Judy's father was an alcoholic. He beat her mother. "I was the eldest of three and I recall having to separate them. I remember the blood." Judy also remembers dragging herself to school after she'd listened all night to her parents arguing. She became a super-responsible child and adult who, at 37, is just learning to play.
Mark remembers the terror of riding in a car driven by his drunken father "because I could see the things that he couldn't see. I could see the stoplights and stop signs. I could hear the horns honking. I could see near-collisions and feel the swerves as we would drive off onto the shoulder or into other lanes." He was punished when he refused to ride with his dad. Mark grew up not trusting anyone or anything.
Eileen's alcoholic father died when she was 6. Her alcoholic mother then married a man who sexually abused Eileen and her sisters. Once, when 12-year-old Eileen had a slumber party, the stepfather sneaked in during the night and took one of her friends to another room. Eileen doesn't know what he did to the girl. She does know that she and her family were ostracized in their town after that. Eileen married an alcoholic and became one herself.
Judy, Mark and Eileen are real people, but their names have been changed to protect their family's privacy. They also are members of an increasingly vocal group: adult children of alcoholics. After spending their childhoods and early adult years feeling isolated, unhappy and crazy, without understanding why, they have discovered that they are not alone and that there are reasons for how they behave and feel.
An estimated 28 million Americans have at least one alcoholic parent, according to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. Children of alcoholics are frequently victims of abuse and neglect, and they adapt to chaos and inconsistency in their homes by developing "survival skills." Those skills include an unwillingness to trust, an extreme need to control, an excessive sense of responsibility and a denial of feelings, all of which can lead to low self-esteem, depression, isolation, guilt and difficulty maintaining successful relationships, says NACOA.
Children of alcoholics are at the highest risk of becoming alcoholics themselves and are also prone to learning disabilities, eating disorders, compulsive achieving or other compulsive behavior. "I"I am not alone; I am not crazy" could have been the battle cry at the first Na"I tional Convention on Children of Alcoholics, held here Feb. 24 to 28. About 1,000 people from at least 49 states and four countries, most of whom were children of alcoholics, came to share their stories. Many were also recovering alcoholics.
Claudia Black, a social worker who treats children of alcoholics in Laguna Beach, Calif., says there are three laws in an alcoholic household: "Don't talk" about the real problem, which is Mom or Dad's drinking. Children learn from their parents to deny the existence of alcoholism. Dad is passed out on the kitchen floor, but Mom says, "He's taking a nap." "Don't trust." Children of alcoholics can't count on the people to whom they're closest, so they learn not to count on anyone. "Don't feel," because the emotions that come with life in an alcoholic family -- fear, anger, worry, embarrassment, guilt and loneliness -- can be overwhelming. It's safer to shut down the feelings.
"Depression," says therapist Jael Greenleaf, "is the common cold of the alcoholic family."
Many researchers believe children in alcoholic families take on survival roles that they often find difficult to shake in adult life.
The "family hero" is the responsible child, the one who can cope when no one else can and still be accomplished, successful and good at hiding troubled feelings.
The "scapegoat" is the child the family identifies as the troublemaker and who acts the part to get needed attention.
The "lost child" survives by keeping quiet and retreating inward.
And the "mascot" disrupts tense situations by focusing attention on himself or herself, often resorting to clowning.
Greenleaf, president of a Los Angeles consulting firm for chemically dependent families, says that the nonalcoholic parent can be as big a problem as the alcoholic one. Spouses of alcoholics can't support their children emotionally because they're so wrapped up in their own survival.
And, Greenleaf says, often the two parents behave as extreme opposites of each other. Where the alcoholic is unpredictable, the spouse is rigid, for example. So children, whose most formidable role models are their parents, don't learn any middle ground behavior, such as flexibility.
NACOA board members said they believe the convention signifies the beginning of a nationwide movement to bring about recognition of the pain and the treatment needs of children of alcoholics. Much of the research has been done in the last 10 years.
The NACOA convention had the air of a revivalist meeting. Participants cried, laughed, hugged, talked, wore NACOA T-Shirts to Disney World and spent one day developing contacts to help them make changes in their own towns.
"It was such a relief to find out other people had wacko families, too," said one participant. "A lot of people had it better than I had and a lot of people had it worse than I had. But the feelings are the same."
Janet Geringer Woititz, human relations counselor from Upper Montclair, N.J., and author of several books on children of alcoholics, said that once adult children discover there's an explanation for the isolation and confusion they feel, they become "a population of people who eagerly run into treatment."
Some of the convention participants said they'd been to several therapists but had never quite hit on the "missing link," until they learned about the research into the effects of alcoholism on children.
Cathleen Brooks, a therapist from San Diego, founding member of NACOA and child of two alcoholics, says that once the problem is identified and brought into the open, the message is one of hope and joy. People -- the children -- can recover from the emotional damage and even use some of the survival skills to their advantage, Brooks said.
"No matter what has happened to you in your life, you can not only get over it, you can do something positive with it. It's the idea of turning life's deficits into assets."
Judy, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, said she had been in therapy twice but hadn't found the key to her emotional distress.
On the outside she was the family hero, successful, organized and competent. On the inside she was lost and desolate. "I felt like there were these quadrants of my being that were separate from each other. I wanted so much to be able to integrate them, but it took so much energy just to survive."
For Judy, the first newspaper article she read about children of alcoholics, in June 1983, came as salvation. "I'll never forget the day. I was so stunned I was immobilized. I was described. My innermost private emotions were described." She immediately sought help.
"For the first time I had hope. I realized I wasn't crazy and I wasn't alone."