Mary Ann lives in a nice house in a suburb of Washington. Her mother and father both work in the city and provide Mary Ann with everything she needs. She has her own room, with a canopy bed. She has a red 10-speed bike, and even her own VCR. She is very lucky.
But until recently, Mary Ann never invited anyone from her school over to her house to play with her stuff. In fact, she didn't have many friends. She was quiet and withdrawn, and seemed pretty lonely.
Mary Ann's father has alcoholism. His disease caused him to lose control over his drinking. When he came home from work, he started drinking alcohol, and he couldn't seem to stop. When he had been drinking, Mary Ann's father acted strange. Sometimes he would shout at her or her mother for no reason. He would break things, or slam out of the house in rage. It was frightening to see her kind, funny father acting so violent. Afterward, her father would be very sorry and shower Mary Ann and her mother with presents.
All of this was very confusing. Mary Ann felt sad about it, and mad about it. And she wondered whether her father's weird behavior was her fault. If she could just be better behaved, he might stop, she thought. But no matter how good she was, the drinking and the violent behavior continued.
At school, Mary Ann got quieter and quieter. She didn't feel like having anyone over to spend the night, in case her father got drunk. She felt so bad that she had a hard time concentrating on her homework, and started getting poor grades. She felt like she was losing control over her life, too.
But Mary Ann was lucky. She had a teacher who recognized some of the symptoms Mary Ann was developing. Many children of alcoholics begin acting the way Mary Ann acted, and her teacher knew the signs.
Mary Ann's teacher approached Mary Ann and tried to talk to her about her problems. At first, Mary Ann felt mad at the teacher, and said nothing was wrong at home. But after a while Mary Ann began to trust her teacher. And she found out that talking about her father's drinking made her feel less lonely. The teacher explained that Mary Ann's father had a disease. It was a relief to understand that her father's drinking wasn't Mary Ann's fault. Mary Ann began to feel that she hated alcoholism -- but she still loved her father.
Mary Ann asked her teacher what she could do to help her father. The teacher explained that family members often can't help the alcoholic overcome the disease. Alcoholics, like any people who are ill, need to get professional help. There are many groups and organizations that treat alcoholics.
Mary Ann's teacher called her mother, and together they tried to convince Mary Ann's father to seek help. It wasn't easy. At first, her father insisted that he didn't have a problem. But finally he went to talk to his doctor. His doctor referred him to a support group, and with the group's help Mary Ann's father stopped drinking. Now he is a recovering alcoholic. He attends meetings to help him keep control of his disease. Mary Ann attends meeting, also. At her group, called Alateen, she meets with other young people and discusses the problems of having an alcoholic father or mother. Now she knows that she's not alone. She has started making friends, and she feels a lot better about herself.
This week, you may have watchd a TV show called "Shattered Spirits" that showed what happens in a family with an alcoholic parent. The problems the show dramatized probably were familiar to many of the viewers. In the United States, according to experts at the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol Information, 7 million people under the age of 20 live with at least one alcoholic parent -- as Mary Ann does. The center provides information designed to help these young people. You can find out more about the information by reading the Tips for Parents below. Tips for Parents
Anticipating a widespread response to the television show "Shattered Spirits," which aired Monday on ABC, the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol Information prepared a set of free kits to distribute to children, parents, community organizations and clinicians. They are available from: National Clearinghouse for Alcohol Information P.O. Box 2345, Rockville, Md. 20852; (301) 468-2600.
The center asks that people specify which kits they wish to receive. The following are available: for young children of alcoholics; for parents; for educators and community organizers; for counselors and other treatment professionals. Catherine O'Neill is an editor of National Geographic World, a magazine for children 8 and up.