Riddle: "When is a child not a child?"
Answer: "When the child lives with alcoholism."By current estimates there are 10 million alcoholics in the United States and 28 to 34 million children of alcoholics. Perhaps as many as 25 million of those children of alcoholics are now adults.
They are adults who are still suffering, according to mental health experts. Treating them has, just within the last few years, expanded the job of counselors who once worked only with the alcoholics themselves. Marriage counselors, too, find a great number of their clients are children of alcoholics.
Why do people need help once they are grown and no longer living from crisis to crisis? After all, they are adults. They don't have to worry anymore about coming home from school to find Mom passed out on the couch. They no longer have to hide the money they earned mowing lawns so that Dad won't spend it on liquor.
"What we find is that adult children of alcoholics didn't have an opportunity to go through all the development stages of childhood and teenage years - at least not with support from their parents," says Denise Boelens. A clinical psychologist who has worked with such adults for nine years, she says, "Most often I find their problems have to do with intimacy."
"You just feel so different from everyone else," explains Pam, a woman who grew up in a home with two alcoholic parents. "I remember one night - it was winter - hiding under the car in the driveway. I didn't have a coat on or anything. But my parents were drunk and screaming at each other and I just didn't want to be inside.
"So while I was lying there I was thinking about the kids I went to school with. I figured they were all home eating dinner with their families, doing their homework, maybe watching TV. I never told any of them what my home life was like. How could they understand? Besides, I was ashamed."
Now, 20 years after she hid under the car, Pam has nothing to be ashamed of. She is married to a man who loves her. She has two children. She's successful in her career.
However, she's seeking help from a class for children of alcoholics because she just doesn't feel right.
She still thinks she's too different to have close friends. She still thinks she has to be on guard and serious all the time, that she can't laugh and play with her children. And her father is still drinking and she still worries and tries to get him to quit.
Linda Steele, program director of the recovery center at Western States Institute of Neuro-psychology, explains why adult children of alcoholics have a hard time getting close to people, even after they're grown.
"Alcoholics - and the spouses who depend on them - teach children three things: 1. Don't talk (e can't tell anyone about the drinking and abuse in our home). 2. Don't trust (hen you are living with insanity you soon learn not to trust anyone but yourself). 3. Don't feel (he child's feelings are discounted. The message from the unaddicted spouse is: Let's keep everything calm on the surface)."
Intimacy is difficult to achieve without talking, trusting, and feeling. "Feelings are like muscles," Steele says. "If you don't use them, they atrophy."
Bobbie Murray, a prevention specialist with the Community Counseling Center, explains it this way: "Over and over again these children see the benefits of shutting off their feelings. For some reason when they grow up they can't just say, `OK, I don't need to cope this way anymore.'
"They have to go through the process of talking about what happened in their past and being accepted and believed. Then they have to learn how to change their behavior. In small steps.
"They've been used to seeing the world in black and white - the parent is either drunk or sober, life is either crazy or calm - so they'd like to be able to change their personality overnight.
"But the real world is shaded in gray. Adult children of alcoholics have to learn to change a little at a time."
* Tasha's house looks like a nice place to come home to. The sixth-grader sits in the living room on a pretty flowered couch next to a bookshelf full of encyclopedias and family photos. She talks about her life.
For a year now it's been as lovely as it looks. Her stepfather decided to join Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober for 14 months. Realizing that alcoholism affects everyone in the family, the A.A. counselors saw to it that she and her mother and older brother got counseling, too.
"Now our family life is not as scary as it used to be," she explains. "When my stepdad was drinking, I was afraid he'd hurt me or my mom. I was always afraid.
"I'd go in my room and do my homework and ignore him. He'd yell a lot. If my brother did something wrong he'd punch him and give him a bloody nose. When I was really afraid, I'd pray."
In the class for families of alcoholics, Tasha learned that children need to talk about their feelings. That they should tell the parent who doesn't drink how unhappy they are. If that parent doesn't listen they should talk to a school counselor. She learned there are people who understand.
Yet she also remembers _ very vividly _ what she learned at home. Only a year ago she felt totally powerless. When asked what she would tell a friend to do, if the child came to her and said, `My parent drinks too much and I'm always worried,' Tasha thinks hard about the question. What can a child do, after all?
Tasha would not have dared talk to a counselor herself.
"I'd say they should make an effort not to drink when they grow up." She thinks some more. "I'd tell them to pray."
* Even if they don't drink _ and children of alcoholics do have a genetic predisposition for addiction _ their parents' drinking is bad for their health, both emotional and physical.
Boelens explains, "As adults, they are more likely than others to internalize things. They may have migraine headaches, high blood pressure, ulcers, heart problems _ very serious illnesses with a psychosomatic component.
"But we've also found that people who have grown up in this situation have a great capacity to love." Misplaced family loyalty can eventually find a place. "Children of alcoholics have a lot of heart. Once they are able to get in touch with it they have a lot of laughter and joy. Treatment doesn't take away their loyalty. But through treatment, they develop a real capacity to live fully and love fully."