Leslie was mesmerized. The muscles around her eyes tightened as the shock of recognition crossed her face. The stories she was hearing sounded just like hers! The other people in this group, who looked so picture-perfect, had experienced the same abandonment, the same loss of childhood, the same sense of betrayal that she had felt in a home dominated by an alcoholic parent.
Ann, who had recently celebrated her eighty-first birthday, relaxed as she heard others describe the embarrassment of their childhoods -- the humiliations, the insults, the times they were afraid to come home, and those terrible holiday scenes. As the shrouds of silence slowly disappeared, she was no longer feeling isolated and alone. There were no secrets here. These were her stories too.
Brian was trembling. He was thinking of his parents. Pangs of guilt pierced his stomach. For the first time he actually talked about what went on in his family. He dared say out load to others that his parents were alcoholic. He fidgeted as he forced himself not to pretend anymore. But it was hard! Scary! Yet, somewhere at the edge of his awareness, there was a feeling, a real feeling, that he did not want to deny.
Eric felt detached, as if he were a million miles away. He did not like to think about what had happened. He wanted to forget. What was the use anyway? Nothing changes; nothing really makes a difference. If only he could get rid of those recurring nightmares. He barely remembers them in the morning. He just knows they come.
The Leslies, Anns, Brians, Erics, and the millions of others like them, are adult children of alcoholics. Reared in a home in which one or both parents are alcoholic, they are united by the bondage of parental alcoholism. Most adult children of alcoholics have always suspected that something is wrong. They often experience loneliness and they are likely to believe that they are different from other people. They are! Without fully identifying the source of their emptiness, they have endured and suffered. They have survived the experience of living in a family where unpredictability was the one thing that could be counted on. They seldom knew what to expect from parents -- a frown or a smile, a slap or a kiss. They have survived the experience of living in a family where inconsistency was the rule. No two days were the same and they could not believe in what others said. Subjected to denial, broken promises, and lies, they were often at the mercy of parents whose feelings, perceptions and judgments were clouded by a mind-altering drug -- alcohol. They have survived the experience of living in a family where everything was arbitrary -- things were always happening by whim or impulse in ways that seemed out of control. And because their families were like this, they have survived living with a family in chaos. Almost every day there were crises and emergencies at home. It was never really safe to relax -- or be a child. Since their families represented their worlds, they lived in a world of unpredictability, inconsistency, arbitrariness, and chaos. These are the children of alcoholics.
This book is for these survivors, the children who grew up in an alcoholic family and became adults. It describes the costs they have had to pay to survive. More important, it presents a way they can re-evaluate their survival techniques in light of the problems they now face as adults. This book will help adult children of alcoholics to use these techniques as resources to propel themselves forward to a life of meaning and joy. As one adult child of an alcoholic said, "If I can use the debris of outrageous misfortune and turn it into something positive, then none of what happened to me occurred without rhyme or reason."
This book reflects recent changes in the field of alcoholism and growing efforts to identify and assist adult children of alcoholics. New and exciting things are happening. It was not until 1955 that alcoholism was recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association. In the 1960s and 1970s it slowly became increasingly clear to professionals that the family develops a parallel disease of its own. And in the late 1970s and early 1980s, explicit acknowledgment has been given to the adult survivors. Then, on Valentine's Day of 1983, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics was formed to recognize the needs and problems of children of alcoholics of all ages. Yes, things are happening!
This book is a part of what is happening. It is about a neglected minority numbering in the millions. Recent estimates indicate there are between 28 and 34 million children of alcoholics, over half of them adults. Because their survival behaviors tend to be approval-seeking and socially acceptable, the problems of most children (and adult children) of alcoholics remain invisible. It is not that they are not being treated. They are -- in mental health agencies, psychotherapists' offices, hospitals, employee assistance programs, and the judicial system. But the importance of their parents' alcoholism often does not receive the focus and attention it merits. Despite the increasing recognition of alcoholism as a family disease, children of alcoholics continue to be ignored, misdiagnosed, and inappropriately treated. Many limp into adulthood behind a facade of strength. They survive adulthood, too, but do not enjoy it.
This is a book about how children of alcoholics of all ages can begin to enjoy their adult lives. We want to share what we have been learning from the adult children of alcoholics we have encountered as therapists and educators. Most of all we want to share our enthusiasm and excitement as well as convey a message of hope and understanding. We have seen dramatic, positive changes in adult children of alcoholics once they understand how their earlier experience with familial alcoholism continues to influence them.
We invite you to join us on a journey in which we are all pioneers. The journey will help you to uncover the influence of family alcoholism. The approach we will use is a question and answer format. The questions addressed are those we have been asked most frequently by adult children of alcoholics. As we have journeyed with others, we have come to appreciate that there will be a number of responses to what is discovered. Some people are surprised, shocked, or overwhelmed by the answers. Some become angry and frustrated. Others remain skeptical and want to know where the "research" is. Some become very sad and cry, while others feel relief, elation, and hope. Few remain unaffected. There are reasons for the strong emotional responses provoked by the questions and answers presented in this book.
First and foremost, we will be talking about all those things that children of alcoholics of all ages are taught not to talk about. One of the cardinal rules in an alcoholic home is, "There's nothing wrong here and don't you dare tell anybody!" So we are most reverently breaking the shroud of silence that encases the alcoholic family. We dare to discuss things as they are, not as they should be or as you might like them to be. We know alcoholism is one of the most prevalent diseases; one in three families are affected. The alcoholic family is "the family next door." Alcoholism is also a complex and puzzling disease; we still do not know exactly what causes it. We know it is a devastating disease. It affects the body, mind, and spirit. It affects the individual, family, and society. It is generational. And because it is generational it affects the future. There are almost 15 million Americans suffering from alcoholism or problem drinking. Their numbers are increasing by almost half a million people each year. Over 75 million Americans are affected and alcoholism costs this country over $120 billion a year. Every two and one-half minutes there is an alcohol related death.
Second, adult children of alcoholics are profoundly affected when they overcome the barrier of denial because this requires them to confront the consequences of this ravaging disease in a very personal way. Children of alcoholics are at maximum risk of becoming alcoholic themselves or developing other addictive behavior. They are at the risk of marrying an alcoholic, one or several times. And they are at the risk of developing predictable problematic patterns of behavior in which they get stuck over and over again. Yet most do not even understand what hit them. There is no such thing as growing up unaffected when alcoholism is present in a family, but it is difficult for the individual to acknowledge these problems. Arrested emotional development is inescapable unless the effects of this disease are dealt with. Alcohol is an equal opportunity destroyer. Whoever gets in its path is affected.
Third, a multitude of powerful feelings is provoked when the individual begins to come to terms with the past. Over and over we have seen adult children experience spontaneous age regression. This means that as adult children break the denial and silence, they find themselves thrown back to the past. Particular words, music, or places trigger memories from childhood. Some of these experiences have not been remembered or felt in years. Some are pleasant; many are not. All are real. Remembering and exploring the effects of growing up with alcoholism in the family is part of a larger process of learning, growth, and development. In other words, this is a journey of change. And change is always scary. No matter how miserable you are, at least your life is predictable as it is. Adult children of alcoholics often confuse stability with consistency and rigidly cling to what is familiar even though it is destructive.
Adult children of alcoholics already know much of what we shall discuss. They just do not know that they know! Our task is to make this knowledge more accessible, meaningful, and useful. We believe that in each of us there is a core of wisdom and strength. The human mind has more resources than it can possibly use. It is a vast territory of undiscovered potential. We believe people make the best choices they can with the information they have and that with new information they will make better choices. While this means our parents made the best choices they could, it does not mean that they did not make terrible mistakes at times. We believe that people grow best in an atmosphere of freedom and choice; that people with the most choices are usually the healthiest and happiest. Sometimes adult children of alcoholics are so eager to change that they will reject valuable parts of themselves. Yet there is a positive aspect to almost every part of us if we can just find the right context for its expression.
In reading this book, you may find that your experiences do not match everything that is described. Use this material as a place to begin. Take what is helpful and leave the rest. We could not possibly cover everything and we have probably left out some questions that are important to you. Begin to trust the validity of your own experiences, knowing you will make sense out of our words and find your own meaning. It is up to you to decide what kind of changes you want to make, if any, and how this book can best serve your needs. You can decide, for instance, how much of this book to read, when to read it, and with whom to share it. Sometimes the best way to move quickly is to go slowly! Honor your own pace and speed. It has been our experience that the book works best when read in sequence. However, maximum benefit will come if you also feel free to put the book down at times. Taking a walk, talking to a friend, developing a support system, or going to Al-Anon can help you get through difficult sections. Reading the book when you are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs will not be helpful.
Finally, this book provides a way to share the questions and experiences of adult children of alcoholics. Together, we will explore the inner workings of an alcoholic family. We will discover what roles the children adopt and how these bear on their adult lives. We will look at the personal and interpersonal difficulties in which adult children frequently become enmeshed. We will also talk about what can be done to overcome these difficulties and describe the recovery process. We will show that traumatic incidents in childhood can lead to abilities and personal strengths that the individual can draw upon during the recovery process. We will see how strength can be restored from wounding. We shall discover new paths to freedom.
So we welcome you on what we anticipate will be a most important journey -- your journey, your recovery. It is time!
Copyright © 1985 by Herbert L. Gravitz and Julie D. Bowden