MY EXPERIENCE AS THE CHILD OF AN ALCOHOLIC

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I recently put some questions out on Instagram exploring drinking habits of parents. Off the back of that I received an extraordinary email from Elena who shared her experience as Child of an Alcoholic (COA) as well as raising some tough but important questions about the drinking culture in this country:

  •  At 33 I still feel panicked and angry and desperately lost when I realise my mum has been drinking. My pulse races and I feel unsteady. It brings me back to childhood nights, knowing that something wasn’t right as a younger child, realising as an older child that it was alcohol.

  • Confronting her to be told again and again that she hadn’t had a drink. So many times she would drive me home from gymnastics, my retail job, or a friend’s house and I could smell the drink, hear it in her voice. She would deny drinking and speed up to prove it. She clipped the curb a few times. I don’t know how she didn’t kill us. 

  • When I read about gaslighting, this is what I think of. To this day she rarely, if ever, admits to her drinking. Blames everything on my dad, or on us. Even having been part of AA for years, which places admitting your alcoholism at the heart of its programme.

  • I think with an alcoholic parent it’s the lying that’s the worst. You are brought up to trust your mum or dad implicitly. Our culture suggests that we only tell white lies to children, to make something magic or to protect them. An alcoholic lies every day with every part of themselves. That betrayal is what you never get over.

  • Which is not to minimise the other stuff. Having an alcoholic parent can mean lots of drama.

  • Things often got physical, and eventually, she moved from being a ‘functional’ alcoholic (I can’t stand that term, alcoholics aren’t functional) to spiralling out of ‘functionality’.

  • She lost her job in a very public way which included footage on a national tv programme, a court case, nights in prison and several car crashes. And ultimately, the comorbidity (presence at same time as/combination) of alcoholism with other physical and mental illnesses and addictions is really high, which makes it even worse.

  • Depression, anxiety and a whole host of other mental health issues can compound the problem.

  • Many alcoholics will be using or will go on to use other drugs, prescription and illegal. All of which is to say that life with an alcoholic mother could be truly shit in a multitude of ways, but to this day it is the lying that gets me the most. It’s hard to forgive, and you really can’t build a relationship with someone you can’t trust. 

  • When things started to get really bad, I was in my final A level year. It was at that point that I realised no one could make it all stop. As a fortunate child, and as a very fortunate adult, you can get away with thinking that if there is a big problem in your life, the various institutions that we have leap to action and solve it for you. Which thankfully is often the case, and my experiences in no way lead me to minimise the vital importance of these organisations and people.

  • However, with parental alcoholism, I found there was no knight in shining armour for us.

  • My mum’s alcoholism destroyed our family in a sort of slow-motion car crash way, but no one could really come to our rescue.

  • My dad was a stable parent with a job, we still had a place to live. Social services were involved at one point, but she wasn’t ever identified as abusive to the extent that contact would cease between us.

  • There were GPs and sectioning, mental health institutions, rehab trips, the police were involved with drink driving and other offences; we had plenty of exposure to people and places that are meant to help and protect. But none of them stopped her alcoholism. How could they? 

  • – What’s more, and a really important thing to bear in mind, is that we were otherwise a very unexceptional British family. Our parents had steady, state-sector jobs, we had immigrant grandparents from rural Ireland who worked hard and had children who ended up going to university, we owned our house in the suburbs, we had cars, went to church, had hobbies, were complimented on our manners. In realising my mum was an alcoholic, and through connecting with other COAs (children of alcoholics) as an adult, I’ve seen how alcoholism is one of the most pervasive aspects of our modern lives in the UK. No class, ethnicity, gender or region is immune. 

  • – Becoming a parent as a COA can throw up some really tough stuff. I can understand at the abstract level that my mum’s alcoholism was a product of various traumas in her life, as well as genetic predispositions.

  • But what about my traumas and my predispositions?

  • Added to the general mental burden of becoming a mother for the first time–how will I feed them, will I know if they’re okay, will I still be me, what if they never sleep through and so on and so on–COAs are in that unfortunate group of people who are also asking, how will I make sure this stops with me? How do I stop this pattern of intergenerational trauma and addiction? Or, simply, will I end up an alcoholic like her?

  • I’m really confident that I’m not an alcoholic, but it’s impossible as a COA to have an easy relationship with drinking.

  • If I enjoy a drink or have more than one, I can’t not worry I’m slipping into alcoholism.

  • We rarely have alcohol in the house because I find bottles of alcohol in a home environment, especially spirits, really unnerving.

  • I’m one of those ridiculous people who doesn’t like the taste of water, so I survive mainly on tea and recently, kombucha. But I do like the taste of wine, and I want to model an easy, responsible relationship with alcohol to my children when they are older, so I will have a glass of wine in front of them, but no more. I’m struggling to balance making them feel comfortable and staying comfortable myself.

  •  I went into motherhood with a ‘plan’ of the type that many COAs would understand, but might seem strange otherwise. If I do become an alcoholic, my sister has promised that she will do every single thing in her power to take me away from my children.

  • I look at my sleeping daughter and it seems impossible that this plan will ever be put into action.

  • But when I think of my own childhood, I know that not having a plan like this is what’s impossible. For me, after years of chasing my tail academically and professionally over a definition or working understanding of addiction, alcoholism boils down to the lies. Do I lie to myself and others about how, when, and why I drink alcohol? As long as the answer is no, I feel I don’t have a problem. There is so, so much work to be done in the UK when it comes to alcoholism and parenthood. I find the focus on binge drinking in youth culture completely infuriating. While it is an issue, I think the media attention it garners is a comfortable way for the middle class and middle-aged to reassure themselves that their own drinking is okay. Often, so often, it really isn’t.

  • I feel strongly that the ‘wine o ‘clock’ and ‘adult headache’ aspect of motherhood is one of the most damaging exclusionary discourses, and little to nothing is being said about it.

  • Countless people and types of people are triggered, offended or excluded by the association of parent life and alcohol consumption. And what about the mothers who identify themselves as people in need of a drink? A drink is fine if you are fine. Why promote gin and tonic as a salve for the challenges of 21st-century parenting?

  • Alcohol is many things to many people, but never is it self care.

  •  I wonder if this might be one of the most unpopular positions you could take in the UK. I’ve often noticed that if you want to make conversation in Britain you comment on the weather, but if you want to make a friend, you joke about alcohol.

  • It is (thankfully) increasingly recognised that we can be triggered by discourses around and depictions of assault, eating disorders, racism and other highly charged topics. But reacting negatively to depictions of drinking makes you a killjoy.

  • Behind every alcoholic parent, there is a child of an alcoholic.

  • These people are under-reported, under-researched, and largely go un-supported.

  • They are being lied to by the people they are supposed to trust.

  • The foundation of their life is very shaky.

  • They feel alone.

  • They are ashamed.

  • I’ve worked with and researched addicts, and many of my closest friends identify as recovered addicts…

  • I always say I can see a reason for addiction, but never an excuse.

  • I love my mum, and it’s not her fault. But there is no excuse for bringing children into the world, only to subject them to alcoholism. 

  • We need to continue to empower addicts as people who are suffering, and who need help.

  • But we also need to collectively assume some responsibility for their children, too.

  • Do we mask their problems and ignore or exacerbate their trauma through our alcohol-promoting culture of normality?

  • Would it be so hard for parents in the UK to have a really big think about their relationship with alcohol? Or the way they talk about alcohol with other adults and their children? Is it really a ‘buzz kill’ to ask that we no longer promote alcohol as desirable? Is dependency on alcohol really that funny?

 

** For anyone wanting further advice support please head to Nacoa (The National Association for Children of Alcoholics) is a charity founded to address the needs of children growing up in families where one or both parents suffer from alcoholism or a similar addictive problem. This includes children of all ages, many of whose problems only become apparent in adulthood. **

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13 Comments

  • Reply Hannah January 8, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    I absolutely agree and identify with everything you have said. As a COA, I too have found the lying just so unbearable. And I’ve found it harder and harder, as I’ve got older to tolerate it around me, especially when characteristics in people that come into my life are similar to that of my alcoholic parent, it really triggers something in me that has been ingrained in who I am. I went to buy a birthday card the other day and the amount of alcohol-related cards really saddens me. I heard an interview the other day with Ross Kemp interviewing Professor David Nutt and in it he said the reality is that if alcohol was invented today, it would be declared an illegal drug – class B or possibly class A. Its a harmful drug and so is our relationship with it as a nation. I would love this to change too.

  • Reply Amy January 8, 2021 at 9:32 pm

    Thank you for writing this.
    I am a COA.
    I relate to every single word, only as a mother now to my baby girl do I see the real damage it has done to me. The lying and mistrust is deeply forged into my psyche.
    My mother passed 8 years ago suddenly, but the trauma of the 20+ previous years haunts and impacts my day to life on a scale I could never of imagined.
    Alcohol restrictions should be tighter, age limits raised and taxed more heavily.
    Thank you again for sharing.
    Comforting to know I am not alone in my thoughts.❤️

  • Reply Amy January 8, 2021 at 9:33 pm

    Thank you for writing this.
    I am a COA.
    I relate to every single word, only as a mother now tdo I see the real damage it has done to me. The lying and mistrust is deeply forged into my psyche.
    My mother passed 8 years ago suddenly, but the trauma of the 20+ previous years haunts and impacts my day to life on a scale I could never of imagined.
    Alcohol restrictions should be tighter, age limits raised and taxed more heavily.
    Thank you again for sharing.
    Comforting to know I am not alone in my thoughts.❤️

  • Reply Tabby M January 8, 2021 at 10:00 pm

    I’m not the COA but my mother in law was an obvious alcoholic for the last decade of her life & the affect it had in her grandchildren (my 2 daughters) caused huge family rifts. My husband was in his early 40s at the time & it has really damaged him & his siblings , even as adults. She lied constantly & in the end we all had to go non contact with her which was incredibly hard to explain to a 10 & an 8 Yr old, especially when she’d been a brilliant, wonderful & crucially, reliable grandmother up to that point. The last straw for us was her wanting us to lie to the girls about her being in rehab over Christmas. She wanted us to tell them that she was ill & in hospital. While this was true in a way, we refused to cover up for her & it ruined her relationship with us & her other children. I now don’t drink at all. It’s hard to see drinking as amusing or grown up in any way once you see through the glamour. All I can see is people lying to themselves, telling themselves & each other that their drinking habits are fine, that it’s “the done thing” to appreciate fine wine or have a “girls gin night”. I’ve lost friends because I can’t cover up my distaste at 30/40 something parents getting smashed at the weekend (whilst their children are upstairs asleep) & thinking they’re perfectly fine. The final straw was a weekend camping trip with about 20 families from school. On the Friday night, there were only 3 adults, including myself that were not drinking. There were over 60 children present & virtually every single adult was in a varying state of drunkenness. None of them could have driven or been responsible in an emergency & these were all well-educated, professionals with very well paid jobs. And, yes, I agree that if alcohol was newly invented now, it would be a class A drug. It does so much damage & yet everyone thinks you’re odd or have no sense of humour if you mention that you don’t drink. We have normalised alcohol addiction as harmless fun.

  • Reply Steph January 8, 2021 at 10:10 pm

    This hit home with me in so many ways. My mum was never what was deemed an alcoholic in my childhood but so much of her younger life revolves around drinking so I struggle with the idea that she wasn’t. I had many negative experiences with alcohol in my early twenties that also lead to several arrests and some really catastrophic decision making. I now have a take it or leave it relationship with booze, but I never ever drink around my daughter. She’s only four. I’m not sure if this is the right approach but it’s not just the booze I fear now, the day spent in bed recovering from a heavy drinking session has ruined so many days of my life already. I admire your honesty and candidness in this post and I think you make valid and important points. Thank you for sharing. X

  • Reply Anonymous January 8, 2021 at 10:39 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. My husband is a COA and raised many of these points before we had children. However reading your list has really helped me to understand his experience more – Thank you x

  • Reply Hanna January 9, 2021 at 9:35 am

    It was really good read for an exwife of a recovered alcoholic. I am so glad that he stopped, especially for our daughter. But as he moved back to Scotland I am left here in Germany with our daughter. Although she is very young, she suffered from his addiction. I too think about every drink before I have it. Alcohol truly destroys families. As it did ours. Being married to an alcoholic was the worst time of my life, and there had been plenty. Feeling trapped and helpless. Trying to soothe the dangerous situations. Being the only aim for all the hate bottled up in your partner. My daughter and myself are going into a clinic now, as I fell into a deep depression. Alcohol is just evil. And here in Germany it is so normal, beer is even taxed as essential food (7% tax instead of 19). You can buy full sized bottles of Wodka for as less as 4 Euro, 6 Beers for less than 2. It sickens me. There is a lot of work to be done. I could blabb on forever…but I leave it for now

  • Reply D January 9, 2021 at 9:44 am

    Im really glad I stumbled onto this. As a step COA (had no idea this term existed) and seeing other people put their experiences down on paper really resonated. My “step father” was introduced into my life at the age where I was transitioning from a kid into a teenager, he was a good guy but an alcoholic. It was very hard for all involved and was years of mistrust and resentment before his death.
    My fear around alcoholism still exists deep and is often an unwelcome conversation in our loving household.
    Articles like this will hopefully make my wife understand more about things I cant often say.

  • Reply Harriet January 9, 2021 at 9:58 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I’m still coming to terms with what being a COA means.

    Why, as an adult, I’m always trying to manage situations; why I’m always beset with anxiety; why I constantly live on my nerves.

    It’s still so easy to remember putting the key in the lock of the house I grew up in and the anxiety descending like treacle; would dad be drunk again, would I be able to pour bottles of wine down the sink without him noticing. He died in 2005 and I’m still trying to reconcile how I feel about him and my childhood. The body really does keep the score.

    Thanks again x

  • Reply Jenny January 10, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you for writing this… my ex is a COA and looking back, it explains a lot. His mother (my sons grandmother) drinks far too much even at children’s events and I’ve seen first hand how damaging it can be – even in small, time limited events.

    Just a comment for other readers – please, please don’t pressure your girlfriends into “just one drink”. My (extremely common) low dose medication for generalized anxiety means when I mix with a glass of red wine, my anxiety is amplified for the following day. It took me years to connect those dots…

  • Reply CD January 11, 2021 at 12:21 am

    This post really resonates with me. I’m not a COA but married to an alcoholic and in the process of divorcing him.

    I promised myself throughout my marriage that even though I forgave all his misdoings ( and carried on stupidly believing that he would one day realise that I mattered more than the drink), that I would call it quits as soon as it started to affect my daughter.

    Now I’m living with the guilt that if I’d been brave enough to end things before, she wouldn’t have witnessed so many hideous things and found her father collapsed on the floor, believing he was dead. At 9 years old.

    She’s not seen him for some time now at her own request and is battling huge anxieties.

    I realise now that children are sponges. They soak up so many things you don’t even realise they are witnesses to. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not protecting her more.

  • Reply Michelle January 13, 2021 at 8:46 am

    Thanks for your article and bringing awareness to the support out there. I attend Families Anonymous and find it invaluable as a place of support where I am surrounded by others who I can relate to and ultimately gain an understanding of my husbands illness. Addiction is an isolating illness where the shame is contagious and often the impact on those around the addict is overlooked but crippling. Its really important and positive that there are advocates who support those at risk of hidden harm.

  • Reply Kmm January 19, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    I feel I am a COA, although my mother would never admit it and managed to stay out of trouble by holing up in the house most of the time, as I came into adulthood I realized it. I struggle with my dad allowing it to go on and on, still to this day. Why didn’t he protect us, why didn’t he threaten to leave or actually leave. I used to wish they would divorce. I think about all that now and how its the other parents responsibility to protect the children as well.

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