On Monday 9th January, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour broadcast a feature about How to Cope With an Alcoholic Parent. They interviewed RSA Fellow and Trustee for Nacoa (the National Association for Children of Alcoholics) Tracey West, and Emma Spiegler, from Adfam.
The following day, BBC producer Caroline Donne said, “This discussion has brought in one of the largest responses we’ve had for a while and the emails are still coming in. Many of them are from adult children of alcoholics (COAs) who are recognising for the first time the impact that living with an alcoholic parent has had on them.”
Tracey West isn’t known for her sporting prowess because she self-admittedly has none. Yet in her mid-40s, she happily swam a mile across Lake Windermere and a mile across the River Thames, to raise money and awareness for Nacoa.
Upon conquering Windermere, she said, “The swim was a bit of a challenge, but I knew I’d get there eventually. I’d rather be stuck out in the middle of a cold lake with things nibbling at my wetsuit and the end point almost out of my vision, than wake up as a kid again, stuck in my childhood home having to deal with my mother; that required real stamina and courage.”
Tracey has been inundated with messages of support for speaking out about the fact that being a COA is a thing; this is her story:
Reflective conversations about childhood are funny old things really.
I was chatting to a friend about it the other day, we’re both in our early 50’s and we were giggling about those awful green sports shorts that we used to have to spoon ourselves into if we’d forgotten our games kit. We recounted with great clarity how they used to cut off your circulation at the thigh with their elasticated leg holes and how the material could probably be upcycled and used to make arctic yurts.
Then, we shared our clearly divided opinions on the red syrupy stuff that was splodged into warm bowls of lumpy semolina by pink-pinnied dinner ladies. I quite liked this particular offering on the school dinner menu and it was only when I scanned my mental archives for other things I liked, that our conversation came to a bit of a grinding halt.
It’s a common occurrence for a COA to have a dreadful memory. They’re also frequently blessed with having an old head on young shoulders, which helps them think on their feet and act swiftly, changing direction as quick as a fish to fit in with wavering and volatile circumstances. It’s exhausting actually and not all COAs manage to make it through to adulthood without going down an addictive path themselves of drink, drugs or other things.
The memory loss issue is incredibly annoying, especially when you’re trying to remember something nice. You’re often confronted with a heavy, noisy metal grille that slams down and bangs shut at the edge of your medial temporal lobe, with a sign on it saying, ‘Insufficient Memory’.
You can’t remember the good bits, or the bad bits come to that, it’s a terminally broken cache and attempts to fill in the gaps are either futile, too painful or made up to make you sound like you fit in, so it’s just easier all round if you don’t go there at all.
My brother Andy and I spent our early years growing up in what looked like a loving household, but our mum was an alcohol dependent and dad seemed to divide his time equally between turning a blind eye to it, cleaning up in her wake, or joining in.
At Christmas and birthdays, parental love came by way of totally overcompensated gifts which I’ve guessed were done to soften the blow of their bad behaviour. Nobody outside the house saw the eggshells Andy and I walked on, not even family, and nobody had a clue about the only coping mechanism I could rely on for any form of control in my life; bulimia.
Ironically, the colour of my life changed to that of a Jackson Pollock before I hit 10 years old. Day to day life was horribly unpredictable, destabilising and widely problematic. It also lacked boundaries at times and I felt increasingly isolated as the years passed, yet I presented myself with as much confidence as I could muster, whilst living my life in beige, keeping my head down and my nose clean.
At the ripe old age of 10, I felt as though the distance between that point in my crazy life and the one where I could leave home and escape, was insurmountable. I overdosed on Ativan and a few other brightly coloured tablets in the bathroom cabinet, all prescription drugs for my mother. I can’t remember much about what happened directly afterwards but I do remember waking up in hospital. I was laying on my left side and my bed faced a white wall. My tired, fragile eyelids opened slowly and my narrow field of vision was filled by a white pillowcase and white bedsheets and I thought, ‘Yes! I’ve done it! I’m dead!’
The stark realisation that I hadn’t done the job properly soon flooded through me, filling my limbs with lead weights and my head with thoughts of complete and utter failure and self-loathing. There was going to be an almighty price to pay for this; mum was right, everything was all my fault.
Cut to the day before my 40th birthday. I receive a half-expected drunken phone call from mum wishing me a happy day. It was typical. She rarely got birthdays right and with any significant date, it was generally too hard for her to remain sober enough to deliver a spoken greeting that wasn’t laced with the effects of alcohol. I was used to it. I called her back, she was out, so I left a nice message of thanks on the answerphone and didn’t expect to hear back from her for a few weeks; that was her usual MO around a birthday.
We spoke once a week or so, it wasn’t too unpalatable and love flowed freely on the same tide between us. Over the years, she had become increasingly accustomed to me fronting her out about her drinking, telling her not to drive to work the next morning if she was blind drunk, urging her to get a taxi and doing my level best to ‘parent the parent’.
I never heard mum’s voice again. She collapsed and died of a massive heart attack in her flat and lay there for a week before she was discovered. Her social worker raised the alarm after mum failed to turn up for a review meeting.
The days that followed were harder than anything I’d encountered in many years. As the eldest child, it fell upon me to sort out her funeral and estate. Dad had divorced her a couple of years before and remarried and mum’s siblings – my aunt and uncle – didn’t make for comfortable company. It seems mum had used every opportunity to play the victim card, putting herself in the middle of the fire and making my brother and I out to be the bad guys for being awful to her. Here I was, a grown woman and mother myself, feeling like an 8 year old again, having to justify my existence and show that I was a good girl. The stupid thing is, I should have expected it, but I didn’t and it ripped me apart.
Shortly thereafter, I sat in front of the computer and bashed out CHILD OF ALCOHOLIC!!! Up popped NACOA. I’d never heard of them, who the bloody hell were they saying they were, ‘there’ for COAs! Where had they been when I’d needed them so desperately?
And so started my road to self-recovery and recognition that being a COA had taken a bigger bite out of my backside than I ever imagined.
A decade on and with 10 years under my belt as proud and noisy Trustee for Nacoa, I’ve long kicked bulimia into touch and I’ve learned so much about the price a COA pays for taking on a role they never signed up for. They are:
- 5 times more likely to have an eating disorder
- 3 times more likely to consider suicide
- 6 times as likely to witness domestic violence
- Twice as likely to experience difficulties at school
- Twice as likely to develop alcoholism or another addiction
- Twice as likely to be in trouble with the police
Many live in terror, they are ignored, they are deprived of the ordinary things we are all entitled to in life; being cared for, being loved, clothed, given food and warmth, being made to feel wanted and cherished for who they are. They also grow up riddled with shame and guilt, believing they are the cause of their parent’s drinking, because it’s constantly being levelled at them.
NACOA is the only charity to give complete and utter focus to the child of the alcohol dependent and that has made a difference to countless tens of thousands of young and old COAs. Their helpline has taken many additional calls since the Woman’s Hour broadcast, which was also repeated at the weekend too.
I am always stopped in my tracks by a memory I have of visiting Nacoa’s office with my daughter Abby, who was about 6 at the time. In the corner of the helpline room, there was a table with a stack of children’s story books on it. Abby made a beeline for them and I assumed they were being collected for a fundraising sale. Hilary Henriques, the CEO said, “Oh, no, they are for the children who call and ask for someone to read them a bedtime story”… my world went into slow motion at that point as I heard that the volunteers receive calls from kids as young as 5 years old. I recognised that child in me and realised these tiny tots had incredible presence of mind to even find out about Nacoa and they were phoning, desperate to find a slice of normal, as their parents laid flat out drunk on the sofa or floor, or perhaps not even in the house at all.
I remember to this day how I felt as my heart thumped so hard in my chest I thought it was going to beat a path through my ribcage.
Why did I let Jane Garvey scratch the scab off my darkness on Woman’s Hour last week? Because burying the experience of being a COA isn’t an option.
I know there are countless hundreds of thousands of COAs who need to know Nacoa exists! Their lives can change, they can get better, or at least heal a little and above all, they’ll begin to realise that they are not alone, they are not responsible for their parent’s drinking, they did not cause it, they cannot control or stop it and they are not responsible for their parent’s behaviour either; that’s a big one to swallow and it might take a while to get there.
The MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, Liam Byrne, was like many other COAs, carrying the pain and guilt of his father’s alcohol addiction around with him, until he found out about Nacoa. Now, he’s a Patron for our charity and he openly recognises the legacy impact it can have and how that can bite COAs in a variety of unhealthy ways, many of which have a negative impact on society and the NHS too. He set up an All Party Parliamentary Group to understand and help the estimated 2.6 million children living with alcohol dependent parents. The APPG launch their manifesto during COA Week, which takes place between the 12th and 17th February 2017.
Don’t suffer in silence. If you’re a COA, you’re a member of an incredible family and not one that any of us signed up for, but we’re in it nonetheless.
You don’t have to let your circumstances sink you, indeed, it could mark the start of your realisation that there’s an inner strength in you that you never knew existed.
Find Nacoa, find understanding, find yourself, find peace.
By Tracey West FRSA
CEO The Word Forest Organisation
Listen to the full interview on Woman’s Hour here, Tracey’s segment begins at 9:15 minutes in.
To donate, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
National Association for Children of Alcoholics
Helpline 0800 358 3456
Adfam – adfam.org.uk
All Party Parliamentary Group for Children of Alcoholics: Chair MP Liam Byrne