Sunday, September 28, 2008

Growing Up With Alcoholism In The Family

From "Opening our Hearts, Transforming our Losses," Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2007, page 60:

"Growing up with active alcoholism
Some of us who came from alcoholic homes feel that we grew up too fast. We carried a burden of responsibility that was too much for any child to bear. The mood of the alcoholic often became the center of our lives, determining whether we had a good or bad day. Each of us had different coping mechanisms. Some tried to be the best child possible, believing we could prevent the alcoholic from drinking, even if just for one night. Others coped by rebeling or acting out. This may have been the only way we knew to get attention, even if that attention was negative. Because alcoholism is a family disease, we may also have been affected by our non-alcoholic parent, siblings, or extended family members.

Some of us grew up with parents who were emotionally or physically absent, while others grew up with physical violence and verbal abuse. Some of us were sexually abused. Still others became our parents' caretakers. We may have become so accustomed to living this way that we didn't even know something was wrong. Others recognized early on that something was wrong, but didn't know what to call it or how to change it.

As children, focusing on the alcoholic and other family members helped us survive. As adults, we struggle with keeping the focus on ourselves. We may question our intuition and our ability to make good, sound decisions---whether we're choosing what we want to do with our lives or what to order at a restaurant."

My dad Raymond grew up with an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother who secretly took money from her husband's billfold to buy food to feed her children. Raymond was the third oldest of thirteen children. I have been told that he helped take care of the younger children. I also know that he left school in the fifth grade to go to work in the fields with his dad. Raymond was never very smart. He could barely read and could only write his name with great difficulty. When I was eleven years old, I knew that I was more intelligent than he was. As an adult, I wondered if he had some kind of learning disability. Many children of alcoholics do.

When Raymond was fifteen years old, the family's house burned to the ground with all of their possessions and his fourteen-year-old sister Emma Jean still in the house. This was after she got their youngest brother who was just a baby out of the house. Emma Jean was home taking care of all of the younger kids when the fire started.

I don't know how much my grandfather drank when Raymond was a child. By the 1950's when I was born, he drank every weekend and was a very mean drunk. I don't know at what point in his life Raymond started taking care of his dad when he got drunk. During my childhood, we visited my grandparents almost every weekend. When my grandfather Jodie would get drunk, he would get verbally abusive. I remember some weekends where Jodie got physically violent with a belt and some of his kids would run away from home for the weekend until he stopped being drunk. The verbal abuse was the worst.

I remember that Jodie would be lying in bed and Raymond would be sitting on the side of the bed arguing with Jodie. Raymond would argue with Jodie attempting to calm him down so that the violence wouldn't escalate from verbal to physical. Jodie never got physically violent with Raymond. It was always with one of the younger kids. Raymond was always of the mind that he could control Jodie when he was drinking. I only remember one time in my childhood that Raymond got offended by something that Jodie said and we left and went home and didn't return to my grandparents' home for at least a month.

When I was a teenager, my grandmother Emma started leaving Jodie for short periods of time. She never stayed gone for long. One of those times when I was in the seventh grade, she and the younger kids left and Jodie came to live with us. At the time we rented an apartment in an old motel that had been converted to apartments. Jodie rented one near us. I remember that as being a very stressful time. My mother Cordelia then became Jodie's target for verbal abuse when he was drinking. Thank God that time with us was very short. I remember Cordelia crying several weekends when the verbal abuse would start. I remember Jodie and Raymond arguing about it. Finally my grandparents went back together.

When I was near the end of my junior year of high school, Emma and my youngest aunt Virginia who is only a year older than me, moved in with us for a few weeks. Virginia and I were both in the eleventh grade together. Jodie came after a few weeks and talked Emma into coming back home with him.

The point that I wanted to make with sharing this story is that Raymond grew up as a caretaker for his parents and that trait was passed on to me. I was taught to take care of Raymond's sexual needs and of Cordelia's emotional needs. These traits are passed down from generation to generation in alcoholic families.

I learned this when I started going to Al-Anon and started looking at my parents as people with childhoods of their own and issues of their own. Knowing all of this about my parents helped me to be able to forgive them. Each of us really does do the best job that we can raising our children with the tools that we have. Sometimes that job is just not good enough as in the case of abuse. Most parents don't intentionally set out to hurt their children. We all see and react to the world and the situations of our life through the filters of our own experiences. In Raymond's eyes, he probably thought that he treated his kids better than Jodie treated him.

The first time that a friend took me into a meditation that involved seeing my parents as loving me, I couldn't see it. My friend suggested that I see both of my parents as children and hold them in my lap and love them as I would my own children. With many tears flowing down my face, I was able to imagine seeing them in my lap as innocent little children. I could start to love them and feel love flowing from them to me with that visualization. That was the beginning of opening my heart to my parents.

Related Articles: The following two articles explain why I have started calling my parents by their first names rather than by Mom and Dad.

Shame, The Abuser's Friend ---

Why Do We Get Stuck In The Blame? ---


Anonymous said...


This is a really powerful story. The ending, seeing your parents as they might have once been as children... It leaves me speechless.


Patricia Singleton said...

Slade, an exercise from the book "finding forgiveness" written by Eileen R. Borris-Dunchunstang, Ed. D. started the idea. It took me several days to get my mind around the idea and how I wanted to present it. I already had the quote from the Al-Anon book. Then I sat down at the computer and started writing. The words flowed easily then.

Anonymous said...

Patricia, this post got me all emotional ... it does take so much courage to be able to forgive at such a deep level. You're amazing.

Patricia Singleton said...

Irene, thank you. I am glad that my words touched your heart. Forgive at a deep level isn't an instant happening. I had ten years in Al-Anon and another year of Unity church teachings before the forgiveness process really started for me.

Patricia Singleton said...

There was also three years of professional counseling that helped.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patricia,

As you know, I currently am involved in a 12 step program, not unlike the one you attended. Each week in the meeting, I share a little bit more of my part and memory of my family's story. Sometimes I am surprised at the pieces I uncover. What I find the most important as I do this, is the evolution of what happens as I discover. It allows me another step toward freedom, the freedom you demonstrate acquiring in your story here. The telling (and sometimes necessary re-telling)literally sheds the old, by shedding the light of day. It is not without work, sometimes very hard work, so not instant or automatic, but I think it works in its simplicity.

Thanks for telling,

Patricia Singleton said...

Barbara, I am so pleased to know that the process is working for you. I hope that you are proud of yourself for the courage that you have to do this very hard and rewarding work.

Anonymous said...

The story is very touching and it teaches alcoholic people out there to change for the better. It also shows the bad effects of alcoholism which destroys family relationships.

Patricia Singleton said...

Alcohol Rehab, thanks for your comment. There is no doubt in my mind that if I drank, I would be an alcoholic. My dad and grandfather both drank beer and whiskey. My drink of choice would be wine. I never liked the taste of beer and whiskey burns too much. Because I have lived with the effects of alcoholism growing up, I choose to not drink. I love my family too much to do that. Alcoholism really is a disease that changes a person until the alcohol becomes more important than family and friends.

Ray said...

My Dad and Raymond had the same relationship as Raymond and Jodie. I seen the same thing with the two of them. Raymond did not have to be drunk to be mean. He was easily the meanest person I've ever met. I still have not let go of the hate I have for him. Its fitting that he died alone. I hope I can forgive one day or at least let go. I see him in me sometimes and I have a real problem with that.

Patricia Singleton said...

Ray, I am so glad that you are here reading my blog. It might help you to understand some things about our family. Life is always about choices.

When I was your age, I saw a lot of my dad in myself too. I didn't like it either. Growing up feeling like I had no control, when I got married, I became a control freak. Daniel says it was easier to go along than to fight all the time.

At age 27, a small voice in my head admitted that I wasn't happy being the dictator that my dad had been. I wish I could say that was the day that I gave the control over to God, but it wasn't. The whole process took many years. Today when I get frightened by something, I may still slip back into controlling for a very short time until I realize that I need to give it back to God.

It took a lot of prayer and support groups to get me where I am today. Accept who you are. Become aware of the choices that you can make to change what you don't like about yourself. We don't have to follow in our parents foot steps. Thanks for the insights that you gave me with your comment.

Ellen Brown said...

Wow, Patricia. What an amazing post. I am so inspired by your willingness to make yourself so vulnerable! And I am so sorry about all that you endured as a child. And I so admire the fact that you were able to be healed by that meditation.

Forgiving my Mom took such a long time, and in some ways never seemed intentional. What I mean by that is that no one ever suggested that I forgive her or suggested a specific meditation ... Maybe if they had, I would have forgiven her that much sooner. Or maybe forgiveness has its own timetable and happens in its own time. In any case, thank you for your heartfelt post!

Patricia Singleton said...

Ellen, thank you. With your gentleness of spirit and strength of character, you inspire me to be better, to be more with your kindness. I, too, believe that forgiveness has its own timetable. The meditation was just the beginning of forgiveness for me. It didn't happen all at once. You are very welcome. I am glad that my words touched you.