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The Bond That Breaks Us: Alcoholism & Parenthood

Recognizing alcoholism, ending the intergenerational cycle, and local and virtual resources for treatment.

Alcohol can bring people together or tear them apart if it turns into dependence. Mommy culture has a way of cloaking the seriousness of alcoholism and addiction, making it easier for a person to remain in denial and harder for a person to self-identify as an alcoholic. But white knuckling temptations solo won’t lead to lasting change and the cycle of addiction can bleed through the generations, so it’s vital to do what you can today to change your family’s relationship to alcohol.

The Rude Awakening

Laura Foster woke up drowsy. Actually, she didn’t wake up, not on her own. She remembers her husband shaking her awake, trying to rouse her because it was Christmas morning. Foster (not her real name) had been out late, really late, crawling into bed around 2 or 3am after a family gathering. Her husband was trying to get her up so they could play Santa for the kids.

Foster distinctly remembers not being physically able to get out of bed, but she didn’t want to say that out loud. “They’re too little,” she told him. “They won’t even know.”

“My aunt died in a one-car highway accident on [U.S.] 75, not long after getting two DUIs […] No one called that alcoholism.”

Foster had a hard time identifying herself as an alcoholic. Partly because she was in denial, like many tend to be, but partly because she blended in so well in her very social Dallas family. It was hard to realize she might have a problem. “Drinking is a big part of our family gatherings. My grandfather died of alcoholism, but we didn’t talk about it as a problem. My aunt died in a one-car highway accident on [U.S.] 75, not long after getting two DUIs. This was in the ’70s. No one called that alcoholism.”

Foster didn’t call it alcoholism when she drove drunk. “In college, I drove my car off a cliff into the side of an apartment building at 2am. There was a hole in the wall next to the pillow of a bed, but the girl who lived there had slept out that night. It was a miracle no one was hurt.”

That incident could have been a wake-up call, but Foster’s family connections kept her from experiencing any repercussions. “My mother was married to a federal judge at the time, so I got off with no consequence, not even a ticket.”

Barriers to a Diagnosis of Addiction

Today we may know more about alcoholism and addiction, but it’s cloaked just as effectively. Mommy culture on social media runs on jokes about wine, vodka, margaritas. A search for “Mommy needs…” on Google ends in 10 different drinks.

Jessica Lahey, author of The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence, says mommy-culture messaging may be meant for moms, but it isn’t lost on kids. “It’s pretty disastrous modeling for kids. They hear and see these things, and what sticks is ‘I need alcohol because you’re so stressful.’”

There’s a reason the pop culture references stick. “Women are twice as likely to have anxiety disorder as men,” Lahey states in the book. “And women with anxiety disorders are more likely to use alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. In fact, women with anxiety disorders are more likely to abuse alcohol than to drink normally, and progression from alcohol use to dependence happens faster in these women.”

She says it was true in her case, too: “The drink I miss the most is the one right before a party.”

Diagnosing Via Self-Disclosure

Another barrier to realizing that you, or someone else, has a problem with alcohol or any other substance, is that addiction is largely diagnosed through self-disclosure.

Most formal assessments still rely on an addict’s willingness to admit their habits and recognize that they are problematic. “If you think you have an addiction, you probably do,” says Ann Qualls, a licensed professional counselor associate with His Story Counseling and Coaching in Grapevine. “Diagnosing [yourself] is really just admitting you have a problem. If you’re not sure, find a therapist immediately for assessment.”

The fear of being found out is often a significant indicator. “One of the first red flags for many people is simply being afraid you’ll get caught, or realizing you had a near-miss,” says Jennifer Sartin, a licensed chemical dependency counselor with Alcohol and Addiction Support in Keller.

She says the pandemic has had a huge impact on alcohol abuse. In addition to adding stress, it’s removed many people’s built-in accountability systems. “When you work 9am to 5pm, you can’t drink till 6pm. When you’re working from home, 6pm turns into 5pm, then 4, then 3, then 2, then before you know it, you’re drinking around the clock.”

RELATED: Read our Q&A with the executive director of The Magdalen House

Stigma, Shame & White Knuckling

Sometimes, even when people are able to admit they have a problem, they decide to try to fix it themselves, rather than telling anyone. “There’s a stigma attached to being an addict or alcoholic,” says Stephen Medley, CEO and owner of Stages of Recovery Addiction Treatment Services in Fort Worth. “But there’s also a stigma to being in recovery.”

Going it alone may work temporarily, but it’s not likely to last. “White knuckling it may stop the addictive behaviors for a while,” Qualls warns, “but chances are it won’t stop the addiction itself, and relapse is more likely to happen.”

“I justified everything […] As long as I had a sober adult around with me and the kids, I told myself I can drink what I want and I’m not hurting anyone.”

This is exactly what happened to Foster. “I thought it was a matter of willpower,” she explains. “I would stay sober sometimes and all of a sudden, I would go on a bender and it was worse than ever. Two years later, I finally got help.”

One major barrier to getting help is telling family and friends. Foster found that most people around her were surprised to learn of her addiction. Even when loved ones do know about a problem, they often don’t know how to tell someone they think there’s an issue, or what the process of realizing that you’re an addict looks like.

“I justified everything,” remembers Foster. “As long as I had a sober adult around with me and the kids, I told myself I can drink what I want and I’m not hurting anyone.”

Be Willing to Be a Step on Someone’s Path to Recovery

“I knew they were into drugs, but I didn’t realize the types of drugs they were using or how bad it was,” remembers Allie Calhoun of her son and daughter-in-law. Calhoun ended up getting custody of her granddaughter after figuring out that her son and daughter-in-law were addicts and had been for years.

“They were jittery and evasive, wouldn’t ever stick around, and couldn’t look me in the eyes.” Today, Calhoun’s granddaughter lives with her mom, Teresa, who has been sober for eight years. But her daughter still has trust issues, abandonment issues and outbursts.

“I wish I had called them out earlier,” Calhoun says. “But I was so afraid they would take the baby and run, and I wouldn’t be able to keep her safe anymore.”

The anxiety of confronting a friend or family member is real, agrees Lahey. But, she says, put it out there anyway, couch it with love, and just have the conversation. Just because you don’t see a big change in that person as a result doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth saying something.

“It’s a puzzle with 100 pieces, and piece number 100 can’t happen without piece number one. I’ve been the 100th piece, and that feels great. But it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

Help in Facilitating Intervention

“For many people, the way they finally realize they have a problem is when they lose everything—their job, the kids—and they have no other options,” says Medley, who advocates for brutal honesty in approaching a friend or family member struggling with addiction. “Don’t disregard their feelings, but do disregard your fear over how it’s going to make them feel.” In the case of a family member, he says it is especially helpful to consider bringing in an interventionist, who can facilitate the conversation.

Melissa Silva, who is a licensed therapist at Stages of Recovery as well as a recovering addict and parent, agrees. She is one of the many addicts who was in denial until family stepped in. “My parents and ex-husband came and took the kids, and that’s finally what did it. I thought, Maybe they’re right. Maybe my life is unmanageable.”

Outcomes for Children of Addicted Parents

Issues with abandonment and attachment are a problem that lingers in the children of alcoholics and other addicts, and that’s often why many people get addicted in the first place. Then the cycle repeats itself as the next generation grapples with that lack of attachment.

“The thing that’s hard about alcohol,” says Lahey, who struggled with her own addiction before working in a recovery center for teens, “is that it can be a bond. The United States was dreamed up and planned and born in taverns. But for the 10% of people who can’t use substances normally, it leads to a place of isolation.”

In Foster’s family, alcohol was just a fun part of getting together. When she had kids, it got hard. And then it wasn’t fun anymore, it was something that brought isolation, guilt and shame—a cycle now three generations deep.

This cycle of addiction, isolation, detachment, addiction occurs because most people deal with the addiction on the individual level. “It is helpful to think of the family system as a mobile,” a 2013 National Center for Biotechnology Information study puts it. “When one part in a hanging mobile moves, this affects all parts of the mobile but in different ways, and each part adjusts to maintain a balance in the system.”

How Vicious Cycles Continue Through Generations

“Children who grow up with addicted parents are ‘primed’ genetically, emotionally and experientially for addiction,” Lahey writes in The Addiction Inoculation. “They are not only more likely to become alcoholics, they are also more likely to marry an alcoholic even if they are not alcoholics themselves, thus perpetuating the intergenerational cycle of addiction.”

But that’s not the whole picture. Genes account for only 60% of the cause of substance abuse disorders. The other 40% is determined by environment and epigenetics. This is where parents, teachers, and caregivers have a fighting chance to influence the outcome.

Changing Your Family’s Relationship with Alcohol

Preventing addiction begins with small conversations. “Early on, the conversations aren’t about injecting heroin,” says Lahey. “They start with talking about general health and safety, like why we don’t swallow toothpaste, or why grandma makes your uncle go outside to smoke.”

“You want to make sure you are using words they understand,” agrees Qualls. “Older kids may have more questions, and you want to encourage them to ask.”

Foster recognized that transparency with her children was important; even though her boys were just 3 and 5 when she entered recovery and she could have probably avoided the topic, she was open with them about it. “They know that Mommy has an allergy,” she says, “and that allergy is to alcohol. They know I can’t have it because it makes me sick.”

Starting the conversation isn’t necessarily easy, but research suggests that creating opportunities for family time bonds parents and kids—of all ages—and creates trust, making it easier for kids to bring up tricky subjects they have questions about. Of kids who eat less than three meals per week with family, about 30% use alcohol. But among those who eat dinner with their family five to seven nights per week, alcohol drops by half, no matter what you talk about around the dinner table.

“Kids are more able to communicate with their parents if they feel a strong family connection,” shares Qualls. “You can create that connection with family dinners, outings and other time spent together.”

Keeping an Open Dialogue is Key

Create opportunities for connection and conversation, and don’t feel like you have to be the one talking the whole time. It can be easier to talk about tough subjects in the dark, or when you’re not having to look each other in the eyes. This could be while driving, hiking, or having a conversation at bedtime. Be ready to be honest with your kids and give them real, data-backed information, whether answering questions about addiction, your experience with alcohol, or addiction in general.

Research with teens in recovery backs up this approach.

“We asked teens in our group, ‘What could an adult have said to you that would have made you think twice about using drugs and alcohol?’” says Lahey. “They told us they would have listened to real data about drug use, information on exactly how it affects the developing brain and honestly about the pros and cons. Drugs aren’t all bad, right? They do give you good feelings. But those feelings don’t last. And the high you get from a drug is accompanied by a low later that just as intense.”

Since anxiety and uncomfortable emotions are a key reason why many people drink or become addicted to other substances, healthy coping skills go a long way in preventing addiction, modeling good habits to kids and cutting down on the chance of relapse for those who are in recovery. “You want to swap out behaviors,” Qualls advises. “What works best to eliminate a negative behavior is replacing it with a behavior that’s positive or beneficial.”

Creating a Support System of Consistent, Quality Care

For those in recovery, Qualls recommends therapy, meetings and having a sponsor or other healthy support system.

If you’re seeking counseling but are worried about the cost or don’t have insurance, ask providers about sliding scales, or if there’s a student completing their practicum in the practice who might need experience.

For community and accountability, Qualls suggests evidence-based programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery. Individuals in recovery may also benefit from apps for guided meditation, breathing and grounding exercises. These can help take the edge off stressful moments while remaining present.

Relapse is a normal part of the recovery process, but for parents, it’s especially painful to have an audience when you fail.

This is when it’s important to have an open dialogue with kids and talk to them about your recovery process honestly in an age-appropriate way. “Shame can keep parents from talking about that elephant in the room,” says Sartin, who had her own struggle with prescription medication as a parent. “Children who are raised in a situation where they see their parents go through something hard and come out on the other side often do better in life than kids who never see struggle. You’re modeling for your kids how to get up and move on.”

Recovering from addiction as a parent is long journey, but it’s also an opportunity to stop the cycle. You’re not just healing yourself but generations yet to come.

Foster has no illusions about the journey she began three and a half years ago. “Alcoholism is progressive, terminal and fatal. It never gets better. It always gets worse,” she says. Then she adds, smiling, “But it’s also the only disease where your life improves after you’ve been diagnosed and get into recovery.”

Seeking Help

Most addicts ultimately need treatment and support to reach a place of recovery. Here are several resources; some offer both local and virtual options.

Alcohol and Addiction Support // Keller
Licensed chemical dependency counselor for adults and adolescents; also provides family counseling.

Alcoholics Anonymous
Provides fellowship and accountability through meetings and the 12-step program.
fortworthaa.org, aadallas.org

Burning Tree Programs // Dallas
Program offerings include women only, long-term, young adult and mindfulness + 12 steps.

Celebrate Recovery
Christian-based 12-step program with meetings and peer accountability.

His Story Counseling and Coaching // Grapevine
Counseling for children and adults for a variety of issues, including addiction.

Life Management Resources // Plano
Substance abuse evaluations, addiction treatment and family counseling.

Narcotics Anonymous
Meetings and recovery support for those who have struggled with drugs.

Nexus Recovery Center // Dallas
Includes specialized services for women, adolescent girls and their accompanying children.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline // 800/662-HELP
Free, confidential information and treatment referral line from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Sober Mom Squad
Virtual meetups, a resource library, peer support, webinars and more.

Stages of Recovery Addiction Treatment Services // Fort Worth
Recovery coaching, family coaching and interventionist recommendations, with additional treatment services in Waco and Lubbock.

This article was originally published in May 2021.

Illustration: iStock