I have been in practice as a social worker for twenty years, seeing adults, couples, children, and families. My experience has taught me that for all of us, or almost all, alcohol is an issue.
The question is not whether you drink too much in your opinion or someone else’s but whether or not alcohol has shaped your life, past or present. If you had a parent, aunt or uncle, or grandparent who abused alcohol routinely, you are likely to have a problem.
Now, there are therapists who have had special training as addiction counselors. I am not one of them. I simply want to report on my observation of many different families, including my own.
Rewind the tape to your early childhood. If you were young enough, you didn’t understand what the adults around you were doing at least some of the time. You were nevertheless studying the important grownups to learn how to be in the world.
Little kids see their parents as gods. When we are starting our lives, our parents seem not just knowledgeable but omniscient, not just powerful but omnipotent. We internalize the values and behaviors we see, accepting them as a sort of gold standard that we may not question for decades.
In this way we learn what to do when we are anxious, afraid, angry, sad, disappointed, or ashamed. We also learn what messages are okay to send and which ones we should keep to ourselves. The beliefs and values parents model are fine to the extent that they themselves are healthy and well adjusted.
It has been theorized that youngsters have formulated their basic sense of themselves by the time they are six years old. After seeing how significant adults treat them, children conclude, for example, that they are bad or good, capable or incompetent, worthy or undeserving, and smart or stupid. Thereafter kids will interpret incoming messages in line with their past learning.
Small children, being egocentric, think adults’ words and actions are always about them. If the grownup fails to deliver, the child will assume that he or she didn’t perform well enough. It is unimaginable to the young kid that a parent has issues, needs, and desires unrelated to parenthood.
Enter alcohol. When adults consume it to excess—to the point of drunkenness—children notice some things but not others. Younger kids may not see that their father has a glass in his hand every evening. They may also not notice how frequently it is filled or what goes into it.
They will see that their father becomes moody, angry, or violent at times. They may learn to predict the times of day or week when the outbursts are likely to occur. If he looks and acts scary, the children will devise coping strategies for survival.
Children will learn, for example, to look for warning signs that something bad is about to happen. They will try to keep everyone calm by acting normal. They will avoid exhibiting any intense emotion that might trigger an explosion. They will become expert at reading gestures and tone of voice.
Parents’ alcohol consumption has a predictable sculpting effect. The oldest child, usually a conformist, often becomes the family hero, attempting to excel in every possible way to offset chaos at home. Other, younger children turn into the designated peacemaker, the clown who relieves tension, or the person who acts out everyone’s distress. The different functions enable the family to carry on.
When one person has a disabling problem—substance abuse or a severe illness or physical handicap—the rest of the family will adjust to accommodate it. As a result, children may grow up accustomed to doing without some opportunities, privileges, or attention from parents.
When we grow up, we seek out situations that feel comfortable because they are familiar from the past. As adults, some alcohol-affected kids will inappropriately caretake other grownups so that those individuals can dodge responsibility for their actions.
Even if the alcohol-affected adults create families in which no one drinks, the roles they learned in childhood will inform their childrearing practices. The legacy of alcohol is handed down through the generations.
The survival skills that worked well for children can become maladaptive quickly when youngsters grow up and move out into the world. By that time, however, habits are deeply ingrained.
The newly minted but alcohol-affected adults are more aware of others’ states of mind than of their own. They routinely ignore their own needs and have trouble setting limits with others. It is hard for them to identify their own feelings, much less communicate them. They avoid expressing negative or intense emotions around other people. They fear being vulnerable.
If these adults associate anger with violence or destruction, they may believe that it should never be expressed. They have no knowledge of anger as a healthy, normal emotion that can be voiced appropriately.
Rather than say they are angry with someone, they cut off the offender, give payback, or let people down by omitting to do something expected, so that the other person feels hurt or disappointed.
The passive-aggressive failure to follow through feels safe because it is relatively hard for anyone to be held accountable for something he or she did not do. Excuses can usually be made. It is easier to distance someone else and forfeit the relationship than to sit down, solve the problem, and bring the other person closer.
When children see their mother reach for alcohol at the end of the day while complaining about stress at work, they learn that drinking is a good way to calm down. If other people are present, alcohol helps the drinker distance them and/or distorts communication.
Over time drinkers may come to feel like outcasts able to connect with people only superficially when they are sober. When people drink to soothe themselves rather than turning to each other for understanding and support, alcohol exerts an isolating effect. It helps people avoid reaching out to trusted others.
For many alcohol-affected children, trust itself becomes an issue and sometimes also betrayal, since adults who drink a lot may prove unreliable. Children learn that it can feel safer just to keep your troubles to yourself. In later life they try always to seem carefree and jolly.
Apart from the destruction caused when people drink and drive, reach for weapons, or abuse loved ones, alcohol undermines the ties that bind us all to each other. It harmonizes with the prevailing tendency in American society today to leave suffering individuals to their own devices.
We all prefer to remain independent. No one wants to need help, especially if none is available. We also worry that we can’t get help without giving up control. Scary stuff indeed.
To counteract this cycle of misery and isolation, the answer is not to abolish alcohol or try to keep anyone from consuming it. None of us can control what other adults put in their mouths. We can, however, teach our children that all feelings are normal and that we need to express them to stay healthy.
There are appropriate ways of telling others how we really are and not just what’s up. By listening we can support and help each other through troubled times. Our feelings connect us humans with each other, because we all come into the world with the same kit. Feelings bridge the gaps between us, providing all of us with evidence of our shared humanity.