Adult Children of Alcoholics
Children of Alcoholics: How Our Health Takes a Costly Hit
(NOTE: The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that each year approximately 40 million debilitating illnesses or injuries occur among Americans as the result of their use of tobacco, alcohol, or another addictive drug. Addiction and substance abuse is not just an individual problem,but one that affects families and communities. NIDA estimates substance abuse costs the United States an estimated $484 billion per year; by comparison, cancer is estimated to cost $171.6 billion; diabetes, $131.7 billion.)1.
Sometimes the clearest indicator of a family’s dysfunction is, unfortunately, illness in its children. Like the proverbial canaries in the mineshaft, it’s the children who are most susceptible to the toxicity of family addiction and dysfunction. Hurt people hurt people, and literally scare the life out of little kids.
Fear – the kind of terror children who live in toxic situations such as alcohol abuse, child abuse, family violence, the upheaval of divorce, concern about a parent’s depression or mental illness – impacts a child for what may well be his or her abnormally short life.
The science to support my claim is documented in a study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE Study) – research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. This study documents the undeniable link between toxic stress caused by experiences such as family addiction, abuse, dysfunction, violence, and divorce in childhood, and adult diseases such as heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, some breast cancers, and a host of autoimmune diseases. It also shows a strong link between the adverse experiences and depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.
Since the ShareWIK topic for a recent issue was asthma, let’s explore how these experiences manifest themselves as pulmonary distress – the kind of distress that leads to childhood asthma and continued pulmonary issues into adulthood. To do this, I invite you to join me in being a little kid again. In being a tiny person in a tiny body. Of being totally dependent on your mom or dad or grandparents. Of looking to them for food, shelter, clothing, nurture, love, joy.
Their joy is your joy. Their victories are your victories. If your mom is happy, everyone is happy. If your mom is miserable, chances are pretty good everyone is miserable, especially you. Because if you’re a little kid, you don’t have the “filters” and distractions adults can use to deflect another person’s dark behaviors.
Adults can seek and find ways to distract themselves from their pain: a glass of wine, a cigarette, a piece of cake, a pill, the “need” to work late. Or they can create their body’s own drugs: the adrenaline rush from risky behaviors such as spending money they may or may not have, gossiping, becoming overly involved in the lives of others; the endorphin rush summoned up with sex, compulsive exercise, or a perfectionistic-driven cleaning binge. Or they can seek healthy solutions found in therapy, support groups, light-hearted team sports, a family outing or peaceful dinner, or prayer and meditation. But you, a little kid, are simply stuck. Dependent, you must stew in the toxic brew of your family’s addictions, mental illnesses, and never-ending chaos that you want to stop, but cannot. You sit in terror, taking shallow breaths through sleepless nights as same behaviors are repeated. And repeated.
And so your frustration is not unlike the frustration a chained puppy feels as it sits in the hot sun, no water, no relief, no protection, pulling against the chain again and again, fearful and vulnerable when bigger dogs circle the yard to attack. Like that puppy you are trapped, afraid, panting. Like that puppy’s body, your body generates all manner of stress hormones that do not go away the minute you find comfort, or even days – or years – after you’ve “grown up.”
As Peter Gergen, MD, MPH, a senior medical officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shares, “Scientists have documented a range of stressful events that have been associated with asthma symptoms. These include school exams, public speaking, family conflict, public disasters, and exposure to violence. Stress may directly affect the body or cause people to manage their asthma less effectively.
Dr. Gergen continues, “First, stress and anxiety can cause physiological changes that may provoke an attack. These strong emotions trigger the release of chemicals, such as histamine and leukotrienes, which can trigger the narrowing of your airway,” Gergen says, adding that stress can also cause people to forget their medication while at the same time stress-related hormones reduce the body’s ability to fight off colds and other respiratory infections. “Viral infections are very important causes for triggering asthma,” Gergen says.(2)
So as a defenseless child, your toxic stew of stress hormones bubbles up when there’s fear, and seeps into your cells, weakening them. Your body is torn down at the same time it is trying to grow; at the same time your little spirit is trying to trust and love and be childlike. Your lungs need to expand. You need to be able to take deep breaths to oxygenate your blood and feed your brain and organs. But fear – the fear you feel when your mother drinks; your dad is depressed; your teenage sister cuts herself – keeps you trapped like that puppy on a short chain. In “fight or flight” mode, adrenaline constricts blood vessels; breathing is shallow. You hurt in your heart and you don’t know how to stop it.
Maybe the swelling in your airways would have happened even if you’d been born into a family without traumatic stress. Maybe. Or maybe, like the thousands of middle class Americans in the ACE study mentioned earlier, if you are growing up in a family where there is addiction, abuse, divorce, caustic criticism, violence, you are among the 28 million adult children of alcoholics terrified and stricken by toxic stress. If that is the case, you are, according to the study, almost four times more likely to have chronic pulmonary disease.
As Vincent J. Felitti, one of the authors of the ACE Study writes in his own article, The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning gold into lead (3), “The ACE study reveals a powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our physical and mental health as adults, as well as the major causes of adult mortality in the United States. It documents the conversion of traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life. How does this happen, this reverse alchemy, turning the gold of a newborn infant into the lead of a depressed, diseased adult? The study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common in the childhoods of a large population of middle-aged, middle-class Americans. One does not `just get over' some things, not even fifty years later.
“Clearly, we have shown that adverse childhood experiences are common, destructive, and have an effect that often lasts for a lifetime. They are the most important determinant of the health and well-being of our nation. Unfortunately, these problems are painful to recognize and difficult to deal with. Most physicians would far rather deal with traditional organic disease. Certainly, it is easier to do so, but that approach also leads to troubling treatment failures and the frustration of expensive diagnostic quandaries where everything is ruled out but nothing is ruled in.”
My interpretation of what Dr. Feletti has written? It is far easier to treat the symptom – be it asthma, a stomach ache, a back ache – than it is to address and heal the root cause: whatever it is going on at home that could be evoking the anxiety that is the likely trigger to illness.
Again, I know adverse childhood experiences are not the cause of ALL childhood illness. Though, as an advocate for children of alcoholics, and as an adult child of an alcoholic myself, I must raise the question: What if pediatricians would ask about what’s going on at home? What if they would recommend a course of action that would help the parents create a home life with more joy and less terror? What if their prescription pad said “Mom: 90 AA meetings in 90 days; Dad: cut up the credit cards, quit spending money you don't have, and catch fireflies with this child for 30 minutes each night for the next three months? Grandma: check out Overeaters Anonymous, quit eating because you're anxious, take an anger management class MWF and a yoga class on alternate days?”
Perhaps then caring for these heart-sick children – these innocents trapped and vulnerable in their own families – would lead to a society that works to reduce the toxic the stew drains, strains, and causes the death of childhood when children are supposed to be children, and the early death of so many still-terrified adults.
Carey Sipp's first book, The TurnAround Mom – How an Abuse and Addiction Survivor Stopped the Toxic Cycle for Her Family, and How You Can, Too, guides fellow “children of chaos” to create the kind of sane and loving home life that helps prevent next-generation addiction and abuse. Her book is available here.