One of the most heartbreaking truths about addiction is how far-reaching its consequences can be, impacting individuals, families, communities, and generations far beyond the addicted person. Often the people most directly impacted are the children of the addicted person, and in today’s guest blog to mark National Children of Alcoholics Week, Toby Williams from the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) writes a moving account of his own thoughts and experiences as the child of an alcoholic parent. This blog contains elements that some people may find triggering.
Imagine being 13 years old and arriving home from a day at school. You put the key in the lock and feel an immense pang of the most crippling insecurity; you have no idea what you will find on the other side of the door.
As your mum or dad (or even both) drink too much – something you don’t really understand – there is no telling how they will welcome you home. They could be ecstatically happy, disconcertingly quiet, incandescently angry, or even slumped in the corner, unconscious. The comforting, predictable rhythms of your childhood disappeared a long time ago – or perhaps never existed at all – only to be replaced with the shame and embarrassment of being a child of an alcoholic.
COA Week is so vital because it raises awareness of the hundreds of thousands of children across the country who find themselves in this position, along with their adult counterparts like me. This awareness-raising is important for two reasons.
Firstly, it helps children of alcoholics who are confused, angry and frustrated by the position they find themselves in to start making sense of their situation. In doing so, they begin to understand that they are not alone in their experiences, and that support is out there – including the exceptional help offered by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa).
I cannot overstate how crucial this is, as the confusion and insecurity faced by children of alcoholics can be overwhelming and immensely damaging. As a child, I had a profound sense that something was wrong, but I simply didn’t understand what alcohol, let alone alcoholism, was. This was compounded by a culture of secrecy, something that I know is terrifyingly common in alcoholic households. To make matters worse, I felt gaslighted by my mum’s responses if I ever raised concerns about what was clearly a worrying situation. Knowing now that people suffering from alcoholism can act in ways they didn’t intend, experience denial, shame and remorse themselves and behave in unpredictable, negative, defensive or aggressive ways as a result, is helpful; to have known it then would have been transformational.
If I had encountered Children of Alcoholics Week as a child and the support provided by charities like Nacoa, it would have helped me to gain a basic understanding of what was happening, and guidance on how best to deal with it. Crucially, such help would have shown me that while my situation wasn’t right or fair, it wasn’t unique either. This idea of strength in numbers, of not being alone, is crucial to any semblance of wellbeing amongst children of alcoholics.
Children of Alcoholics Week wouldn’t have just been beneficial for me as a child. Having that support early on would have made some of the challenges I’ve faced in adulthood far less acute, and it is key that adult children of alcoholics mustn’t get lost in this conversation. Having an alcoholic parent in adulthood can be just as, if not more, difficult as having one in childhood. There are of course differences, but some of the themes of being a child of an alcoholic – anxiety, worry, embarrassment, emotional neglect and the associated mental health problems – are strikingly similar in both children and adults. Now as more and more people over 50 are being diagnosed with addictive disorders, it seems that a whole new generation of adult children of alcoholics will need support.
Secondly, Children of Alcoholics Week is so vital because it raises awareness among society at large – informing people who perhaps aren’t aware of the experience of children of alcoholics. Parental alcoholism affects not just the children of alcoholics; it is an innately societal problem. After all, children of alcoholics are six times more likely to witness domestic violence, five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, three times as likely to consider suicide, twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, twice as likely to develop an addiction themselves and twice as likely to get in trouble with the police. The tragic irony here is that these emotions and experiences are more than likely to have occurred for the parent as well; addiction is a cycle that spans generations if left untreated.
The cost of parental alcoholism to all of us – whether that be through an additional strain on our public services such as the police, NHS and schools, or simply through wasted talent and unfulfilled potential is immense. Giving children of alcoholics the support they need wouldn’t just help those individuals themselves, it would help build a stronger society for the whole country.
Children of Alcoholics Week is also key in reaching those who are in a position to provide that support. In schools, we have a way to go before children are provided with enough information to even start to understand what parental addiction looks like, how it can affect them and how they can help themselves. We need to make sure that our teachers are able to spot the signs of a child who is affected by their parent’s drinking and know where to go to get that child the help they need and to find appropriate ways to offer support to the parent.
In the health and social care sector treatment for the addicted individual alone risks overlooking their family, and their children in particular. My mum has had a number of interactions with the NHS and social care over the years, and there have never been any enquiries made into the welfare of people around her – including children. I would like to see doctors, for example, obliged to make these sorts of checks during addiction treatment in order to signpost children of alcoholics to the support they need.
The damage done when a parent is suffering from alcoholism isn’t just more ubiquitous than many of us realise, it’s also widely misunderstood – not least by children of alcoholics themselves, severely underestimated in its effects and harmful to both children of alcoholics themselves and society at large.
That’s why the amazing awareness-raising efforts carried out during Children of Alcoholics Week are so extraordinarily important.
Toby Williams, Nacoa
Visit the Nacoa website
This space is to enable more conversation around the topics discussed. The opinions expressed/clinical practices described in this article are those of the author and do not represent the opinions of Forward Trust or the other partners in the Taking Action on Addiction campaign.