- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Adults who spent their childhoods in homes with alcoholic parents say life can be improved through therapeutic steps. Many of them have gone through recovery and are leading productive lives.

"I do what I have to do today to be healthy and happy," says Josie of Texas, an adult child of an alcoholic. She says she prefers not to use her last name because of the stigma attached to alcoholism.

"I looked four generations back," Josie says. "Everyone was either an active alcoholic or a child of an alcoholic. It's very multigenerational."

"More and more people who have alcoholism in their family, and are learning about genetics, are making different decisions," says Sis Wenger, executive director of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. "We believe we can prevent alcoholism."

Josie chose not to drink, but both her children became addicts, and she says she had all the behaviors of an alcoholic.

"The behavior is what gets passed on," she says.

Barbara Wood, who holds a doctorate, is a Bethesda therapist specializing in issues affecting adult children of alcoholics.

"The thing that would be true to say is that these early experiences are powerful and may be at an unconscious level dictating how they conduct their lives as adults, re-creating patterns and doing harm to themselves and other people because of the need to control and connect in the same way they did as a kid," Ms. Wood says.

Josie's recovery started when she saw a pamphlet with 20 questions from Al-Anon.

"I read this pamphlet. When I got to the bottom, it says if you answered true to three of these I had 19 out of 20 that were answered true. I got real angry because I had determined that I was not going to be like my dad."

It took Josie a year and six suicide attempts before she decided to do something. A psychologist at work suggested she attend Adult Children of Alcoholics support-group meetings.

"I went to my first meeting planning to commit suicide," Josie says. At that meeting, a man shared that he had come there one year earlier with that same thought. That got her attention, she says.

Josie attended meetings regularly and says she was helped by others sharing similar stories.

"I think it's a breakthrough when people say I am not going to be alone," Ms. Wood says. Recovery involves support, empathy and guidance, she adds.

Josie says that to the outside world, she looked successful she has a master's degree and a good position. But "when I got behind closed doors, I raged at my children," she says.

"The pattern doesn't have to continue. I am living proof that change can take place," Josie says. Through her recovery, she learned to reconnect with her children, and her recovery led them into recovery as well.

"The real work of recovery is to separate the past from the present to grow up again as an adult with healthy relations," says Stephanie Brown, who holds a doctorate and is director of the Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, Calif.

Ms. Brown explains that in this process, the adult child can sort out his or her defenses and learn to become less defensive.

"The more you talk and tell and make the links from past to present, the less defensive people tend to be in the present," she says.

"Awareness is the key to breaking the cycle," says Robert Simmons, a therapist of 25 years in Alexandria. Mr. Simmons, who specializes in issues affecting adult children of alcoholics, says that once they realize what the specific problems are, they have taken a major step toward resolving them.

Jack, a Californian who also preferred to remain anonymous, had a father "who was a raging alcoholic." He first realized he had a problem when he and his wife started having trouble.

"A therapist suggested we ought to go to ACA meetings," he says.

At his first meeting, five women were talking in a church.

"I knew somehow I needed to be there," he says. "I never heard anybody outside of this place talk about this stuff maybe this makes sense. Your life starts to change. You do the program, but God does the healing. One woman said something I'll never forget. She said, 'I have been everywhere. The problem is when I get there, I show up.' "

Ms. Wood says it's important to acknowledge that you had the experience of growing up as an adult child and try to understand the impact that it has had on your life.

Jack has a master's degree and a well-paying job. He says he became a workaholic and set out to change the world.

Adult children of alcoholics often exhibit compulsive behavior with food, gambling, work or relationships, Ms. Wood says.

"It's a hard realization to understand that there are things wrong in the world that need to be changed, but the first person I have to change is wearing my skin," Jack says.

Mr. Simmons says adult children are often "very successful in one sphere of their life" but overall do not feel good about themselves.

Jack says therapy helped, but the biggest help was the Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings.

"You realize you have wounds that you have to heal. All of a sudden, you start to feel like there's a place that you belong."

Ms. Wood recommends not going it alone.

"It's emotionally curative and restorative to say I can have some help in dealing with this. It's walking into that first Al-Anon meeting and listening to other people's stories. It's all 12-step," she says.

Jack says it's really a spiritual program.

"Doing the 12 steps and the meetings becomes a way of life," he says.

Jack's marriage of 35 years is ending, but he says he has learned "to accept the things you cannot change."

"I can promise you over the 14 years I have been at this, I am such a different person. It's a small honest-to-God miracle my life could be different," he says.

That message of hope is important for adult children of alcoholics to understand that it is possible to break the cycle. Mr. Simmons says adult children have to re-parent themselves by treating themselves with more gentleness, by allowing themselves to be human beings with human frailties, by recognizing that they are trying to improve their situation and that they are healthier than their parents.

"To be able to reach a point where you say I am a good person, that is really liberating," says David Woititz, son of the late Janet Geringer Woititz, who wrote the best seller "Adult Children of Alcoholics" in 1983.

Even though it's uncomfortable, people are more willing to talk about these issues now, says Mr. Woititz, an adult child of an alcoholic. One important thing he learned from his mother is, "The best way to help other people is to make sure you are taking care of yourself."

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