Four adult children weigh in on what mended their relationship with their alcoholic parents—or why it was past repair.
For many parents who struggle with addiction, getting sober is only half the battle. Children often become “young soldiers” in an effort to protect themselves and those they love, including the parent. As the child gets older, forgiveness and reconciliation can become more difficult, even long after the parent has stopped using. My father never stopped using. My mother read an article recently in which I discussed the “demons” my dad saw as he was dying of lung cancer. “He was probably going through withdrawals,” she said. In the fifteen years since his death, I had never made that connection.
My dad died at 71 and he never had an extended period of sobriety. Our “reconciliation” was based on boundaries I’d created to keep myself safe. Sarah, *Heather, Ava, and Jessica also have parents who abuse or have abused alcohol, with Jessica’s father also having struggled with a gambling addiction. The four adult children weigh in on what mended the relationship—or why it was past repair.
Heather grew up in a Christian enclave tucked away in the California mountains. The zip code is largely made up of the Christian conference center, with many of the town’s residents either working at the center or commuting to outside jobs. For Heather, the alcohol abuse was a family secret. “I remember as a kid listening through the furnace vent down through the garage,” she says of her hypervigilance regarding her dad’s secret. “’Yeah, I heard the can pop open,’” she says, imitating her childhood voice and speaking in a whisper. “Then one day there it would be in the fridge again.”
Like Heather’s father, Sarah’s mother was also a functioning alcoholic. “Although at points she was also low functioning,” she says. “There were times in her life she held positions of major responsibility (editor at the New Yorker magazine, photojournalist at Magnum Photos) and others where she was unable to get out of bed before noon.” Sarah and Heather both use the term “elephant in the room” to describe their home life growing up. Heather says, “No one ever said don’t tell anyone, but Mom’s not mentioning it to anyone so you’re not, and you’re just this kid getting angry inside because you can’t talk about it with your friends.”
“Children of addicts and alcoholics can face unimaginably difficult hurdles in life,” says Stephanie Arnold, an adult psychiatric and mental health clinical nurse specialist, and Dyan Kolb, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in addiction and dual disorders. “They may face abandonment, neglect, trauma from emotional and physical abuse, confusion, witnessing violence, exposure to crime, chaos, involvement of government agencies like DCFS, etc. As a result, they may feel profoundly hurt. The may be very angry.”
Jessica is one who experienced exposure to crime at a young age. She says of her father who was also an alcoholic, “When I was about in grade three, my dad actually went to jail for perjury and fraud. As I young kid I didn’t really understand what that meant.” Jessica’s father had a gambling addiction, involving buying and investing in businesses or real estate and gambling in sports. Still, she says, “I never thought he would turn against me—I’m his kid.” Jessica also remembers getting in the car with her father when he’d been drinking, and wondering if she would get home alive.
Heather, too, remembers fearing for her safety as a child. “[My mom] was the one who, when [my dad] was drunk, still let us all get into the car and be driven by him. I’ve been scared of driving for years. I’ve always hated driving.” Heather and her father had a close relationship when she was a child, which she attributes partly to his being sober when she was very young. “I sort of defended him. I don’t know why. I always root for the underdog I guess.” As she got older, however, her attitude toward her father began to change. “I just started to treat him very coldly and very meanly, and that was not good. I came home on a break once, and I saw my sister treating him how I had, and I thought, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ I could see it then because it wasn’t me. But I knew she had learned it from me.”
Ava also had a complicated relationship with her mother, who died of an accidental overdose when Ava was 25. “My mother tried to get clean. She did rehab. She’d have periods of sobriety, but she’d always relapse.” As an adult, Ava created boundaries with her mother, which occurred naturally when she went off to college. “That was my primary means of escape and of distancing myself from what was happening,” she says. “I saw her every few months and spoke with her on the phone frequently.” Even with this connection, the instability took an emotional toll on Ava: “Sometimes it was nice, and sometimes she was blitzed and it was horrible. The drug abuse almost drove me to cut her off, but I never did.” Read more “the fix”..