I spent my whole life making sure I didn't end up like my dad. And now the only difference between my dad and me is that my dad died from his alcoholism and I don't have to die from mine. --58-year-old male child of an alcoholic; from the book, "It Will Never Happen to Me!" by Claudia Black
Twelve years ago, the usual alcoholic patient was male, and at least 55 years old, with cirrhosis of the liver.
"His family, if he had one left, consisted of a long-suffering wife," says clinical social worker Tarpley Richards. "The children were grown and gone."
By 1975, says Richards, the typical patient in treatment programs was 35 to 40 years old and not necessarily male. "Gradually, the family groups I conducted began to include--in addition to female spouses--parents and children who also lived in the home."
The treatment field has mirrored the alcoholic family: "Usually the alcoholic is seen as the center of attention," says Richards, who is with Counseling Associates, Inc., a group of Washington clinical social workers. "The spouse is viewed as the enabler, the provoker, and the children are neglected in the treatment. I think that children of alcoholics should not be ignored."
There are, as Richards points out, a variety of intervention strategies that have therapeutic results for children of alcoholics: alcohol-education groups, the therapeutic community, Al-Anon, Alateen, individual, group and family psychotherapy, Big Brother programs, books and other educational materials.
"The only essential ingredient is that the interventioner know about alcoholism and know about children."
Pointing up the trend on a national scale, a 20-member task force (composed of an interdisciplinary team of therapists, educators, authors and physicians) gathered at the Kroc Foundation ranch in California in February of this year to found the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, an advocacy group that espouses "to support and serve as a resource for children of alcoholics (COAs) of all ages and for those in a position to help them."
"This is a definite population children of alcoholics and should not piggy-back its treatment on the heels of their parents," says mental-health therapist Ellen Zaldo, a residential supervisor at New Beginning in Chantilly.
"I am sure," she adds, "that Washington is full of adult children of alcoholics married to each other or living with each other because it is a city of so many overachievers.
"They adult children of alcoholics have an unanswered question going around and around for years that they have been afraid to verbalize. When you get help to them, they recognize you are describing them and at some level have waited for someone to say 'I think I know what's troubling you.' "
"They go for it," said Zaldo at the annual conference of The Washington Area Council On Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, Inc. (WACADA). "Once they recognize who they are and you recognize them. They're smart, they know that once they learn certain things, these things give them so many answers."
"When I started going to Al-Anon the support community for spouses, families and friends of alcoholics ," says a 32-year-old arts professional, "it was as if someone handed me an explanation for a lot of baffling things." Her father, who was an alcoholic, died when she was 10. Her mother was the daughter of an alcoholic.
"Being the child of an alcoholic is another experience," says the young woman. "It is different from being an alcoholic and it is different from being married to one. It is another experience similar to both that takes on the characteristics of both."
Like many grown-up children of alcoholics, she experienced a crisis in her late twenties that she didn't understand. "From the outside it looked like everything was fine. But my life was falling apart. I was in a relationship. It ended. I went berserk. I became depressed. My friend had been trying to get me in a meeting for a year. I was becoming suicidal."
But now, she says that after three years of Al-Anon, "I feel real content, real satisfied. Friendships, relationships are a lot better. I want other people to know my story. I only wish that 10 years ago I had read about it in the newspapers, that I could have identified alcoholism as a problem in my life.
"We found each other at Al-Anon meetings. We began sharing experiences. Ours was similar to the experience of spouses but somehow different." They started an Al-Anon group for adult children of alcoholics that met first in someone's home, then moved to St. Alban's. Attendance at their 8:30 p.m. Wednesday meetings has remained steady at about 30-40 people each week.
"The majority of the people," says Amy Robertson, 31, of the Alcohol Recovery Service, Circle Terrace Hospital, Alexandria, and herself the child of an alcoholic and a member of Al-Anon, "were just beginning to identify they were adult children, the realization of not having gotten the complete information--the rule books.
"I tell people, you don't need to say, 'my parent was an alcoholic.' All you need to say is 'there is a drinking problem and it probably affected my behavior.' There was drinking and if it bothered them, then it's a problem."
Alcoholism professionals advise participation in the AA program specific to your needs (AA, Al-Anon, Alateen, Adult Children) as an essential component of the recovery process for any member of an alcoholic family. Another initial step: Talk to an alcoholism professional at one of the area treatment centers.
"Choose a counselor or therapist that has experience in working with alcoholism," says Robertson. "It is incredibly important that they understand the dynamics of alcoholism. I was in therapy for three or four years and never even addressed it."
California clinical psychologist Herb Gravitz and family therapist Julie Bowden, who have worked with about 1,000 adult children of alcoholics in Santa Barbara, have found that once they start making connections between their current pain and the familial alcoholism, "there is an intensity and rapid change." The educational process that addresses who they are is "the first major change people have felt in years."
They feel, say Gravitz and Bowden, whether 20 or 50, as if they are "crazy, bad or sick. Even though quite successful, they feel empty. They can't make anything out of that contrast. They have a good job, career, etc. Yet they feel different, isolated, alienated. They think, there must be something really wrong."
"Don't talk, don't trust, don't feel," is the three-fold rule mandated in an alcoholic household, says Jo Regis, who runs a therapy group for ACA's, as they are often called, at Washington's Psychiatric Institute.
"They were systematically taught to disown their own view and their own feelings about the world," say Gravitz and Bowden.
"The main rule was 'there's nothing wrong here.' Even if the evening before the child saw all this chaos in the room with one parent passed out on the floor and the other yelling. When the child sat down to breakfast the next morning, nothing was wrong."
Although children of alcoholics have a veneer of being survivors, they are at risk, therapists agree, for developing all kinds of problems as adults.
"Unfortunately, many of them marry alcoholics 30 percent , or become alcoholics themselves 50-60 percent ," says Zaldo.
"If by some stroke of luck they miss these, many of them have alcoholic children. Then all the mechanisms of growing up in an alcoholic home kick in again. There is a multi-generational ripple effect of the alcoholism because in each generation the stress is compounded."
Spouse selection, claims Steve Wolin of the Center for Family Research at the George Washington University Medical Center, is "very important."
In the center's study of 68 couples--all adult children of alcoholics age 25-40--which explored the importance in the alcoholic family of protecting family rituals, psychiatrist Wolin and anthropologist Linda Bennett found that "If they married someone who was non-alcoholic and who had a high-ritual family as reflected in such things as the celebration of major holidays and a regular dinner time , there was a higher likelihood that they would remain non-alcoholic."
This quality of "deliberateness" paid off. If they architected their family life in a carefully planned way, says Wolin, or invented a novel set of rituals, it was almost "like finding a new family."
"There is no cure for being the child of an alcoholic," declare Gravitz and Bowden. "There is a recovery process."
After working through the stages of that process--followed by self-monitoring and perhaps occasional consultations with a therapist or visits to a support group--there can be meaningful, satisfying lives and relationships.
The adult children of alcoholics can learn to re-parent: to discover the resources to be their own parents.
"They have never been children," says Zaldo. "That's not been a role permitted in the family because they haven't had parents acting as parents. The children often are parents to their own parents. They haven't known what most of us know as childhood. They have never known child wonder."
When they identify that part of themselves, "It's amazing," she says, "what they see with eyes that have never seen before. They experience wonder, real laughter, learn how to enjoy life. It's like a roomful of little kids.
"They don't take it for granted because they never knew they had it. It's like Christmas."