This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.
There is a much larger story here. It’s the story of all mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins who care about and are concerned about someone abusing alcohol. Even closer to home, it’s about the partners and children who experience the day-to-day suffering of living with an alcoholic.
Children of alcoholics live in a constant unpredictable environment. As a result of these challenges, many children don’t get their emotional needs met. This can lead to distorted behaviors and difficulty caring for themselves and their feelings later in life. Additionally, children of alcoholic parents often have to deny their feelings and find it challenging to develop healthy, trusting relationships.
Dealing with an alcoholic partner can significantly impact one’s life. Spouses of alcoholics face many challenges and emotions while navigating this situation. It’s difficult for partners to be upset and worried about the health and future of their household while picking up more of the day-to-day responsibilities.
The effects of living with an alcoholic are incredibly draining and have a significant long-term impact on children and partners.
Partners and Children of Alcoholics
At least the alcoholic can put on those proverbial rose-colored glasses when the going gets rough. When something in their lives feels too painful to sit with, they don’t have to. They can numb their pain with alcohol. However, the people who love and rely on them, who see them at the breakfast table, plan crisscrossing days, who count on them for a ride to school, a talk about their day, or a steady paycheck but can’t feel at ease doing it—these people are going through the experience cold sober.
The pain they feel watching the person they once thought they knew morph slowly into a confusing, unreachable version of their old self—these people are not using a substance to numb their pain. They feel like they’re slowly going mad, like someone has turned the volume up on the noise factor in their heads—and they’re stuck feeling it. This is why their disease of co-addiction, codependency, or trauma-related stress mushrooms alongside their addiction. This is why they deny, minimize, intellectualize, dissociate and act crazier than even the alcoholic at times.
As the addict becomes more taxing to live with, those living with the addict become more taxed.
As the addict becomes more taxing to live with, children and partners become more taxed. No one escapes the pain and long-term effects of addiction. At least the addict can sober up and put the addiction behind them. Leaving the post-traumatic stress from living with an alcoholic behind can be an uphill battle. Untangling the pain, confusion, and general life angst that’s part of what “the flesh is heir to,” caused by living and loving in the face of addiction, can be the work of a lifetime—at least a decade.
Bessel van der Kolk said, “Despite the numerous studies over the past 30 years that have clarified the devastating effects of child maltreatment on mental and physical health, the role of trauma within the caregiving system remains unrecognized in our diagnostic systems and dominant treatment paradigms.”
He continued, “Research of people with histories of caregiver abuse and neglect consistently demonstrate problems with concentration, anger, panic, depression, food intake, drugs, sleep, decreased heart rate variability, higher levels of stress hormones, and reduced or impaired immune response. Their relationship between documented brain changes and psychopathology is complex.”
According to Robert Anda of The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, addiction emerges over again as a primary form of this childhood stress and abuse.
Lessons Learned From Living with an Alcoholic
You learn that you can’t count on someone’s mood anymore. They may overreact to simple frustrations that they could once manage. They launch into negative monologues at the drop of a hat, creating conflict where there isn’t any. Addicts are quick to get irritated if you catch them at the wrong time of day. They’re not morning people, but as their disease progresses, noon isn’t so great either.
Eventually, you don’t even want to catch them during any of those hours of the day when they are not letting themselves drink. You avoid them; you learn to avoid the person you love. This is an essential and confusing lesson to learn and doesn’t exactly set you up for uncomplicated relationships in the future.
You feel anxious being around them; you worry about saying something that will make them mad, about asking them questions, or getting into conversations that can quickly go south. You learn to be on guard; you fuse in your head that love, mistrust, and a chronic low level of anxiety are part of a “normal,” intimate relationship, part of being close.
It’s so confusing.
Then comes that magic window when they finally get their fix. Out of the blue, their old, affable personality reemerges. You see the smile you remember, the carefree laugh, the person you once felt so comfortable with. This makes the whole situation even more disturbing because nothing you can do will access that person when you want to see them. That person will now only come out with a drink in their hand. This means that friends will still think your mom or dad is fun. It’ll be the family that feels the effects—it sneaks up on you and happens slowly.
You often forget that this person is an addict because drinking has become incorporated into their everyday life. The cocktail hour starts earlier and lasts longer. Dinner becomes a drawn-out ritual with lots of wine being poured. Friends become warmer, closer, funnier, and getting together often involves drinking. They’re drinking buddies—and whether the drinking buddies sit on a stoop with cheap wine in a brown paper bag or on chintz and linen in a beautifully decorated room—doesn’t matter. Soon, life gets organized around drinking windows—elegant or plebeian—it’s all the same.
Slowly the disease takes over more aspects of your life. It gets harder to focus on your own life because managing or working around someone else takes priority. You lose that sense of ease and lightness in your day and yourself. You start to feel hopeless and helpless because you no longer know the person you love. You lose them by barely perceptible inches.
You lose respect or even love for them, dragging that feeling into subsequent relationships down the line. The emotions become intergenerational even if the alcohol doesn’t. Additionally, you don’t have to cope with anger and hate towards somebody you love, creating loneliness. You have to give up the wish to be with the one you want because it becomes too disruptive to your insides.
Lasting Effects on Partners and Children of Alcoholics
Many children of alcoholics lose themselves in their relationships and find themselves attracted to alcoholics or other compulsive personalities that are emotionally unavailable. As a result of neglecting their needs, they often form relationships with people who need help or rescuing. When they hyper-focus on other people’s needs, they don’t have to process the challenging emotions from living with an alcoholic.
For children of alcoholics, modeling becomes extremely difficult. It’s problematic identifying with the alcoholic parent, so you throw the baby out with the bathwater. You worry about internalizing their good qualities because you’re scared their bad ones will ride along with them. You want to internally distance from the problematic qualities in the addicted parent that led them to become sick, negative people. Then, alcohol addiction emerges in future generations.
Although their parents, who were the children of alcoholics (CoAs), are sober, they’re carrying unresolved baggage into their parenting. Then, the grandchild feels their parents’ silent pain, and they pick up alcohol, drugs, or food to numb it. Addiction reemerges in the grandchildren of alcoholics. Addiction appears to have “skipped a generation,” but it didn’t. It still yields its effects, just without the alcohol. The post-traumatic stress of growing up with addiction continues its predictable disease path.
Partners of alcoholics often place self-blame and attempt to control or make excuses for their drinking. Spouses of alcoholics are also more likely to be victims of domestic violence and emotional harm. As a result, their partners will neglect their physical and mental health and become socially withdrawn. In some cases, they also develop addictions. Other lasting effects include trauma and long-term financial problems.
Support for Partners and Children of Alcoholics
If you’ve experienced dealing with an alcoholic parent, it’s critical to address those challenges and complex emotions in constructive ways. Therapy can provide help and support for children of alcoholics, gaining insight into the feelings, behaviors, and struggles of living with an alcoholic. As a result, they become aware of how their childhood experiences shaped their adult life.
Spouses of alcoholics are often overlooked for treatment. The alcoholic spouse usually seeks the professional help they need while their partners are left to deal with the lasting effects of being married to an alcoholic. Partners shouldn’t have to live with these lasting consequences. There are various means of help and support for spouses of alcoholics, including confiding in friends and family, practicing healthy coping mechanisms, joining a support group, and seeking therapy and other treatment methods if necessary.
For further info, log onto nacoa.org.
Anda, R. F., V. J. Felitti, J. Walker, C. L. Whit!eld, J. D. Bremner, B. D. Perry, S. R. Dube, and W. H. Giles. 2006. “The Enduring Effects of Abuse and Related Adverse Experiences in Childhood: A Convergence of Evidence from Neurobiology and Epidemiology.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences256(3)
Van der Kolk B. Commentary: The devastating effects of ignoring child maltreatment in psychiatry — a commentary on Teicher and Samson 2016. / J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2016 Mar;57(3):267-70. PMID: 268898