After Jon Ashworth recently shared his experiences of being a child of an alcoholic openly and honestly on a public level, it really feels like the real change that is needed for COA’s could come in 2017. With this in mind, I thought I’d share some things that I feel are, at least, good points of discussion.
Focusing on the children of alcoholics.
This is a point I’ve continually raised on a number of occasions, most recently in ‘Societies big mistake’, because I feel it is an important one. It can be all too easy to focus on trying to stop the alcoholic parent drinking, and in doing so, the support that COA’s so desperately need gets lost. I think, though a lot more could be done, society has been working towards supporting alcoholics for some time now. But what we haven’t been doing at all, is looking to support children, and adult children of alcoholics while their parent[s] are actively in alcoholism. This means offering support to children that doesn’t have to come through the parents. For some reason this seems to scare people, but we must understand just how deep-rooted denial is to realise exactly what we are dealing with.
Dealing with denial.
People often think of denial as a kind of ‘burying ones head in the sand‘ mentality, but that doesn’t show the full picture. It suggests that if we could somehow get the alcoholic to see the damage their drinking is doing, then we could break that denial. With alcoholism it is more complex than that. When I was actively drinking, there were occasions when I woke up at midday, on weekdays, on the living room floor of my family home drenched in my own urine, surrounded by smashed glass, knowing my kids should be at school and having no idea where they were. I did things like this repeatedly. Yet I wouldn’t admit to myself, let alone anyone else, that I had a problem. Had you had approached me and tried to tell me that my children deserved help alongside my drinking, I would have shut you down and imposed more silence on my children. Yes, somewhere in me I would have had an idea that it wasn’t right, but denial would over power that. My children often wouldn’t have seen the chaos, but they would’ve heard it. Often both parents are in denial, even though only one is drinking. So convincing alcoholic parents that their drinking is effecting their children becomes a mountain to climb, couple that with the fact that these families often look completely normal from the outside and you have a problem. I believe you can overcome this problem, and that is by empowering the children themselves, and you do this in a number of ways.
Taking into account what we know about denial, it becomes clear where we should be focusing our attention when raising awareness and that is by raising awareness of effects on the children, both adult children of alcoholics and the children of alcoholics. This means, first and foremost, that we must let every single one of them know that being the child of an alcoholic is a thing. Far far far too many COA’s still have no idea that being a COA is a thing, and we have to change this. Let me start with the most simple of things. A Nacoa poster in every school in the country. I cannot imagine how much that would have changed my life. Talks in assemblies directly to children could literally change lives, opening up the worlds of so many children who suffer. Of course, arming teachers, doctors, police, etc, with the correct information in dealing with COA’s would have a huge affect. Many have no idea what to offer COA’s, and it’s not about heaping more responsibility on them, it’s just about letting them know what they are dealing with. Imagine if, when the police were carting off my dad, like they so often did, instead of saying to me “he’s ok, just a bit drunk” they said “Ask a teacher about Nacoa“. That simple sentence could have offered me a lifeline. What would be at the heart of all the awareness that’s offered would be the fact that children of alcoholics should be offered anonymous help in confidence in spite of their parents denial.
I know I have spoken of this before too, but I’m going there again. For a time I didn’t think I would have spoken as the child of alcoholic when I was younger, but I now believe that I could have, had my confidence been gained. If I would have genuinely believed that I could have spoken to someone in complete confidence without even having to sit across from someone, I may have actually done it. It could have changed my life and helped me to understand the darkness in my mind. Nacoa already has this community in place and with the right funding could be the heart of change for millions. Anonymity is the key to empowering children of alcoholics to grow in spite of a parents drinking. It should not be underestimated in gaining the trust of COA’s. Children of alcoholics are often extremely aware, they are forced to be, and with the right knowledge they have the power to become the change we want to see. I believe anonymous help for them is single-handedly the best way to get this power to them. I’ve said this a million times but il say it again, it’s not that children don’t want to speak, it’s just we haven’t yet given them the environment they need to open up. Nacoa has understood this long enough and been offering exactly that. Let’s promote a safe environment, not add to their silence.
Being careful what we learn from the campaigns against smoking.
I’ll be the first to champion the campaigns against smoking. I was a smoker, and I quit, and the campaigns probably influenced that. However we cannot simply transfer the methods from that to alcohol as, I believe, it not only wouldn’t work, but could have a negative affect on what we want to achieve. Now I’m not saying there aren’t things we can learn but what was at the heart of the smoking campaigns was essentially to get across just how bad smoking is. We quickly went from being able to smoke anywhere, to feeling bad for smoking at a bus stop. We actually created a stigma around smoking, in a sense, and it really worked. When it comes to alcoholism we have to treat this differently and continue on the road to reducing stigma. This means realising that drinking too much is almost always a symptom of a deeper mental health problem. Alcoholics are not like smokers who are hooked on nicotine, rather, more often than not, they are trying to escape a reality with which they cannot cope. I will again make reference to denial, if an alcoholic is it at the stage where that denial cannot be broken, arming them with the facts about their drinking will do very little to break that denial. The ability to self deceit in alcoholics goes beyond basic intellect. That need to escape reality can often run way deeper than most could imagine, and this is why society is so perplexed when they see people relapse after such devastating warnings such as liver failure. We have to keep working towards breaking the stigma, to try to allow an environment where alcoholics feel it’s ok to admit a problem and work to deal with the underlying problem. If however we decided to go down the same root as smoking, almost vilifying people who drink too much, we will further install in children of alcoholics the failing of their parents, and how society views them as bad people and this will only further add to COA’s silence. So when looking at the smoking campaign, a softened approach would be beneficial for everyone.
Advertising campaigns have been mentioned so I will discuss. We all know the smoking campaigns adds. They were pretty shocking.
We have to act with caution when looking at alcoholism. Simply transferring an idea like the picture above could have adverse affects in relation to children of alcoholics. I mentioned earlier about going from being able to smoke anywhere, to feeling bad about smoking at the bus stop, it worked for smoking but children of alcoholics have to deal with deep feelings of loneliness on a daily basis. Feeling that we don’t belong, or that we are not as good as everyone else, that people are going to find out how terrible we really are. If we then we had to deal with these kinds of posters or adverts on a daily basis, would it not take us away further away from the safe environment we crave to be able to discuss how we feel? They could have a real detrimental effect on the way children of alcoholics perceive the world. People will argue that these campaigns will push to shock people into stopping drinking. I accept there are people who are drinking a little too much who could maybe be converted by shock tactics but that’s not the vast majority of what we are dealing with here. I do not believe shock tactics really work anywhere near as much on alcoholics as they would on smokers. Most alcoholics shock themselves on a weekly, even daily basis, way more than any advertisement could possibly do, and guess what, they drink again. That is the merry-go-round of alcoholism. So I think taking some of what we have learned from the smoking campaigns is a great idea, as long as we are adapting to the problem we are dealing with. A softer approach that is aimed towards COA’s could have a huge effect. Again I reiterate that our focus is towards the children of alcoholics. Using something like the 6 C’s would be a great starting point.
We are trying to let children know that drinking too much is not normal and that they themselves can grow and still find positives in life, in spite of a parents drinking. Look at the stats….
We need to look to break this cycle now, and I believe, as I’ve said already, focusing on the children gives us a much better opportunity of breaking that cycle now. It will also make those that maybe could be shocked into stopping drinking think as well, but without adding stigma. I also think that focusing on the children will keep more public onside. We don’t want to enter into war with everyone that consumes alcohol.
Keeping everyone on side.
This is important too. Lots of parents drink in a very healthy way with no negative effects whatsoever on their children. In short, we don’t want to get into bashing alcohol. It’s ingrained in our society and people will shut off instantly if we take the approach of just labelling it as bad. Let’s make the dangers clear, while not attacking. Again I think that focussing on the children really does give us that opportunity. We are here to help children that are affected. That’s our goal. I believe if we shoot for that goal, the ripples could be huge for the future, and referring back to the stats, could be hugely preventative. I am the child of an alcoholic, and I didn’t even know it until I found Nacoa. Just imagine if as a ten-year old, I saw a Nacoa poster. I started watching their social media. Then emailed. Then called the helpline. Maybe, just maybe I would have made the change at age 15… not 25. And that 10 years caused a huge amount of pain for me and those I came into contact with, especially my kids. Quicker help could have broken the cycle much much sooner.
I’d really like to have people’s thoughts on this so please do comment. Also if you have ideas that could drive some good policy for children of alcoholics then Liam Byrnes website is the place visit.
5 Comments Add yours
Really good analysis of the situation and the desperate need for anonymity. Shame is a huge factor for the whole family
The poster idea is a good one and can reach more children immediately than speakers can. It’s very difficult to get into schools and ensure the teacher / person that will take action gets the information.
I completely agree about the difficulties of comparing smoking and alcohol. Any shaming leads to further drinking.
NACOA are doing a fantastic job on very limited resources.
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Yes posters seems like a very ‘reachable’ option and I couldn’t agree more that Nacoa do an amazing job on such limited recourses.
Jon Ashworth says he was not damaged but determined. However it’s my experience that COAS can be both damaged and remain determined. I also feel that it’s OK not to feel love for your alcoholic parent and that needs to be acknowledged. Very well observed article thanks.
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Yes, I think, though there are similarities in the ways it effects us, it does effects us all differently. For me, I was simply damaged for some time. And yes not feeling love is of course ok. That’s why I’m all for empowering the COA’s to be able to make decisions and healthy choices for themselves. Thanks for the comments 🙂
Encouraging COAs to get involved in their own healing and recovery seems most important. That means addressing the stigma of support groups like Al-Anon and professional counseling, being more open to these ideas. Sometimes it takes several attempts before we find the right help at the right time that fits right. There is no one right way to heal. A deeper satisfaction with our lives awaits us all, if we take a single step in the right direction.
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