Suzanne grew up in a house where yelling and criticizing were as much a part of daily routines as her father's two glasses of gin after work. "No emotion was acceptable to show except anger," says the 37-year-old mother of three.
Living with her father's alcoholism—a family disease that she understood at some level but that was not acknowledged publicly—left her angry, depressed, and insecure. When she was in high school, Suzanne threatened suicide because she wanted to see a counselor. Today, with three young children and a marriage of her own, she attends a support group regularly. She works every day to keep her compulsive tendencies in check as she continues to deal with the lingering aftershocks of growing up in the shadows of alcohol abuse.
Suzanne's experiences are far from unique. Whether homes included emotional, psychological, or physical abuse, the scars left by an alcoholic parent often last long into adulthood.
"Growing up in an alcoholic family has long-term consequences on the development of the person," says Michael Nuccitelli, PhD, executive director of SLS Wellness in Brewster, NY. "It literally impacts all fronts of life."
Adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) may suffer a wide range of negative effects because of their family backgrounds, including:
Dr. Nuccitelli explains how typical ACOAs tendencies can affect critical elements of life:
The depth to which alcoholism affects ACOAs' daily lives depends on a wide range of variables—from their own personalities to the extent to which the disease dominated their developmental years. All ACOAs can benefit from learning strategies that will help them overcome negative behaviors and chart courses for their own healthy futures, says Dr. Nuccitelli. However, no single method works best for everyone. Options include:
No matter what method or combination of methods an ACOA chooses, the focus should remain positive. "It is important to know why we do what we do, but it is most important to change what we do for the future," says Dr. Nuccitelli.
Dr. Nuccitelli, himself an ACOA, points out that the adversity ACOAs face also creates desirable character traits that should not be overlooked. "We learn from hardship," he explains. "We develop resilience and strengths."
ACOAs tend to be highly motivated, ambitious, attentive, and affectionate. They also show plenty of empathy because they understand other people's pain.
For Suzanne, recognizing those positives and keeping the negatives under control takes an effort—one that she deals with as best she can, one day at a time. She sees each new day filled with choices, only some of which she can control. "We can only change our own attitudes," she concludes. "That is where health resides."
Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, Inc.
Adult Children Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous Canada
Adult children of alcoholics. Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association website. Available at:http://www.fadaa.org/services/resource_center/resources/JTF/acoa.pdf. Accessed January 18, 2011.
Al-Anon is for adult children of alcoholics. AL-ANON Family Groups website. Available at:http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/pdf/S69.pdf. Accessed January 18, 2011.