Blog | Alcohol Abuse

Children of Alcoholics Discuss Life ‘in a War Zone’

Blaire Sharpe and Phillip L. Woods know all too well about the pain that comes with growing up in an alcoholic home. But both have overcome that pain to create successful lives and enjoy the kind of peace they never had as children.

Alcoholic father threatening wife and childIn her new book, “Not Really Gone,” Sharpe (a pen name) describes the damage done to children when mom or dad, or both, depend on the bottle to get through life. “Growing up in an alcoholic family is like being raised in a war zone,” she writes in the book. “Life is, as best, unpredictable. Threats lurk; traps are set; people explode; survival becomes the goal.”1

Today Sharpe works as a mental health counselor in a Detroit suburb. She says she used a pen name for the book to spare her family the embarrassment of what occurred during her turbulent childhood into adulthood, and to protect herself, too.

Woods grew up in rural Indiana, his father an alcoholic and proprietor of a bootlegging business. He speaks many times throughout the book about wanting to kill his father, yet he eventually overcame these feelings of anger.

“To truly understand my feelings on a gut level, one would have to have lived in our home, where tension and fear were always present because of my father’s unpredictable outbursts,” he writes in the book.2

In an interview he explains, “I wanted to preserve my history for all my children and their children. I had a need for them to know they are descendants of an alcoholic, my father, and that if it is in any way genetic, that they are predisposed to the affliction.”

Genetics and Environment Both Contribute to Alcoholism

The link between genetics and alcoholism is no longer a question of “if,” but “how.” Research published in December 2014 in the academic journal Molecular Psychiatry showed how a network of genes, not just one gene, conspires inside the brain to create alcoholism. Using RNA sequencing technology, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin made this breakthrough discovery by analyzing tissue from the brains of alcoholics.3

Research also shows that children of alcoholics can grow up with a myriad of problems, including low self-esteem, helplessness, loneliness, guilt, fear of abandonment and chronic depression.4 Those factors can lead to alcoholism in and of themselves, Sharpe says.

Children of alcoholics can grow up with a myriad of problems, including low self-esteem, helplessness, loneliness, guilt, fear of abandonment and chronic depression. Those factors can lead to alcoholism in and of themselves.

“It can be difficult to extract a pure environment where alcoholism is the only causative factor with all other psychological and health issues being effects,” she explains. “Alcoholism, addiction, depression, anxiety, abuse of all types, financial distress … all these things are so interrelated—or at least often concurrently present—that it can be like a chicken and the egg scenario. Researchers like their research pure, controllable, and easily replicated. … It’s a blend of genes and environment. There is no one component that says, ‘If you’re raised in this environment, you’re doomed.’ Or ‘If you have this gene, you’re doomed.’ But there is a heightened possibility that if you choose to go down this road (of drinking), then things are dangerous.”

So how can those who grew up with alcoholics avoid the pitfalls of addiction, and further, take precaution to help their children avoid suffering the same fate?

Sharpe explains how a diabetic who loves cake would be smart to avoid eating cake. “If a diabetic thinks there even is a possibility of eating a second piece of cake because it tastes so good, then they are putting their life in danger.”

The same can happen with the child of an alcoholic who may think it is safe to be a social drinker. And that very much is Sharpe’s story. Even though she was well educated about the dangers children of alcoholics face, she found herself in the abyss of alcoholism twice in her life.

Sharpe has been sober for 15 years, but she tried to get sober 10 years before that and relapsed. She had a counselor tell her the first time around that her problem was not that she was an alcoholic, but that she was the product of an alcoholic environment. Sharpe later came to learn that she was both, she says.

When Mom or Dad Drinks: Hypervigilance and Living Life on Edge

Drunken woman with whiskey glassWhat is it about an alcoholic home that produces children who grow up fearful and tense, often turning to the bottle in an effort to slam the brakes on their anxiety?

“When you’re used to living your life on edge, as children of alcoholics do, there’s a hypervigilance (an acute awareness of your surroundings),” Sharpe says. “You’re always gauging what’s going on, scanning the crowd, analyzing micro-expressions. Once you get past using it as a protective mechanism, it can serve you well in life.”

A recovering alcoholic can prevent her own children from developing that sort of angst by providing a calm, stable environment.

A recovering alcoholic can prevent her own children from developing that sort of angst by providing a calm, stable environment.

“In our house, drinking is not a normal thing. It’s not part of our daily life and there is no ‘normalization’ of alcohol,” Sharpe says. “We go to our in-laws and everybody is drinking. The kids notice it, and they notice a difference between how those people behave and how their own mother behaves.”

Honesty about mom or dad’s problem with drinking also is a must, Sharpe adds. “We have open conversations about it all the time. They know their mom goes to meetings, and what they are all about. It’s a very eclectic group of people I hang out with. I’m sure they would wonder ‘why would she be friends with that person?’ if they didn’t know (that she was a recovering alcoholic).”That doesn’t mean coming out and saying “Mommy’s an alcoholic” when your children are in kindergarten is a good idea. There needs to be an age-appropriate progression, Sharpe says. When they are younger, maybe explain there is no beer or wine in the house because mommy doesn’t like what alcohol does to people. When they’re ready, explain how alcohol negatively impacted your own life and why you choose to abstain from it.

Cruel World: Sympathy Is Often Scarce for Alcoholics and Their Children

Being the child of an alcoholic can be very stigmatizing. In one poignant scene in Woods’ book, he describes being rejected by a girl’s father when he arrives to take her on a date.

“Alcoholics are seldom seen as sympathetic characters, even today,” he writes. “There is inequality in society’s treatment of them. Their families, even innocent children, are painted with the same broad brush and treated just as poorly. Of course, there are always kindhearted individuals who might feel sorry for the alcoholic family, but society as a whole does not. This is the discrimination that touched me directly in my childhood.”

Woods credits his grandfather, a “teetotaler,” for helping him get past the hurt and self-pity of growing up in an alcoholic home. He immersed himself in all the good, functional people in his life, even before his mother sent him to live with his granddad.

“The fear of ambiguity was replaced by love and affection,” he explains.

And that’s exactly how Sharpe has tried to rear her own children, she says—with predictability rather than the uncertainty she grew up with. “I tell them I’m sorry when I’m wrong, and as a result it’s OK for them to tell me when I’ve done something wrong. We forgive each other very quickly. That’s a very healthy relationship.”


Bibliography

1 Sharpe, B. (2015). Not Really Gone. (1st ed. Vol. 1). Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

2 Woods, P. (2015). Miles from Home: The Journey of a Lifetime (1st ed., Vol. 1, p. 13). Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.

3 Farris, S.P., et al. (2014, December). Molecular Psychiatry. Transcriptome organization for chronic alcohol abuse in human brain.

4 Sher, K. (1997). Psychological Characteristics of Children of Alcoholics. Alcohol Health & Research World. 21, 247-253.

Written by David Heitz