- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Mary Jones, a pseudonym used to preserve her anonymity, says she grew up living with an alcoholic father. She and her sister, as adults, have struggled with the emotional aftermath.
"I realized it when I was 8 or 9. I remember thinking 'I am not going to drink because I don't want to be an alcoholic,' " the Richmond woman says. Instead of drinking, Ms. Jones says, she started using drugs at age 12. "I remember the very first time I ever got high; I had found something that would help me deal with life," she says.
Ms. Jones says she later started drinking: "My dad and I would go drinking together in high school and college."
A 1999 survey showed that 105 million Americans, or 50 percent of the population older than 12, reported using alcohol within the past 30 days. Those findings of the National Household Survey were published in August by the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Many therapists say that growing up in a home with an alcoholic parent can have a profound impact on a child's development. Like Ms. Jones, children of alcoholics find ways to cope with a parent's drinking. Some of their coping mechanisms can make adult lives challenging.
Adult children of alcoholics often marry alcoholics, become alcoholics themselves or exhibit other compulsive behaviors, such as becoming workaholics. Adult children of alcoholics may share some characteristics, such as low self-esteem, impulsiveness and negativity, although this has not been proved scientifically.
Recent studies have shown that genetic factors can play a role in the development of alcoholism. Sis Wenger, executive director of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, says one in four children younger than 18 has an alcoholic parent, and adult children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to develop alcoholism. More than 50 percent of alcoholics are children of alcoholics.
There is help, though, and recovery is possible once awareness comes, they say.
Ms. Jones married an alcoholic. She did not realize she had a problem until she was 28. While visiting a treatment center for her father's addiction, she saw a film, "Soft Is the Heart of a Child."
"I went, ' … it's me.' The film really woke me up. I said, ' … this is my family.' I can relate to everything in the film," she says. The film portrayed the behavior and interaction of children growing up in an alcoholic home.
"I was the hero and the caretaker. I had to be in control and look good. I created how things were, and that's how I could deal with it," Ms. Jones says.
She remembers her younger sister crying at night and her telling her sister, "Sweet dreams."
After Ms. Jones saw the film, her world fell apart and all her illusions crumbled, she says.
"I used to sit in ACA [Adult Children of Alcoholics] meetings, and I would talk like I had all the answers; meanwhile, I was a mess," Ms. Jones says. "I didn't know how to ask for help. I didn't know how to say no. Everyone around me were projects."
She makes the analogy of going into a hardware store looking for candy.
"We keep going to places looking for stuff that people can't give us. I would find people that needed to be taken care of," Ms. Jones says.
Her sister, Anne Smith (also a pseudonym), of New York, is five years younger and says she had different experiences. Their father was a binge drinker who only drank when their mother was away on business, Ms. Smith says. When she was a teen-ager, her father's drinking occurred more often.
"One of the things that made it not as major is that he was really a great dad when he was not drinking," Ms. Smith says. "He took my interests very seriously when I was a kid. In a way, that really helped when he was drinking."
Ms. Smith says her father became a different person when he was drinking.
"Until I was 7, it was very disturbing. Then at the age of 7, I had a close network of friends who understood," she says, recalling when her friend told her, " 'You know your dad's an alcoholic.' She was the first person who said that to me. All my friends knew that if my mom was gone, my dad would get drunk."
After trying to talk to her mother (who denied her husband was an alcoholic), Ms. Smith says she realized that you didn't talk to adults about this issue.
Fortunately, she adds, she understood early on that it was not her fault that her father drank.
"That made things a lot easier," she says, "although I think it made it harder for my mother. She still was very much in denial. That got me very angry."
After Ms. Smith's father attempted suicide in 1982, her mother finally admitted there was a problem and started attending Al-Anon meetings, for families of alcoholics. As a teen, Ms. Smith says, she found those meetings helpful; she does not drink.
"I was very conscious about needing to be in a position where I didn't lose control that way," she says. "I had a very strong need to control everything in my environment."
In fact, Ms. Smith says, that is the biggest issue she has had to deal with.
"I have become a professional animal trainer, and I am sure that it is related," she says. "It's a good outlet for needing to control things in a positive way. You have to fight against it all the time. I have to fight against thinking it's my fault all the time, too."

Needing to control

Therapists say the need to control is one of the core issues.
"I have been [treating] adult children of alcoholics for 22 years, and the issue of control is still one of the vital organizing issues for people who grew up in this environment," says Stephanie Brown, who holds a doctorate and is director of the Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. Ms. Brown says this is not unique to children of alcoholics, but it becomes "magnified for people who grew up with such inability to control their environment."
Ms. Brown says the adult child is alert and sensitive to picking up every possible cue from everybody else.
"That sensitivity translates into mistrust of other people," she says.
The issues of control and trust create problems in intimate relationships and the workplace, Ms. Brown says. In addition, responsibility and denial also are huge issues.
Ms. Smith admits she is hypersensitive about people drinking and had a hard time sorting out persons who drink from those who are alcoholic.
Learning to trust adults also has created problems for her as a result of the denial in her childhood, she says. Ms. Smith also acknowledges problems with separation because of her childhood experience that everything falls apart when someone leaves.
Barbara Wood, who also holds a doctorate, has been in private practice in Bethesda since 1981. She wrote "Children of Alcoholism" in 1987.
Ms. Wood says children of alcoholics "tend to re-create those same abnormal relations when they leave home."
She suggests that adult children of alcoholics need to examine their past. She says therapy and groups such as Al-Anon are helpful in emphasizing that other patterns and relationships are possible.
Kathy Lowe Petersen's first marriage ended, although her former husband was not an alcoholic. In her second marriage, she found "the most wonderful man," who provides loves and nurturing.
"I didn't realize I had a problem until after [my father's] death in 1995," she says.
"I was in my 40s. I found a wonderful therapist, Dr. Pat Webbink, in Washington. I will never forget. The first thing she had me do was close my eyes and hug little Kathy," she recalls. "Everyone in a family needs help. You cannot do it alone. The scars are so emotionally there that you need someone who understands it to help you with it."
Mrs. Petersen's father was a wealthy, successful businessman in the Midwest.
"You believe that you are not normal and your feelings are not right. I am in my early 50s, and I still have issues," she says.
Mrs. Petersen says she has difficulty asking for help and she trusts too easily because she wants to be liked. As a child, she tried to be perfect and was overly responsible.
"I love my dad, but I despise the disease and what it did to him it did not allow me and my dad to have a wonderful relationship," she says. "I hope that someday our society will understand that this disease attacks your brain, which controls your emotions, your thinking and your feelings."
Kenneth Sher, who also holds a doctorate and is a researcher at the University of Missouri specializing in children of alcoholics, says, "The most important issue we know is that during childhood, much of the problem could be taken care of by treating the parent alcoholic. That is probably one of the important messages to take away."

Ongoing research

In a report to Congress dated Nov. 21, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health reported: "Two studies have found evidence of genes on specific chromosomes related to alcoholism." The 492-page report also notes "the scope of alcohol's imprint, which [ranges] from violence to traffic crashes to lost productivity to illness and premature death all of which cost an estimated $184.6 billion per year."
A study released last month, conducted by scientists from the State University of New York Health Science Center in Brooklyn, has identified "an imbalance between two chemical signaling systems that regulate the stimulation and inhibition of brain cells" in people with a family history of alcohol abuse.
This is the first time the correlation has been made. Dr. Henri Begleiter says, "It's a significant advance in the field. It begins to fit in with a model in which we hypothesize that some children of alcoholics will have this imbalance and that the best way to regulate this would be alcoholic intake. It's an extremely effective way, and it may explain why some people cannot stop drinking."
Dr. Begleiter has been researching alcoholism for the past 30 years and says his interest is in the genetics of the disease. Studies with identical twins and adopted children of alcoholics have shown the genetic predisposition, he says, but he cautions that genetics is just one factor.
Ann Bradley, a spokeswoman for the NIAAA, says, "It's true that both genes and the environment contribute to alcohol-abuse risk. Epidemiologists and more recently molecular biologists have determined genes have a role in alcohol-abuse risk. From the epidemiology studies researchers have done to this point, it looks as if they contribute in about equal amounts. Of all the complex disorders, alcoholism is believed to be the most inheritable."

Grass-roots initiative

Academic research on children of alcoholics dates back to the mid-1940s. The plight of children of alcoholics was written about first in 1969 by Margaret Cork in "The Forgotten Children."
Ms. Brown conducted her first research on teen-age daughters of alcoholics in 1974 for her master's thesis.
The movement didn't take hold of the national psyche, however, until Janet Geringer Woititz wrote "Adult Children of Alcoholics" in 1983. By 1987, the book had hit the New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed for a year.

Hope and recovery

Space considerations did not allow everyone interviewed for this article to speak, but the adult children spoken to had turned their lives around through recovery. Ms. Jones became a therapist to help other adult children of alcoholics work through their problems.
Ms. Smith, who became an animal trainer, says she deals with her control issues in a positive way. She has been married for 18 years and has two children.
Mrs. Petersen has become an advocate for adult children of alcoholics.
As Ms. Jones says, there are some positive outcomes.
"It's a double-edge sword because there are some things I learned that are good things," she says. "I am more compassionate; I sense when other people have similar issues. My closest friends growing up were children of alcoholics. I don't think I would have become a therapist if I had not been a child of an alcoholic the caretaking part, the intuition, the perseverance."
All of the therapists interviewed for this article agreed that raising awareness is the key to the beginning of the process of recovery.

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