Child of an Alcoholic – a Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEs

Child of an Alcoholic – a Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEs

Each April since 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) has sponsored Alcohol Awareness Month to increase public awareness and understanding, reduce stigma and encourage local communities to focus on alcoholism and alcohol-related issues. This year’s theme is “Connecting the Dots: Opportunities for Recovery.”

In honor of this year’s theme, I’d like to connect a dot that is often overlooked in my opinion — the Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEs and the role it can play in developing alcoholism and frustrating one’s attempts to recover.

As I shared in my post of the same name appearing on ACEs Connection

I am the Child of an Alcoholic

My mom didn’t stop drinking until age 79. She died at 84. There was no warning, no lingering illness. She died two days after an unsuccessful emergency surgery. But we had five years during which she did not drink, after forty-five years during which she did.

You see, my mom knew she had a drinking problem. So did we, the rest of her family. There were times when she fought mightily to stop or control it. There were times when the rest of us fought mightily to help her. She even succeeded in cutting back or not drinking for periods of time, which convinced her and us that she really wasn’t an alcoholic(1). None of us knew alcoholism(1) was a developmental brain disease; a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. None of us knew one of the key risk factors for developing the disease is childhood trauma. None of her primary care doctors who saw her over the four+ decades her disease marched on ever diagnosed it.

Ironically, my mom was also a 17-year cancer survivor when she died. She knew to do (and did) self-breast exams. She found a lump and immediately contacted her doctor; her doctor immediately ordered a biopsy; and she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She had a mastectomy, went through chemotherapy, lost her hair, and showed such courage and grace in her battle to recover. (If you’ve ever witnessed someone recovering from cancer, you know what I mean by “battle.”)

But cancer was a disease people and their doctors understood. Symptoms and having the disease were openly talked about and medical protocols were routine. There was no denial, secrecy, lying or self-judgment.

This was not the case with my mom’s other disease – alcoholism.

The opportunity for an earlier recovery from alcoholism for my mom would have been:

  • understanding and treating her adverse childhood experiences (unknowable at the time because the ACEs Study had yet to be done)
  • knowing that alcoholism is a developmental brain disease (unknowable at the time because the science was not, yet, available)
  • understanding the legacy of untreated secondhand drinking (SHD)-related ACEs.

Preventing an Alcohol Use Disorder – one of the Legacies of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEs

Child of an Alcoholic - a Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEsUnderstanding the connection between ACEs and SHD and their connection as possible risk factors for developing addiction (alcoholism) can help a family prevent alcohol use disorders going forward.

It was this connection and finally understanding that alcoholism (addiction) is a brain disease that set my mom free. She could embrace the fact that she didn’t “choose” to become an alcoholic just as she didn’t “choose” to have breast cancer; nor was she weak-willed, immoral, uncaring or any of the other adjectives used to label persons with this particular disease.


Breaking The Cycles – Changing the Conversations

To close this post I want to share one of my mom’s greatest gifts to breaking the cycles of untreated SHD-related ACEs and untreated ACEs in general. It happened during one of our phone calls.

She said to me, with deep emotion, “Lisa – please – please use my story – our story – to help others.”

And so I am.

There wasn’t enough time for my mom to heal from her ACEs, nor for she and I to develop the mother/daughter relationship I now have with my two daughters. Our experience is so different because of the healing work the three of us were able to do to change the legacy.

But my mom started her process by breaking the denial, secrecy, lies, and self-judgment about her alcoholism and its root causes. And it is the four of us together – my mom, myself, and my two daughters – who have now changed the legacy in our family. As such, we pass forward not lies but the truth, not self-judgment but self-compassion, not secrecy but openness, not denial but seeking awareness. Something I didn’t even understand let alone could have imagined possible just fourteen years ago.

To read the full article, please click The Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking-Related ACEs.



(1) Current terminology defines any drinking pattern that exceeds “low-risk” limits as an alcohol use disorder (AUD). In other words, the more commonly used terms most people are familiar with — binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism — are all considered alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Alcoholism is the most severe of the AUDs. 

Additionally, a person with the most severe AUD is no longer referred to as an alcoholic. Rather s/he is referred to as a person with an alcohol use disorder. I like this distinction. It allows us to see the person with an AUD as a person, first, and then second, as a person with an AUD.

When referring to alcoholism, it is also currently correct to use the term Substance Use Disorder (SUD). A substance use disorder is either alcohol or other drug misuse.

©2017 Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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