Ask any child, partner, or parent with an alcoholic in the family and they will tell you that when someone they love drinks alcohol compulsively, the effects are painful. Alcohol addiction is a disease that destroys families. Alcoholism can derail a family’s day-to-day existence, rob them of their financial security, and cause such harmful emotional damage that many family members live their lives scarred from its caustic effects. We can help. Located in the Seattle area, Residence XII offers alcohol recovery programs for women and their families.
For children of alcoholics, life may be numb, scary, painful, hopeless or even life-threatening. They may feel the affect of alcohol addiction in a variety of ways depending on their age, their living situation, and their maturity level. For very young children, it is not uncommon to see them racked with fear, confused, suffering from issues of shame, loss or abandonment, and exhibiting abnormal social skills as they try to navigate through a life filled with
uncertainty. All they can understand is that one minute Mommy or Daddy is nice and loves them, then the next they feel that they are a bad little girl or boy for no apparent reason. For these children, it is not unusual to see their confusion manifested in early numbing behaviors or avoidance tactics. This kind of behavior may manifest as a youngster who “takes charge.” The child may also experience frequent nightmares, bed wetting, crying anger, acting out, and eventually school truancy and failure. To make matters worse, children expressing their needs in the only way they know how may behave in ways for which they are often reprimanded or criticized, further exacerbating their feelings of despair.
For older children of alcoholics and even adult children of alcoholics, episodes of caretaking, anxiety, severe depression, and low self-esteem are common. Many try to change their parent’s behavior by becoming obsessive perfectionists, extreme introverts or rebels. Because of these anti-social behaviors, they are often ostracized by teachers and students. No matter what behavior they exhibit, the common thread is their need to hide the secret that they are different; that their parent is a drunk; and that they feel shame as a result of their secret knowledge.
For the spouse or partner of an alcoholic, feelings and behaviors are often similar to those of their children. They can experience feelings of grief, hatred, self-pity, and low self-esteem. These individuals may avoid social activities to hide the shame of an alcoholic partner. Because they often take on both parental roles, they can become exhausted, angry, resentful, confused, and completely desperate. In the end, this can mean that the non-alcoholic parent becomes as inconsistent, demanding, and neglectful of the children as the alcoholic in the family.
Can families survive the devastating effects of alcoholism and go on to lead healthy, happy lives? The answer is yes. However, just as for the alcoholic, the family alcohol recovery program is built on self-awareness, honesty, and a true understanding that each individual must focus on her or his own alcoholism recovery first, before helping others. The first step for recovery is admitting that there is a problem — a family problem — one that cannot be kept in secret to protect the alcoholic or the family’s reputation. By keeping this secret, the family itself is enabling the alcoholic behaviors that are affecting and slowly destroying the emotional stability and well being of each family member’s life.
When a family can admit that there is a problem, the next step is seeking out the resources needed to help them with their own personal recovery. For children, most schools can refer them to counselors or social service agencies providing counseling and resources for children living in a home with an alcoholic parent. For spouses or partners, marriage and family counselors specifically trained to deal with addictions can help couples work through some issues that may be affecting the alcoholics’ decision to drink. Therapy can be the key to a supportive journey toward recovery for the alcoholic and their partner, while relieving some of the tensions at home.
There are also family recovery programs available at treatment facilities that focus on alcohol and chemical dependency. These programs are designed to teach families the disease of alcoholism to dispel the belief that alcoholism results from poor self control and irresponsible behavior. Family therapy in recovery programs also helps families understand how to help the alcoholic by not enabling them or their destructive behavior. Most importantly, a good family recovery program teaches families to understand that the family’s recovery is not based on the alcoholic’s recovery. Instead it is based on respect, good communication, healthy boundaries, smart choices, faith, and a true desire to help themselves.
With the proper resources, education and understanding, families, and each of the individuals within the family, can go on to lead rich, full and happy lives.