Guest post: It's time to speak out for children of alcoholics
In a deeply personal post, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth recalls the childhood experiences that have led him to push government to provide more support for families blighted by alcoholism
Posted on: Thu 02-Feb-17 00:09:44
(92 comments )
I loved my dad and he loved me. I still miss him every day - his dry sense of humour, his idealism and passion for the underdog, his advice and northern common sense. He gave me so much. But sadly, one of those things was a childhood coloured by the excesses of his drinking.
It's not something I'm used to talking about. As a child, I found it too embarrassing, and, in later years, too upsetting. But at Christmas, answering a routine media question about the billions that alcohol abuse costs the NHS and whether extra taxation is the answer, I found myself explaining that alcoholism is more complicated than that. How did I know? Because of my childhood.
My parents divorced when I was seven, when the strain of my dad's drinking became too much for their marriage. I was so lucky they were both such loving parents, but my life was changed. I lived during the week with my mum - who worked all the hours she could to give me the best possible life - and the weekends were always spent with my dad.
It was when he was living alone, continuing his job as a casino croupier and with a succession of short-lived girlfriends, that the true extent of his alcohol dependence became clear to me. One Friday, I remember him picking me up at the school gate to walk me home, but immediately falling over because he was so drunk. I had to go to a phone box and order us a taxi.
There, the fridge was almost always empty except for huge bottles of cheap white wine. At the age of eight, it almost felt like my job to get the food in. I remember one December going to the corner shop to buy decorations just so his home would vaguely feel like the Christmas we were about to share together.
Experts estimate that over 2 million children in Britain are growing up with an alcoholic parent. And yet too often these children have to cope with that in silence.
His drinking ebbed and flowed, depending on what girlfriend he was with at the time, but it was always a constant feature. He was never violent or abusive with it, but I still quickly learnt the mechanisms to cope with living with someone who was seldom sober.
In later years my dad retired and moved to the Far East. When I invited him back for my wedding, proud to show him what I'd done with my life and introduce him to my wife, he refused to come, and I felt heartbroken and angry. I only learnt a few months later - after he had died in Thailand - that he didn't come because he was worried he would embarrass me with his drinking on our big day.
Since I found myself speaking up about my experiences, I've been inundated with messages from people who grew up in similar circumstances thanking me for talking about the experiences we share. And having felt a bit embarrassed and exposed talking about my childhood secrets, those messages have encouraged me to push this further.
The truth is it would be easy for me as Shadow Health Secretary to spend my time simply criticising the government, but I want to do something more than that. Experts estimate that over 2 million children in Britain are growing up with an alcoholic parent. And yet too often these children have to cope with that in silence, exactly the way I did, with no support or recognition. It's time these children were given the support they deserve and need. So I hope Mumsnet readers will join me with in speaking up for the children of alcoholics, by sharing your own stories and working with me on finding solutions.
The journey starts today, Thursday 2 February, when we are holding a debate in Parliament on the issue.
Some of the ideas we are looking at include better specialised training for professionals to support children in these kinds of households, and also ensuring that councils are funded at a level which allows them to reach out to families affected by alcoholism through schools, community nurses and SureStart children's centres.
And of course we need to look at the root of the problem by doing more to combat alcohol abuse across society. We've made so much progress in the last two decades getting the message out about how much damage smoking does, not just to you, but the people around you. By comparison, on an issue like alcoholism, we are nowhere near the public debate we need to have on what we might call 'secondary drinking'.
My experience with my dad left me feeling not damaged but determined, and I think it has helped shape who I am today. But others will not have been so lucky. So my message to children growing up or caring for alcoholic parents is this: you're not alone. I thought I was. Speak to someone about it – whether it's a teacher or a relative or family friend. Other people will help – just don't do it all by yourself.
By Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health Secretary
A very interesting post, and one that I will watch with great interest, I am the alcoholic father, all be it that I am in recovery since September last year.
Can you advise if their are plans in place which will help clear the social stigma of alcohlmolism and show it as the disease it is? This social stigmatisation is something which leads a lot of fathers (and mothers) away from getting help for their alcoholism. If you are able to remove the stigma then a lot more people may seek help.
I also think that this comes down to a funding issue, and money needs to be placed in order to allow people to detox where needed under medical supervision, where I live at the moment the NHS does not have the funding or facility to detox fathers or others. Removing alcoholism by treatment would be a massive step in helping the children of alcoholic parents, there is no point treating a child if you are not going to treat the underlying problem(s).
While this absolutely needs to be done user, this particular campaign is about the children and the support they need and it needs to focus on them. It might get a bit muddy for objectives if the treatment for the alcoholism is also brought into this campaign. I may be wrong though. Congratulations on your sobriety- one day at a time.
Hi Regina, I think the two are inextricably linked, I agree 100% that the kids need to be looked after better, but I can see a number of issues - alcoholism is usually hidden because of stigma, this leads to kids feeling like they cannot tell people their parent is an alcoholic - this means that they may never be identified as having the issues.
The other is putting a child back into a situation where alcoholism hasn't been treated is like trying to dry hair underwater
Having grown up with Mum and Dad both alcoholics, I do feel different.
I'm struggling at the moment as Dad has failing health now (cirrhosis) and is living with myself and my children. Mum died a few years ago. I miss her so much.
My feelings towards my Dad veer from pity to love, to hatred at what he's done.
Taking it day by day at the moment.
I am a child of an alcoholic. It damaged me completely.
It was all brushed under the table until my mum divorced my dad when i was 11. I was lucky that we were never expected to stay with him at weekends.
I am no contact with him now.
My DH grew up with 2 alcoholics parents. Both still drink, one more socially now but one still to excess causing all sorts of issues. My stomach lurches whenever the phone rings.
The damage done to both him and his siblings is immeasurable. Their childhoods were ruined and the consequences of that alone are still felt today. There has been an effect on our own children and their cousins, both directly and indirectly. I could write pages on it. I will certainly support this campaign.
And cutting funding for children's service's will help how? All our children's centres are closed the support is gone where can people get help now
A campaign that showed the effects of drinking on family life would be a really good idea. Drinking, not just alcohol addiction.
Hangovers, bad sleep and short temper, too much alcohol in the system to take child to the drs/friend's house, bad health, etc. Even without addiction, alcohol is not great for family life.
A great post, the effects of alcoholism are far far wider than it at first appears. My mother is an alcoholic and my life has been shaped by it. Giving up education etc to care for her. I'm very, very resentful and there is so little support for the families of alcoholics so I've no idea where to look for help. The stigma needs to be lifted for the alcoholic and their families
I am in the same position the OPs mum was. I divorced my husband because of his drinking.
Because he has money there IS food, but when the greatest love of your life comes in green bottles there's always going to be an emotional gap.
It is really hard to support children in this situation. My current partner is also an alcoholic - albeit one who has been sober since before I met him. That helps because he provides a sober male role model.
Practically I need help to be able to talk to the kids about this - it's really hard not to be judgemental towards him. The kids feel he is distant and boring (and people who just want to sit and drink ARE boring) and are getting to the age where they are making their views plain (to me at least, they don't talk to their dad about it at all).
I am thinking about going to an Al-ateen meeting just so I know someone else who is struggling with this but it's hard to find one which fits within school hours round me. I'm still really angry he is continually choosing alcohol over his children.
Misty - My mother has been sober for 5 years + now , my stomach still lurches and my heart stops if the phone rings in the evening.
To all of you who have responded on this - what can I do PRACTICALLY to help my children through this?
Userformally and TheHobbitmum are right.
The stigma attatched to Alcoholism is tied up with getting help for the children.
Shaming the alcoholic with hard hitting adverts will only make the Alcoholic feel worse which will filter down the the children no doubt.
I'm not sure what the answer is but, whatever's done about it, I think that the stigma needs to be taken into account and dealt with properly.
The issue of the stigma of alcoholism is a difficult one. You also don't want to go all cuddly on the alcoholics and absolve them of the personal responsibility. Because the victim mentality and refusing to face the consequences of their choices is part of what feeds the alcoholism. At least so says my DF who is also an alcoholic. Now sober, after about 40 years of drinking.
Great post Mr Ashworth. Thank you for speaking out.
For those asking about how to support their children in practical ways, I don't really have a good answer. In our case some of the reasons behind my dad's alcoholism were clear (due to the crappy parents he had), which helped with having empathy. But what really helped in the end was when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and turned himself around. (Decades of counselling, medication etc did sweet F. A.)
My Dad was an alcoholic.
I ended up married to an alcoholic.
Both of them have put me through hell.
Since my dad died and my divorce I've had counselling but I wish I'd had it as a child - maybe it would have stopped me repeating the cycle.
Children of alcoholics need counselling and support. On my experience they tend to either follow in the parents footsteps and drink themselves or they are attracted to drinkers.
I could write a novel on this subject, and will offer support any way I possibly can for this.
My mother is an alcoholic, we are now NC because of it. She jokes about being an alcoholic but won't admit it properly, even if there was adequate support out there for sufferers of alcoholism (which there is not, but needs to be), she wouldn't engage with it. It's a sad fact of life that I accepted a long time ago that I'm going to receive a phone call telling me that she is dead, and a part of me wishes it would happen sooner rather than later so it'll all be over.
I'm the oldest of three, and took complete responsibility for my siblings when I was around 10-11, that was when my mother went from highly functioning to not so highly functioning (divorce from her first husband). I fed them, got them to school (missed it myself), did the housework, put my mother to bed and sat by her to make sure she didn't choke to death on her own vomit when she came home from the pub at closing time.
Growing up in that environment effects children in many ways. Some huge, some tiny - that you wouldn't be able to spot unless you knew what to look for. I can spot someone that's had a drink from a mile away, and that's just one drink. It immediately sets me on edge, and I've come to realise that the huge anxiety I deal with as an adult is rooted quite deeply in the way I grew up. I have an amazing ability to disengage as a coping mechanism which is wonderful in certain situations, less so in a marriage. I spend most of my life in a state of hypervilligance which is exhausting and stressful and effects my ability to cope with normal life. I am over responsible, I've never been able to relax properly and always take the role of person in charge (my brother went the complete opposite way and needs to be guided in everything and wouldn't know responsibility if it bit him on the arse - both are common in adult children of alcoholics). I micromanage everything and am a complete control freak, I can't deal with things not being in control and it sends me in a complete tail spin - this all effects my children and husband, no matter how hard I try to deal with it and shelter them from it.
I don't know exactly what can be done to help. It's been stated up thread that better support for people suffering with alcoholism is needed -and I agree, it is desperately needed. But being an alcoholic and being a child of an alcoholic are two very separate things, and require different things. Even if my mother had of got support, I would still be in exactly the same place as I am today, because fixing her doesn't fix the mess she made. Greater funding for mental health services is a must, training for people that work with children (including teachers and other day to day contacts) to better recognise those kinds of situations (having done safeguarding training myself there was very little focus on children of substance abusers) and refer to the right places, if and when the 'right places' actually have the ability and funding to assist of course.
Just to let you know that Jonathan will be coming back to the thread after the debate this afternoon, so feel free to leave questions for him here.
Also Gingina. I think I might try and get my children to go to a children of alcoholics meeting - it's really hard though when their dad still denies he has a problem.
It'd be great if this sort of thing was talked about at school, but no-one wants to poke the addiction bear because of all the actions which arise when you do.
Being an alcoholic isn't something that people choose, just the same way as being a child of an alcoholic isn't chosen.
I think that what is evident here is that a wholistic approach is needed to the problem, treating only the child will not solve the problem as the alcoholic is still practising, talking to the child/counselling will only make them feel better for the time they are being counselled - you are then looking at removing them from family which causes issues or putting them back into the same situation.
Similarly treating the alcoholic only does. Or work, as it gives the continued problem of what has happened with the child.
Re the warm and fuzzy for the alcoholic, I'm not sure what this will achieve, but what I would say is that most alcoholics don't know what is actually wrong and why they have the compulsion to drink. I know at times I was drinking I didn't even want to drink, I was lifting a drink Timmy mouth that I didn't even want.
I think also it needs to be taken into account that there are differing degrees of alcoholism, rayoffuckingsunshine
Apologies for spelling etc, on mobile
whomovedmychocolate I don't have a lot of practical advice for you, you know your kids best and what they'd respond to - ages also have a lot to do with it. I wouldn't lie about it, or even try to minimise it at all. At any age they are likely to know something is going on and normalising it causes bigger problems. If they don't want to see him, support that decision. Allow them to be selfish in that sense.
There is a charity, 'the national association for children of alcoholics'. I have no direct experience of them but it's certainly worth keeping a list of any agencies who could offer support to the kids and if you contacted them they would probably be able to offer some suggestions for you to implement with the kids too.
Reiterate the points that it's not their fault, he isn't their responsibility and his behaviour says nothing about them. Talk about it, don't allow it to become a shameful secret.
A big fear of mine is that I'll become an alcoholic, there is a predisposition in children of alcoholics unfortunately. Teaching them that alcohol isn't the villain, and how to enjoy it sensibly - mainly by your own behaviour, is a big thing and is something that I try to keep in mind with my own kids. We keep alcohol in the house, and drink occasionally. But we never get drunk, and we don't drink in response to emotional stuff - we don't drink to celebrate or because we have had a bad day, we have other things we do for those occasions that a lot of people would automatically reach for a bottle of bubbly to try and teach them how to be sensible with it, without making it seem interesting and attractive which can happen with an outright ban, it becomes forbidden fruit almost.
How do you suggest children ask for help when they are probably painfully aware that would involve social services? What do social services currently do re safeguarding in a situation where one or both parents abuse alcohol?Having been there, what would you have wanted as a child?
^ Please note I am not criticising social services intervention but, asking as an ex teacher who had children disclose, how do you tackle the secrecy/shame spiral/fear for those kids who love their parents and don't want to end up in the care system?
Message withdrawn at poster's request.