength from," Daugherty said. It can also provide an oasis of stability—at least one place where she knows what to expect. The time spent with other kids can likewise ease the sense of isolation that often ac-companies life with a parent who drinks.
Consider intervention for the alcoholic.
This is when family and friends, with an intervention professional, approach the alcoholic and explain how much they want him to seek help. When all other methods have failed, a group approach can sometimes startle a drinker out of his denial.
A 4- or 5-year-old is generally too young to attend, Moe said. But a 7- or 8-year-old may be able to, if the drinking is something you've discussed together and sought help for.
What Kids Can Understand
The most overwhelming feeling for children of alcoholics is confusion, says Moe. They simply don't know what's going on, and need to be told in an age-appropriate way.
For kids under 3, that usually means not really telling them at all. What they'll be most aware of is an unpredictable routine or the agitation of living in a home that's filled with fighting. So more important than trying to explain alcoholism is offering them physical safety, a sense of being loved and a routine that emphasizes stability.
But for 4- or 5-year-olds, it's best to gauge how much they know, then offer some simple verbal explanations to fill in the gaps, says Moe, being careful not to overwhelm them with too much information. A parent might say: "It's not that Daddy doesn't love us. It's that he's sick. We have to take care of ourselves and keep loving Daddy. We hope soon he'll understand he's sick and get the help he needs."
For older kids, go into more detail. If the drinker is volatile, children of any age should be taught how to protect themselves, Daugherty says: "This might be something as simple as saying, 'When you see Daddy coming home drunk, I just want you to go in your room and read a book quietly and let me deal with it.'"
But most important of all is to do something, rather than pretend the problem doesn't exist. People who work in the alcohol-treatment field often refer to alcoholism as the elephant in the living room nobody mentions. Once people acknowledge it, the children can start to recover.
Now, Natalie can have friends sleep over, and no longer has to worry about how her father might behave."When he stopped drinking, I said, 'Dad, I hated you when you were drinking,'" Natalie said. "He always told me that's the best thing I ever told him."
For David Groff, it's been a great relief to see his kids rebound. "The past three years have been absolutely terrific," he said. "We have all the tensions of any family, but we face them in a healthy way."
For help and support
32234 Paseo Adelanto, Suite C, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675 (800-662-2873)
NATIONAL CLEARINGHOUSE FOR ALCOHOL AND DRUG INFORMATION
P.O. Box 2345, Rockville, MD 20847-2345 (800-729-6686); www.health.org)
CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS FOUNDATION
164 West 74th St., New York, NY 10023 (800-359-2623)
AL-ANON FAMILY GROUP HEADQUARTERS
1600 Corporate Landing Pkwy. Virginia Beach, VA 23454 (888-4-AL-ANON); www.al-anon.alateen.org