I grew up in an alcoholic home. My mother insisted my alcoholic father’s drinking did not affect anyone else. But his behavior did affect me, his daughter, especially hard. In fact, effects of alcoholism on an alcoholic’s children can be so profound its lasts a lifetime. As the daughter of an alcoholic father, I found it difficult, if not impossible to deal with its lasting effects.
Alcoholism is a family disease. It affects the behavior, of course, of everyone in the family. My parents denied a problem existed and as a result I lacked a role model for healthy relationships and functioning behavior.
All children crave and need predictability and a stable environment in which to grow where each child’s requirements and needs are met consistently. This is what enables a child to feel safe and secure. This did not happen in my dysfunctional family. My family, an alcoholic family was in a constant state of survival, constantly tiptoeing around my father, the alcoholic, hoping to keep the peace and avoid any dramatic anger fit or blow-up.
Denial was prolific, especially with my mother. I never understood what addiction was as a child, but the one thing I did understand is that it must be my fault. I always felt a little crazy as my childhood never lined up with what my parents told me – that everything was normal.
I dreaded going home each day because being home was scary. My father’s behavior was unpredictable and emotionally abusive. However, the one thing I could always count on was that he was checked-out emotionally. I never knew how I would encounter him or what kind of mood h’d be in when I came home from school. As a result my stress level was always through the roof. Tension in my household was always like a volcano waiting to erupt.
Growing up in a home like I did, in an alcoholic home, leaves you feeling insecure craving approval and acceptance. The constant lying, manipulation, harsh levels of discipline, lack of parenting and responsibility made it impossible to trust anyone. That type of existence creates a high level of sensitivity to criticism and conflict. As a child I worked hard to prove my value and make my parents happy and proud of me, but they never seemed to notice.
As a child who was dependent upon her parents, my life was out of my control. I lived everyday in unpredictably – and when I became an adult I tried to control everyone and everything that felt out of control to me (which was a lot). This led to controlling behaviors in my relationship but with time and a committed husband, as I struggled to express myself, I slowly became aware that subconsciously I was remembering how unsafe it had always been to speak up in my family. My husband understood this as he had lived a similar life. His mother was emotionally detached, never said I love you and was a narcissistic self-serving individual.
As a child I never had a “normal” family relationship with my father. I didn’t even know what normal was. I always found it uncomfortable to be around “normal” families, I never knew what to do or say.
This post is a HUGE beginning for me as I have always judged myself mercilessly, always my own worst critic. I’ve dealt with high levels of anxiety and depression and have always found it difficult to lighten up at social gatherings, not be so on guard. This is true with my own husband, I used to hate it whenever he drank any alcohol at all, even if he didn’t get tipsy. Perhaps that’s because I had witnessed so many holidays, vacations, and other family events sabotaged by my alcoholic father. Like at my parents Christmas table, on the rare occasion I had even shown up for a holiday meal, my father sat at the head chair and while the rest of us said grace, he fell off his chair down to the floor, drunk. Family friends and my future husband was in attendance, it was terribly embarrassing.
As a child I desperately wanted to be with my father, spend meaningful time with him. That never happened. Oh, I was allowed to go along with him but he was indifferent to my presence. If I wanted to spend time with him it was either a hunting trip or to a tavern, which is what bar establishments were called in the small German town I grew up in. Many times it was both. A drunk hunter with a small child along, um…dangerous wasn’t the word. I’m probably lucky to be alive.
Some memories are embarrassing even at 10 years old. Like him falling out the door of a tavern and rolling down five steep steps totally drunk. I was so embarrassed I remember looking around through the darkness hoping no one saw him do that. He got up, vomited, said nothing, and we got into the car and he drove home drunk. I remember the car weaving down the road as he steered it drunk. I have often wondered how could my mother have ever let me go with him? She had to know the danger, wouldn’t she?
I was frightened of his anger. Even so, I wanted him to pay attention to me. One time I asked for help doing my 5th grade math homework. That particular night was a positive experience. I was so happy because I actually sat on his lap and he helped me do my math problems. I got 100% on my paper the next day in class and high praise from my teacher. I was the only student to have all the questions correct and on top of the world. It felt so good. The next night, I wanted to ask for help from him again. This time it didn’t go well, his behavior was the complete opposite. I told him I had all my math problems correct and I wanted to do that again.
“Get outta a here, get away from me, leave me alone!” Was the answer I received. He put his head on the table and started crying loudly about how badly he’d been treated by his parents when he was a child. After he quit sobbing and snuffing he stood up from the table, made a fist and came at me. My mother, in one of the few instances she actually tried to protect me grabbed a frying pan off the stove, then stood in the middle of the kitchen and threatened to crack his head open if he touched me. He was so angry at me, just for asking for his help, again. I never understood that, it remains burned in my memory. I never asked him for help again.
My father was a hunter. He took pleasure in killing small animals. If I wanted to spend time with him I went along. He shot lots of squirrels. My mother would fry squirrel for dinner. I could not eat them. I wasn’t the hunting type and I know it disappointed him. But if I wanted to spend time with my dad, that’s what I had to do.
While on a rabbit hunting outing once we passed a little bunny hiding in the underbrush. I called my dad’s attention to it, I just wanted him to see it and I suppose I didn’t really understand that he intended to kill it. He shot that rabbit right there. I remember the feelings of horror that overtook me as I saw its brains splattered out across the ground. I betrayed that rabbit.
My dad told me, “You did good in pointing out that rabbit to me. You see anymore you do the same thing.” Then he gruffly patted me hard on the back. I felt sick. I’d just wanted to SEE the rabbit, I didn’t want it to get shot. I cried over that rabbit. I was only about nine or ten years old. After that, my father would not take me anywhere with him because I had cried over animals being killed.
“Animals are for man to eat,” he said, “you’re weak in mind, you’re a girl.” So that was that. Because I was a girl and liked animals I had no place in his life. I got that message. He made me feel guilty. My love for animals and gun control grew stronger after that. I wanted to rescue them, heal them, help them. I began to advocate people like my father should never be allowed to have guns since he would often drive down a country road with a loaded revolver in his lap shooting at groundhogs, squirrels and rabbits out the window while he drove the car – with his little kids in the backseat. What kind of man does this?
Dad was a functioning alcoholic. He worked at his job drunk. He interacted with his family drunk day in and day out. If he visited family members he got even more drunk, was passed out on the couch or floor most of the time. He lived drunk and he died drunk. He was an irresponsible self-centered person. His inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance prevented him from seeing his deficiencies and shortcomings. It prevented him from seeing me as a person or loving me as a daughter.
Mom verbally and physically abused me more than my drunk father did although he hit me a time or two. One thing she would consistently say to me: “You’re just like him. You walk like him, you look like him, you act like him, you talk like him.” She must have hated my dad because she sure hated me. I can tell you I am nothing like he was. When I was older I finally had the courage to stand up to my father, once, and I asked him to please stop his drinking for the betterment of his family, for me. His response was: “You’re so selfish.”
My mothers response was: “I’m not going to let you do that to him!”
I left. No use in saying anymore. As far as my mother, it seemed I could not do anything right. After I married and left home, all she could talk about to anyone who would listen was how I was going to buy the house next door and live near her so I could take care of her. My husband and I left the state. I had no intention of staying any where around either of them. I was considered a traitor, but I knew it was self preservation.
Fortunately I was a resilient child. I had characteristics that allowed me to leave my family life behind. I was able to obtain positive attention from other people. I have good communication skills, I am of average or higher intelligence, I always displayed a caring attitude for animals and people, and I had a desire to achieve. I believe in self-help. By acknowledging the reality of my families dysfunction I no longer have to act as if nothing were wrong or keep denying that I sometimes still unconsciously react to childhood harm and injury. In accepting that I was powerless as a child to “save” my family I have been able to release my self-hate and to stop punishing myself and others for not being enough. By accepting and reuniting with my inner child I am no longer threatened by intimacy, by the fear of being engulfed or being made invisible.
My husband and I both came from dysfunctional homes. He has a brother who is a worse alcoholic than my father was. My husband and I talked for many long hours, often, about how he wanted to rescue me from the abusive situation he saw I was in, and how I had been so drawn to him, almost like a victim, attracted by that weakness I saw in his family. I’m not saying we didn’t have issues, we did, but we’ve worked hard to make our marriage what it is today. We are best friends and have a great relationship, soon to be married 50 years – but it wasn’t easy, marriage is work and when you come into it with issues like we had its even harder, but it can be done if both partners want it to work.
Self-help was my biggest healer. Here are the things I had to change in order to exceed in life.
1) Being rigid and inflexible
I always had a hard time with transitions and changes. A sudden change of plans or anything that felt out of my control could trigger my anxiety and/or anger. I thrived on routine and predictability. These things helped me to feel safe. To change this behavior we accepted new challenges, and traveled more.
2) Difficulty trusting and being closed off
People I trusted, or was supposed to trust let me down and hurt me. I started off my adult live with a closed off your heart as a form of self-protection and found it hard to trust anyone. I held myself back emotionally and revealed only so much of my true self which limited the amount of intimacy I had with my partner. It left us both feeling disconnected. We changed this by breaking that barrier when we started to communicate with one another. It was hard talking about our parents and their failures but in the end we learned about each another, and we chose to make ourselves vulnerable, we learned to appreciate each other by doing something special and loving for one another everyday.
3) Shame and loneliness
I was always ashamed of my childhood. I felt like I was bad or wrong and unworthy of love. My alcoholic family never talked to each other and never to the outside world. My families secrets bred a shame in me. Things were so awful they were never talked about, I felt there must be something awful about me and that I was judged by others and cast away as useless. I felt unworthy, I did not love myself and I certainly could not let others love me either. As my husband and I talked more and more, we realized we both harbored the same fears. His fears were that I would see him as being weak if he should show any kind of emotion. His mother never expressed her feelings. I felt if I told him my inner fears he would perceive me being unlovable. My father and mother found me unlovable and as a female incapable. We had discovered we were both damaged. To counter-act this we started telling one another “I love you” everyday giving each other a kiss and a hug. It became routine, now we walk holding hands, we kiss often, we make love often, we express our gratitude in finding one another and now realize what love really means. I must say that while my mother was alive she became aware of how my husband and I treated each other; with care and love. The reaction I personally got from her was one of jealousy and envy. She said once, “He waits on you hand and foot, you don’t deserve that.” I only smiled at her and did feel somewhat sorry for her at that moment. She was a victim of religion and in her words said, “she was trapped and must stay in this marriage because I don’t want to go to hell.”
External messages I was bad, crazy, and unlovable become internalized. I was incredibly hard on myself and struggled to forgive or love myself. During childhood, I came to believe that I was fundamentally flawed, and the cause of the family dysfunction.
This is one I still struggle with: I try to be perfect in order to avoid criticism (both internal and external). This sets me on a treadmill of always having to prove my worth by achieving more and more. My achievements aren’t always satisfying. Perfectionism and low self-esteem force me to set my goals higher and I continue to try to prove myself.
I did have a strong need to be liked and accepted. Not so much anymore. I now find that most people gravitate to me. When I was trying to please everyone I now realize came from experiencing rejection, blame, neglect, or abuse, and my core feeling of being an unloved flawed person. People-pleasing can also be an effort to avoid conflict. Conflict was scary in my family.
7) Being highly sensitive
I am a highly sensitive person, but I have learned to take criticism. When I was younger I often shut down my emotions in order to cope. I am a highly compassionate and caring person and as such have taken on more projects that I should.
8) Being overly responsible
The reason I still take on more projects than I should stems from the fact that out of necessity, I took on a lot of my parents’ responsibilities. I cleaned the house (hoping to receive approval), I ran all the errands including going after my fathers drinking buddies until one tried to rape me. I still continue to take on responsibility but now I hold other people responsible for their feelings or problems I didn’t cause. I am no longer a doormat.
As an adult child of an alcoholic I find I have high levels of anxiety. But I am getting better. My childhood fear and trauma left me in a hyper-vigilant state. I often sense problems when there aren’t any – my husband says I borrow trouble! I can often be on edge, tense, and full of worry, my doctor calls me a worrywart! Anxiety has kept me trapped at times but I have learned I must move away from this trait, when it flares up, and I have not had a flare up for a long time. I feel I have learned to handle this anxiety, to know it for what it is, but I know its still there.