‘I mention the severe trauma that the child Pablo Picaso underwent at the age of three: the earthquake in Malaga in 1884, the flight form the family’s apartment into a cave that seemed to be more safe, and eventually witnessing the birth of his sister in the same cave under these very scary circumstances. However, Picaso survived these traumas without later becoming psychotic or criminal because he was protected by his very loving parents. They were able to give him what he most needed in this chaotic situation: empathy, compassion, protection and the feeling of being safe in their arms.’ ~Alice Miller.
‘Children are pretty resilient’, it’s something that you hear a lot. I remember growing up and seeing things on the telly about children overcoming some incredibly difficult and traumatic circumstances and emerging stronger as result. Perhaps one of their parents had died as result of a long fight with an illness and they were now walking the length of the country in a bid to raise money and awareness. So why was I so weak?! I had a roof over my head, food on the table and clothes on my back, ok so my dad drank a lot, but I still had my mum and dad!
It wasn’t until I got older and began to talk about the way I felt I began to realise it wasn’t about me being weak. I don’t believe in trying to compare situations in a bid to see which would be tougher, it’s all relative, but I do believe there is fundamental differences when it comes to alcoholism that need to be understood. Empathy, compassion, protection and the feeling of being safe, for the child of an alcoholic, are missing. Replaced by abandonment, fear, lies and the feeling of being completely alone.
Imagine as a young child laying upstairs in your bed, squeezing your eyes shut as tightly as your face will allow, and covering your ears and humming as loud as you can in hope that you’re spared knowing the detail, stopping intermittently just in case something terrible does happen. Hearing the shouting, the screaming, the smashing, the banging, the thudding, the ….. Silence. Wondering weather at 11 years old you should be going down to stop it. Is mum ok? Is dad ok? What if they kill each other? The anxiety so crippling you couldn’t move if you needed to. Helpless. Wondering why dad does it, you think you hate him, then hate yourself for hating him, that hate turns into a feeling that it must be your fault. Desperate to cry but something in you stops you, you have no idea what. So you lay there, exhaustion taking you into sleep, and terror waking you up. As the night turns to early morning the silence is deafening, now you miss the chaos, the noise, it doesn’t make any sense… The time arrives to get up and you get yourself prepared to head downstairs. As you enter the living room the scanning begins. Your dad is asleep on the sofa but you can see the rise and fall of his chest so he is alive at least. You notice the lamp next to the sofa is missing. You head to the kitchen where your mum is. She’s in her dressing gown and fighting tears as you enter. A rather pointless exercise, as it’s clear she’s been crying for hours. There is no talk of breakfast, she just keeps hugging you and telling you that you’re ok. You ask about the lamp and she says it’s fine, she knocked it over cleaning, which you know is a lie. She tells you to take your little brother to school and everything will be fine when you get home. She hands you some change to get yours and your brothers lunch. There’s barely enough so you go without lunch for the sake of your brother. When you arrive at school everyone is talking about what they did last night. You make something up and then wonder if that’s what everyone’s doing or if you really are different. At school you learn about the dangers of alcohol and drugs and how if you drink too much it makes you a bad person. You don’t understand. You know you mustn’t say a word about what goes on at home. So you lie. You pretend you’re like everyone else. Home time arrives and you wonder if it’s all about to start again…
Of course, in an ideal world, the father in this scenario just wouldn’t drink, but it is a fact that this is going on everywhere. But what if, as a society, we were more open and educated on this? What if when the child in this scenario got to school they were so aware of a charity like NACOA
that on their break at school they could contact them and find the empathy, compassion, protection and feeling of safety they deserved? What if when children learned about alcohol they learned that alcoholism can take hold of even the most noble and highly thought of people? What if children of alcoholics were given the same respect as every other child has who is fighting through difficulty at home? Would it make their lives as happy as everyone else’s? Perhaps not. But maybe they might grow up and be able to put their resilience that they are forced to have to some good use. Maybe if they if they find themselves in a relationship with someone like their alcoholic parent they might have the knowledge they need to not let their own children suffer like they did. Maybe they might realise early enough that their own relationship with drink or drugs is escalating.
At the moment most children of alcoholics grow up oblivious to where their pain comes from. We need change and there’s lots of changes we can make that don’t have to be that radical. Children are resilient, children of alcoholics often more than most, but they need the support and compassion to nurture that!