#COAWeek22 – Always the misfit: the realities of life as the child of an alcoholic

The 13th – 19th February is Children of Alcoholics Week, an event to raise awareness of the 2.6 million children in the UK affected by their parent’s drinking.

2.6 million. Just let that figure sink in for a moment.

As a child of an alcoholic myself, it wasn’t until I reached my thirties that the long-lasting effects of Mum’s drinking began to really hit me. Bouts of anxiety and depression were followed by panic attacks, the first one hitting me whilst I was on my own in the office at work. Eventually I sought out counselling and also discovered NACOA, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, whose online advice, support and guidance were pivotal in helping me to understand what I was going through and, crucially, that I wasn’t alone. This week I want to use my blog to highlight the cause and to share my own experiences of being a COA.

Children of alcoholics are caught between two worlds: the scary, unpredictable world of home, and the world outside where you desperately pretend that everything is fine. COAs don’t get to have much of a childhood. We grow up quickly through necessity, adopting the three major rules of the dysfunctional family: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.

Don’t talk can manifest by the adults trying to rationalise their behaviour and somehow make the addiction seem ‘normal’. Other times, and this is what I experienced myself, the adults just don’t talk about the addiction full stop. This ‘nothing to see here’ mentality can translate to a child fearing they won’t be believed if they try to speak out, or even to them not knowing how to talk about their parent’s alcoholism at all. Even as an adult I became paralysed whenever I attempted to talk to Mum about her drinking – I literally couldn’t speak I was so affected.

Don’t trust comes from the lack of security a child feels in the dysfunctional household. A lack of confidence in those who are supposed to protect you breeds distrust, not just of your own parents but of adults in general. Acts of kindness are viewed with confusion and suspicion and can’t be appreciated, even when they’re genuine (I’ll give my own example of this later).

Don’t feel comes from the combination of the above. When the adults don’t talk about a behaviour that you know is wrong, when there’s no single adult in your life that you can trust, you find ways to cope, either by repressing or ignoring your feelings, or learning to just not feel anything at all.

NACOA released a two-minute short film by Alexander Kühn entitled ‘Pokerface’, the story of a teenager caught between the two worlds I mentioned above, perfectly encapsulating the life of a COA:

The thing about being a COA is that you are always a COA. The effects of parental alcoholism, like any other form of family dysfunction or abuse, last a lifetime. The term ACOA stands for ‘Adult Child of an Alcoholic’ and countless articles and books have been written on the subject. Like I experienced myself, the full effects of growing up as a COA don’t often hit a person until they’re well into their thirties. I discovered this by reading the experiences of other COAs on the NACOA website, who kindly published my own story when I reached out to them many years ago. We don’t all have the same experience – alcoholics and alcoholism come in many shapes and forms – but often we end up developing the same coping mechanisms and behaviours and can recognise and empathise with the lived experiences of other COAs. This for me, along with discovering the Six C’s, was crucial in learning to process what I was going through.

  • I didn’t cause it.
  • I can’t control it.
  • I can’t cure it.
  • I can take care of myself.
  • I can communicate my feelings.
  • I can make healthy choices.

Written beside the Six C’s on NACOA’s website are four simple but powerful words: ‘You Are Not Alone’.

I don’t want to come across dramatic but I cried when I first saw that because I’ve always felt alone. I have no brothers or sisters and I’m not close to any of my family. I don’t have what you might call a ‘best friend’ (apart from Mr Lowe who deserves a medal for putting up with me) and the friends that I do have I keep at a distance, for reasons I know not why. I could say that I’m a private person and like to keep my own company, which is true to some extent, but I know there are important connections in my life that I’m missing and will probably never have. I’ve always felt something of a misfit but I’m lucky to have found my own tribe and I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin now than I used to be.

After eighteen straight months of counselling and a lot of hard work I eventually reached the point where I was able to speak to an auntie about Mum’s drinking. I wrote her a long, rambling email explaining everything as best as I could whilst apologising if any of it was coming as a shock, particularly the fact that her sister was a lifelong alcoholic. Even in my thirties I was still caught up in the lie that nobody else knew.

But of course they did. Everybody knew, they just didn’t like to talk about it. I was told in the most well-meaning of ways that Mum’s alcoholism was an illness, but I wasn’t in a place then to accept that and I’m not sure I ever will be. Cancer is an illness. Drinking to excess is a choice. The few who I’ve asked claim not to know why Mum drank. I know that she suffered with depression and attended AA meetings. I know that my dad used to get phone calls from Mum’s workplace asking him to fetch her as she was drunk. This was all before I was born though. Why they thought bringing me into the world was a good idea, I’ll never know. I’ve always assumed I was an unfortunate accident.

I think there are a lot of clichés around the realities of living with an addict. My mum was what is called a ‘functioning alcoholic’. She rarely got blind drunk, preferring to take regular drinks throughout the day from bottles of vodka that she hid in the bedroom. She was never violent towards me, although she had a wicked temper and regularly wounded with her words, especially when hungover. I was always clean and tidy and well-dressed, my attendance at school was near-perfect, my grades as good as I could manage. My parents both worked and we went on holiday every year for a week to Weymouth. From the outside, we must’ve looked like a perfectly normal, working-class family.

Which was exactly the point. My mum was terrified of anything that might bring attention down on her. She was a master at instilling fear in me about pretty much everything: don’t do this, that or the other because people will look at you / I’ll be so ashamed / whatever will people think of you. I was trained to be terrified of other adults, to look but don’t touch, to only speak when I was spoken to. I became an intensely shy and awkward child, uncomfortable around grown-ups and authority figures, constantly trying to monitor my behaviour and the behaviour of others. This hyper-awareness is something that’s followed me into adulthood and it’s something of a blessing and a curse. It’s made me empathetic and I’m pretty good at reading the subtleties of a situation. On the flipside, I can’t stand in a crowded room without my bat-ears monitoring every conversation whilst I scan people’s body language for signs of impending trouble.

My earliest memory of life on this earth is of finding an empty bottle in Mum’s ottoman. I was probably about three years old. I remember taking it to Dad and asking him what it was. Instead of tempering his reaction until he could be on his own with Mum to discuss it, he snatched it off me and started shouting at her.

One morning when I was getting ready for school, my Mum tried to make me wear a blouse which I didn’t want to wear as the buttons were always coming open, and even though I was only five I found it incredibly embarrassing. Mum insisted I wear it and I got so angry that I shouted at her. She burst into tears, walked out of the house and left me on my own. I don’t know where she went as I couldn’t find her. She came back eventually. Needless to say, I wore the damned blouse.

Dad used to work in a brick factory doing eleven-hour shifts, which meant that during school holidays it was just me and Mum alone in the house. After we’d eaten lunch she would go to bed for a couple of hours ‘for a nap’. She would leave me instructions to wake her up at such-and-such a time, so she would be up in time to cook Dad’s dinner before he got home (playing the dutiful wife was all part of the ‘nothing to see here’ routine, something my dad was happy to buy into for a quiet life). One day I went to wake her up and she was completely unresponsive. I kept on trying until I started to cry, assuming she was dead. I went round to a neighbour and told her what had happened. She told me to stay put whilst she went to check on Mum. Of course she wasn’t dead, just dead drunk. Somehow the neighbour managed to rouse her and I was delivered back home to the inevitable telling off. Apparently she felt ashamed and it was all my fault.

I remember that my breakfast of a morning used to be a small bowl of Alphabites. If you’ve never seen them before, they’re small, potato-based and shaped into letters of the alphabet. I used to get about six in a bowl with a bit of tomato sauce on. This was supposed to get me though the day until lunchtime, where I could eat my packed lunch, usually a jam or lemon curd sandwich and a yoghurt. When I got home from school, my dinner would be either a bitesize cheese and tomato pizza and two potato waffles, or a sausage burger and two potato waffles – anything cheap and sold in bulk at Farmfoods basically. I was very often hungry and developed hypoglycaemic migraines from the age of eight. (Not that anybody knew this was the cause, not even when I ended up in hospital having nearly fallen into a coma through low blood sugar). We had cake and biscuits in the cupboard but I’d often get told off for eating those as ‘they were for Dad’. Mum only worked part time as a cleaner in the evenings so the bulk of the housekeeping money was given to her by Dad. If he knew she was spending most of that money on vodka instead of feeding me, I don’t know. I’m not sure he cared as long as nobody was making a fuss about it. I remember when I left school at sixteen I weighed just over eight stone. Two months later, having been earning my own money on an apprenticeship scheme, I had put two stone on just through being able to buy my own food.

(This one’s a bit gross so you might want to skip it – you have been warned!) It’s hard enough being a teenager. Try being a teenager with headlice. I’d had them before as a young child: there were regular outbreaks at school and I inevitably caught them ‘because I always had such clean hair and nits liked clean hair’ according to Mum, who would also go on to tell anyone who would listen how embarrassed she was about it. I must have been about thirteen or fourteen when I realised I’d caught them again. I had no money of my own to buy lotion so I had to tell Mum – who looked through my hair and told me she couldn’t see anything. I insisted they were there but she just wouldn’t listen. I was always a bit weird about stuff like that with my Dad, so there was no way I was going to tell him. I ended up just living with them. I don’t know how long it went on for but it must have been well over a year. I remember lying in bed at night pulling the eggs out of my hair (I told you it was gross). In the end there must have been so many of them that it was visually obvious. I remember my friends taking me to one side on the school playing field and telling me I had nits. That I must know I had nits. I denied it, which in hindsight was ridiculous. They said they couldn’t spend time with me until I got it fixed, as they didn’t want to catch them. That was true shame right then. I remember walking away from them, my cheeks burning and tears streaming down my face. I went home that night and told Mum what had happened. This time she listened, bought me the lotion and I got rid of them.

Earlier I talked about the suspicion that COAs can feel over acts of kindness, even genuine ones. At the start of the school holidays I used to spend a week at my auntie’s house with my three cousins. They lived on a farm in the countryside, a far cry from our backstreet terraced in an ex-mining town, and I used to look forwards to going every year. I remember one evening my auntie and uncle ordered a Chinese takeaway for our evening meal. We all sat around their big kitchen table and the food was all placed in the centre for everyone to help themselves. The problem was that I’d never seen Chinese food before and didn’t know what any of it was! Furthermore, they were all eating with chopsticks, something else I had no experience of. Of course I was too shy to speak up because what would they think of me (my mum’s voice was ever constant in my head). I remember nibbling on a couple of sticky ribs and trying desperately to shovel a little rice into my mouth with the wretched chopsticks! Anyway, my cousins were all girls and one morning my auntie sat with each of them in turn to plait their hair. Then she called me in! I was absolutely baffled. Mum had never spent time doing anything with my hair except brush it in a morning. My auntie sat me down in front of her and spent time braiding my hair into a French plait. There was absolutely no reason for it, we weren’t going anywhere special, but here was this kind lady taking time out of her day to do something only for me. I look back on that memory now with gratitude but I remember very clearly thinking ‘Why is she doing this?’

There are so many more memories that I could share here but I just wanted to show a little of what life can be like for a COA. I feel sad for that child that I used to be. She’s still here inside me and I try to show her the kindness and compassion that I didn’t always get when I was young. My mum passed away a couple of years ago, which I’ve covered in other blog posts, so I won’t go into that here. I know that she’d hate for me to be sharing my story so publicly but I also know that reading the experiences of other COAs can be healing in itself, and if this helps just one person then it’s worth the sense of betrayal I’ll no doubt feel when I hit ‘Publish’. I’m sorry for whatever it was that Mum never managed to deal with. Despite spending much of my life resenting her I’d give anything now to have just one more day with her.

If you are, or have been, affected by a parent’s drinking then help is out there for you. Remember: You Are Not Alone.

NACOA

Samaritans

NSPCC

Kate Lowe is a speculative fiction author from Leicestershire, UK. Her short fiction has won first place in two competitions & has appeared in various zines, magazines & anthologies. Her story The Wolf Runs in the Barley received an Honourable Mention in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4, edited by Ellen Datlow. Kate is a goth, a keen Fortean and a proud supporter of Leicester City Football Club and Leicester Tigers Rugby. Her favourite band is Fields of the Nephilim, she loves silver jewellery, hunting for antiques and is usually to be found with a book in her hand. You can find her online at www.kateloweauthor.co.uk