“I am the child of an alcoholic” can be a simple statement of fact. It describes a circumstance of a person’s past or family life in the same way that another person might say, “I ran track in high school” or “I’m one of four kids.” But Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) can be an identifying label as well. It describes not only something about a person’s family or past, but something about themselves. Because alcoholism is a “family illness,” often leading to negative emotional, psychological, and physical effects in those close to an alcoholic.
Adult children of alcoholics (especially men) are at greater risk for developing alcohol dependency than a child without an alcoholic parent. Several studies have found that children of alcoholics report “more anxious and avoidant behavior in romantic relationships and a more fearful style of general adult attachment.” Some research indicates that daughters of alcoholics are more likely to marry alcoholic men.
But no person can be reduced to a statistic. Emily (not her real name) now in her thirties, married, and a mom herself, shares her experience growing up with a mom struggling with alcoholism and her experience now, as an adult child of an alcoholic. Join us, as we take a walk in her shoes.
Tell us about your mom.
As a young child, I truly felt my mother could do anything and solve any problem. I remember one occasion in second grade when my class was reading the first Boxcar Children book. The teacher asked those of us who already owned it to raise our hands so that she could get the right number of copies. I wanted to belong to that group of kids, so I raised my hand too. At home, I panicked—we didn’t have the book. In despair, I sobbed out the story to Mom. The next day, after school, she told me to run upstairs to the room I shared with my sister to find a surprise. There was The Boxcar Children all shiny and new on top of a pile of other books! I still remember how my heart surged with relief and joy as I held it in my hands.
As an adult, it strikes me how many amazing books there were in our home. There were children’s books with rich, gorgeous illustrations, award-winning storytelling, and even some beautiful vintage storybooks. I’ve recently realized how much it must have cost to build this collection and how much work it took. Mom didn’t have the internet to just look up the list of Caldecott or Newbery Medal books, for instance. She must have been a tenacious presence at the library and bookseller’s.
She is an extremely determined woman, and she devoted herself to giving me and my siblings a great education. But my mother also has always had it rough. She was hospitalized with an eating disorder in her youth, and she has bipolar disorder, although she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her forties. We lived in one of the best neighborhoods in the wealthiest zip code in the state, in a house that routinely had water and gas-shut-off notices tied to the door. We had private tutors in French, music, tennis, and math, while my mother’s teeth rotted due to lack of dental care.
She was an extremely volatile presence even when we were young. I remember horrible feelings of shame and embarrassment when she would scream at neighborhood mothers or pitch a fit if the grocery store checkout clerk was too rough with our food. Mom was eventually thrown out of all the local grocery stores. She taught us to read before we entered kindergarten by drilling us with long columns of vocabulary words and hitting us when we got one wrong. She went beyond spanking and pulled our hair and chased us around the kitchen table when she got angry. We called these moments “blow ups” and were constantly on the watch for them.
All of this got much worse after she started drinking.
When was that?
When I was in fifth grade, my mother had a psychotic episode and spent a couple months in the state mental hospital. She was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sent home on medication. It was shortly after this that she began to drink heavily and have more interaction with law enforcement. Her situation worsened and reached its peak about 10 years ago, when she was sentenced to jail time for misusing the 911 system. When drunk, she would call the police and make outlandish false claims. Eventually the cops tired of this. Her jail time was in a therapeutic program and that period without booze helped her a lot. She still relapses regularly, though.
When did you become aware that your mother had a drinking problem?
Sometime in seventh grade, I read a list of signs of alcoholism. I realized that our family checked a lot of the boxes. I was routinely taking my mother’s beer and hiding it or breaking the bottles on the ground in the backyard. There was also the massive accumulation of beer cans next to the stove—she could easily drink two six-packs in a night. And she did not take days off. However I resisted calling it alcoholism even to myself. I felt this was something that happened to other families—we weren’t “that bad.” After I went to college and saw how other families lived, I realized that yes, it was “that bad.”
How did your mother’s alcoholism affect your day to day life as a child?
We did not have friends over, and rarely did we go over to other peoples’ houses. This suited me fine as a shy introvert. We planned all activities to accommodate for Mom’s “blow ups” and drinking. Once in high school, I took the family minivan (with my dad’s permission) to go to church. While I was gone, Mom got drunk, called the cops, and told them I’d stolen the car. When I came home, I spotted the police standing in the driveway with her and instantly knew what was going on. I drove right past them! Of course I turned around, but in those few seconds, the officers had hopped in their cruisers and come after me with lights blazing. They cornered me like a suspect on Cops. One of the policemen came up to the car window and asked why I didn’t immediately stop. “Because I don’t want to deal with her!” I said, and the cop cringed: he didn’t want to deal with her either. I burst into tears and drove the van the rest of the way home. All of this happened in our hoity-toity neighborhood, and every maid in every house watched through the curtains, I’m sure.
Every day there was the possibility of something like that happening.
How did you feel about your mother’s alcoholism as a kid, and have those feelings changed at all now that you’re an adult?
I was, and to be honest, still am very angry at my mom. Although I’ve come to understand and have sympathy for all the challenges in her life, she still made the choice for booze over her kids. She also divorced my dad a couple years ago. This somehow made me angrier. I am glad they didn’t divorce when I was a kid, but it was also a pretty horrible situation, and now, when her kids are in their thirties, she decided something needed to change?
How has it shaped your view of other family members?
It really gave me a poor image of my dad. For instance, in the “mom calls cops to accuse me of grand theft auto” incident, my dad was at home but stayed in his home office while I, a high schooler, was left alone to deal with the police and my angry drunken mother. I kept saying, “My dad told me I could take the car, make him come out here! He’ll tell you!” He wouldn’t come out. He was very absent, even when physically present at our home, and it didn’t help that he spent lots of time meeting women on the internet to have affairs with. My siblings and I learned early on that neither Mom nor Dad was entirely capable or willing to protect us.
There are host of heightened risks associated with being the child of alcoholics, from increased risk of depression and anxiety to substance abuse. How do you think being the child of an alcoholic shaped you growing up?
Ironically, my experiences sent me in the opposite direction of many people: I have never touched a cigarette or pot, and I meticulously avoided alcohol until my twenty-first birthday. I drink socially now, but I would never spend money on alcohol if it wasn’t for the occasional bottle of wine my husband asks for. One of my brothers actually got involved in the “Straight Edge” movement, which is a hardcore punk subculture that prides itself on avoiding alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity. I don’t know why we reacted against Mom’s struggles this way, but I know we are lucky. Against all odds, Mom’s militant education program paid off, and two of my siblings graduated from Ivy League colleges. I didn’t attend an Ivy, but I did graduate from college in three-and-a-half years, magna cum laude.
I do struggle with anxiety and depression and I’m on an antidepressant right now.
Where there any organizations or people who were particularly helpful to you as a child in coping with a parent with a drinking problem?
Nobody helped and I’m not sure I would have accepted the help. I felt strongly loyal to my mom and the rest of the family (now I recognize that as codependency), and I would have strongly resisted any interventions from Child Protective Services, for instance. The only adults who could have helped would have been my dad protecting us and insisting on mom getting treatment, or my mom choosing sobriety.
Do you identify as an adult child of an alcoholic, and what does it mean to you to be an ACOA?
Yes, I do label myself an ACOA. It means that when I am reacting strongly to events or getting stuck in a behavior pattern, I have a reason to question it and consider whether it’s a mal-adaption I picked up in childhood. It’s a tool to prompt self-awareness.
How do you think your mom’s alcoholism may have affected you as you forged your own path as an adult?
The biggest impact on my adult relationships occurred when I was dating. I was bound and determined to avoid guys with addictions, and I turned down certain men for that reason. I felt that simply by following social rules and eliminating addiction from my life—avoiding so-called “weaklings” like my mom and dad—I could guarantee myself a more peaceful existence. What I discovered after I got married, unfortunately, is that there is more than one way to be a dysfunctional family.
I thought that, because my husband’s family were well-to-do and not alcoholics, everything would be great after marriage, and I consciously moved towards them emotionally and away from my family of origin. There still turned out to be serious problems, just different from the ones I was looking for. I was so focused on my “no alcoholics” formula that I didn’t notice many other red flags. And, after all my efforts, my husband turned out to have a problem with driving under the influence.
I am also very anxious in terms of relationships. I don’t really know how normal families or couples are supposed to act, so I’m constantly trying to figure out what I should be doing and guessing at how to be successful.
How would you like people to respond when they learn about this part of your experience?
I’d want them to feel free to share their own stories with me. I think there is a lot of pressure to project an image of warm, happy family life that doesn’t necessarily match reality. At most, people call their families “crazy” like it’s an affectionate synonym for wild and chaotic. Some of us have backgrounds that are more “wild and chaotic” than others.
Is there anything you would like to say to a reader who has a parent struggling with alcoholism?
I’d tell them to consider joining Al-Anon, which is a sister group of Alcoholics Anonymous designed for those who love an alcoholic. I don’t go to meetings, but I’ve found the principles to be helpful in many areas of my life. Boundaries are also key. I don’t talk to my mom much, but I am her contact person for health reasons. Recently she attempted suicide and as the only family member in the state, I had to go handle her hospitalization and be her advocate. I explained to the care team planning her discharge that I’d be willing to set up a system where Mom calls me daily to check in, but I wasn’t going to be visiting her house or having her come regularly to my home. They seemed to think I should feel guilty and ashamed for holding that boundary, but I don’t feel responsible for saving my mom from her alcoholism, and I no longer feel badly for protecting myself. I love her, but I can’t save her life for her.
What is the best way for a woman to support a friend who is an adult child of an alcoholic?
The worst thing a friend can do is attack the alcoholic to their loved one. I am sure this comes from a place of trying to commiserate and gang up on the “bad guy” with the drinking problem, but we still love our problem drinker. The best support a friend can give is just nonjudgmental listening. It’s great to be able to talk about problems and not feel like your friend is thinking about how embarrassing your family is.
Here at Verily, we love our Daily Doses—quotes or phrases that remind us that the world needs more of who we are. Do you have a mantra or phrase that helps you to have hope in the hard days?
“I am born to fly up.” The full quote is from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?” But I remind myself all the time that I am born to fly up. I’m meant for greater things and better days.