One in four children live in families with a parent addicted to alcohol, according to the National Association of Children of Alcoholics.
Unless you have been a child in a home with untreated, unhealthily discussed alcohol misuse, it’s difficult to image what it’s like to be a child in such a home.
Devastating. Scary. Shame-filled. Life-robbing. Lonely. Isolating. It’s a set-up for a “rest of your life” that NONE of us would ever wish on a child. It’s one of the most distressing examples of secondhand drinking and affects millions of children who struggle to cope with their parent’s changed behaviors. Children do not understand that the drinking behaviors their parent exhibits are due to the chemicals in alcoholic beverages changing brain functioning – not to anything they’ve done or could have done differently. Children do not understand that when their parent’s drinking crosses the line from alcohol abuse to dependence (aka alcoholism), their parent has developed a complex brain disease that changes their rote thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well.
Children of Alcoholics Awareness Week is celebrated internationally each year to raise awareness about these children. It also helps to raise awareness about what can happen to them as an adult when they do not receive the help they need as a child.
Children of Alcoholics
I am a child of an alcoholic and decided to share some of my story this year in honor of Children of Alcoholics Week. I frame my experiences in terms of secondhand drinking (SHD) and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and share them here via the opening paragraphs from two of my recent blog posts for ACEs Connection.
My 30s would roll into my 40s before I realized my anorexia and bulimia were the symptoms of, the soothers for, my deeper, unresolved issues. In fact, it wasn’t until 2003 when one of my loved ones entered a residential treatment program for alcoholism that my “true” recovery began. I say “true” recovery because back in the day (early 1980s) there was no ACE Study, nor an understanding that ACEs are often rooted in secondhand drinking.
About my soothers…
After dropping to 95 pounds on my self-imposed daily food allotment of carrots and a can of shrimp with ketchup, I slowly started eating again. I was 16. But it wasn’t long after giving myself permission to eat that the dam broke.
I vividly recall one night as a teen living at home. Late – very late, after I was sure everyone was asleep – I took a bucket I had hidden in my closet outside my sliding door into the backyard and jammed three fingers down my throat, forcing myself to keep retching until I had thrown up that evening’s food rampage. Anxiously, I washed my hands off under the outdoor hose, slipped back into my bedroom, and returned the bucket to its hiding place. And then I waited in the dark and waited and waited until I was certain the rest of my family was still asleep. Heart pounding, I tiptoed down the hall carrying the bucket to the bathroom. The smell was disgusting.
Locking the door, I flushed my stomach’s contents down the toilet. It took three flushes to get rid of all the bits and pieces in the toilet bowl, adding angst to angst, as I held my breath after each flush – waiting for the tank to fill and allowing a reasonable period of time before flushing again – all the while praying no family member would wake. I then snuck from the bathroom to the laundry room to wash out the bucket, terrified the water running sounded like a waterfall in the quiet of the house. This whole “process” took hours. Hours. And that was in the early stages of my bulimia. It got so much uglier over the ensuing 11 years – so much uglier – as I share in my poem, “Bulging Eyes,” below.
And then one day, 11 years into my bulimia, I read a small column in a Newsweek magazine. I was 28. It was about a woman who’d been eating huge quantities of food and throwing it up – for seven years. I remember the feeling of, “Oh my God – I’m not the only one,” followed by, “Oh my God, if she stopped, maybe I can, too.”
That was over 35 years ago, and it marked the beginning of my ending the binge/purge cycle that had ruled my life. I’m thrilled to share that I succeeded in learning to re-eat. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 2003 that I fully understood…
anorexia and bulimia were only the symptoms. Read the full post here.
First recovery: learning to re-eat
As always, my eating disorders recovery “celebration” last year consisted of quiet kudos to self on Thanksgiving Day. I celebrate on Thanksgiving Day as it was the first major food holiday during which I’d managed not to binge and purge.
I write, “quiet kudos to self,” because back in the early 1980s when my eating disorders recovery began, there was little understanding, let alone treatment for people who either didn’t eat (anorexia) or ate huge quantities of food and then purged (bulimia).
In fact the only thing in my area treating this condition was a phobia group led by doctor who said bulimia was a fear of getting fat. Though that was never a driving force behind my binging and purging, I went along with his “treatment” and attended a few of the group meetings. But I soon gave up. I couldn’t relate to the experiences of an agoraphobic, arachnophobic, acrophobic, and others with diagnosed phobias.
Instead, I double-downed on my commitment to do what the woman who had spent seven years eating huge quantities of food and then throwing it up had done. Her very short story appeared in a Newsweek magazine column on bulimarexia. Her recovery success secret? Exercise and nutrition. I remember the feeling of, “Oh my God – I’m not the only one,” followed by, “Oh my God, if she stopped, maybe I can, too.”
Though I learned to re-eat (the details of which are beyond the scope of this article), I had no idea there was something far deeper that still needed to be fixed. And that something was the emotional underpinning – namely trauma – for my embracing eating disorders in the first place.
And that’s because back in the day (early 1980s), I’d never had words to describe let alone deal with my mother’s alcoholism and the resulting secondhand drinking*** dysfunction in my family. Back in the day, there was little understanding that children coping with secondhand drinking often have multiple relationships with alcohol misusers over the course of their adult life.
As importantly, critical research about the human brain and emotional health had yet to be discovered.
So while I’d learn to re-eat, I’d never dealt with my secondhand drinking-related trauma; SHD-related trauma that had multiplied in the ensuing decades as my close relationships with other alcohol misusers multiplied.
***Secondhand Drinking (SHD) refers to the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others. Drinking behaviors include verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect; blackouts; unplanned/unwanted sex, sexual assault; breaking promises to stop or cut down; shaming, blaming, denying; unpredictable behaviors; and driving while impaired, to name a few. Drinking behaviors are caused by a number of drinking patterns, including: binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism. People engaging in these drinking patterns are referred to as alcohol misusers. The negative impacts a person coping with SHD experiences are related to toxic stress. Read the full post here.
The Conclusion is Critical
I realize both of these posts are long, so I especially urge you to read the second post through to its end. That’s where the “exciting conclusion” is found and the hope begins.
Thank you for reading!