“Growing up with an alcoholic father has had an extraordinary impact on my life, both as a child and as an adult. It’s made me horrendously independent, because from a young age I had to look after myself and be responsible for my younger sister. I soon realised that if you didn’t do something for yourself no one else was going to do it for you.
“I got used to feeling upset as a child: I just thought that was my lot and I had to deal with it on my own. I still don’t know how to ask for help, or to speak my mind if people upset me. It always seemed a waste of time to say anything, because no one listened or cared, so I internalise things.
“I still lack self-esteem terribly but I’ve always been good at putting on a front. That really is not a good thing.”
When I was a child I thought it was perfectly normal to spend your life sitting in a car outside a pub eating crisps with my sister while my father was drinking inside
Helen is 53, the same age her father was when he died of cirrhosis of the liver after a lifetime of heavy boozing. It is tragically common for children of alcoholics to grow up, as she did, feeling ashamed, frightened and isolated, yet burying negative emotions behind a determinedly positive front.
It is estimated that two million people in Britain are dealing with the gruelling aftermath of life with an alcoholic parent. A report by the London Priory, published in 2006, said, “Their feelings about themselves are the opposite of the serene image they present. They generally feel insecure, inadequate, dull, unsuccessful, vulnerable and anxious.”
Following in their footsteps
The Priory report found that the children of alcoholics were four times more likely to become addicts themselves, and 50 per cent ended up married to alcoholics, despite their best intentions.
This has haunted Helen. She says, “I used to worry constantly about being addicted myself, and I do drink and smoke, but by now I’m pretty sure I don’t have an addictive personality.
“I was also determined not to marry someone like my father but, without realising it, I did marry an addict. When I found out I felt terrible. I felt that I had been complicit like my mother, and that I had failed to create a happy family for my little boy. I couldn’t believe I had chosen so badly.”
At least there is more help on offer these days, as we understand more about the devastating long-term effects of growing up with an alcoholic. The effects endure well into adulthood, long after the parent’s death or sobriety puts an end to the addiction.
Depression and anxiety are common in adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs), as is the overdeveloped sense of responsibility that Helen describes. Drinking may be a normal part of life for most of us, but in families where a parent drinks to excess it becomes an embarrassing, guilty secret.
“I became shy and withdrawn”
Helen recalls: “When I was a child I thought it was perfectly normal to spend your life sitting in a car outside a pub eating crisps with my sister while my father was drinking inside. Sometimes we’d be left until ten at night and wander in and he’d be drunk, but of course you couldn’t question that. He always told us not to say anything to our mother. That was a terrible responsibility.
“By the age of about 11 I realised there was something seriously wrong with him. I have vivid memories of him starting to shake at about 11am and thinking, ‘I need to get him a drink’.
“A lot of the time I was frightened, because he was chaotic and unpredictable as well as charismatic and hugely popular. I was deeply embarrassed: I can’t remember ever having friends round to our house. I became very shy and withdrawn, and as a way of coping I created my own fantasy world, which was inhabited by a wonderful, normal family.
“The situation at home has also had a devastating long-term effect on my relationship with my mother, because I feel she was complicit. My parents had the most spectacularly awful, and occasionally violent, rows. But Mum only talked about Dad being an alcoholic later, when we were grown up.
“At the time she seemed very detached and was often upset, and I kind of took over the family. I was always really good at looking after other people and it was only when I was older that I thought, why didn’t my mum protect us? Why did she let him take us in the car when he was drunk?
“I was fond of my dad but to be honest I didn’t feel very much at all when he died. He couldn’t give a shit about anything but alcohol. Now that I know more about his childhood, and why he drank, I feel sorry for him. But I’ve always found it incredibly hard not having a protective father figure to look up to.”
Support and information
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics is backed by well-known people with first-hand experience of the problem, including Calum Best, Virginia Ironside and actress Geraldine James. It runs a helpline (email email@example.com or phone 0800 358 3456) and an annual awareness week
Adult Children of Alcoholics: support on the web, and 12-step meetings in various areas
Children of Addicted Parents: an on-line forum run by mentors who know what they’re talking about