Losing the legacy

Mark Reid’s alcohol problems started with his dad and became the focus of his life. He describes how Nacoa gave him the insight and the tools to take control.

I am an adult child of an alcoholic. I am also an alcoholic. I stopped drinking seven years ago. A key part of my current thinking about my alcoholism is to look at the formative role played by my dad’s drinking. To do this, I have turned to the aspects of the issue covered by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) and also Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA).

Seeing what they do is a revelation and has brought me a new, extra, peace of mind. It involved a pit stop from the full daily circuit of my Alcoholics Anonymous programme, though that remains central to my recovery. Its emphasis on personal responsibility is now nuanced by what Nacoa informs.

I have spoken to my dad about his drinking days. He doesn’t really bother with it now. I was brought up in a culture in which a lot of men went to the pub every night – or more specifically in dad’s case, the working men’s club, partly because the club offered the justification that there was more reason to go than just alcohol; they needed committee members who had to attend, to make important decisions and do the books.

My dad would go after tea and early evening telly. A daily dose of two hours’ drinking time. We’d always hear his key rattle ominously back in the front door at eleven twenty precisely – except on Sundays when last orders was earlier. After the strong Yorkshire ale, the steady and reliable father-of-five who came home to the family from the office every day was gone. He was replaced by a drinker, on edge and up for a verbal clash.

My mum, quieter and more anxious as closing time got nearer, would disappear to bed before he came back. As we became teenagers, we might still be up, listening to music. Sometimes we would stand our ground. It was a hollow show of bravado from me. I remember with crystal clarity the night I cried myself to sleep and vowed to myself to work as hard as I could at school so I could go to university and leave home. Looking back now, I know it was not a hopeful feeling, it was heavy and lonely. That is a word to sum up how people who’ve grown up with alcoholics say they feel when they talk to Nacoa.

The Nacoa ‘checklist’ (see below), which I first read in their powerful literature, outlines common themes and is a menu of all the anxieties I had as I grew up. The reasons for rejection when my dad had been drinking were never set out. It came late at night when I was tired and so was all the more disconcerting. Family relations were almost always good by day. The ups and downs left me confused about how people were meant to relate to each other. Were adult men all out drinking and feeling better by coming back and shouting the odds?

‘You are not alone’: the Nacoa checklist
One in five children in the UK live with a parent who drinks hazardously,
says Nacoa, with millions of adults still affected by their parents’
drinking. These are issues that callers often talk about on their helpline:
– feeling different from other people
– having difficulty with relationships
– fearing rejection and abandonment, yet rejecting others
– being loyal even when loyalty is undeserved
– finding it difficult to have fun
– judging themselves without mercy
– fearing failure, but sabotaging success
– over-reacting to changes over which they have no control
– lying when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
– guessing at what ‘normal’ is

I concluded that adults you trusted will disappear and come back different. Why wait for that to happen when you could do it to them first? At other times it made sense to do the opposite and stay loyal to people in the hope they might then be consistent – except this approach just enables others to treat you how they like. Being loyal, where loyalty is undeserved, becomes a way of resigning yourself to low self-esteem.

My inability to deal with all these questions at the time fed into other insecurities. To ease them I drank more or less excessively for 30 years before reaching the park bench. Alcohol engulfed everything I built up along the way – my marriage and contact with my children, my career and liberty.

Having seen how another person’s drinking destabilised me, it would seem madness to follow him to the pubs and clubs. Yet learned behaviour is often all we have. It doesn’t matter what your role model does; you’ll do it too. Nacoa has shown me that the impact of uncomfortable thoughts from living with an alcoholic parent leaves an emotional and psychological deficit. Nacoa identifies and clearly explains what I term the ‘comfort deficit’ in children of alcoholics. We begin by self-medicating and some of us turn to the only coping mechanism we see in use around us: alcohol. More of the same. And it is one that the drinking parent is hardly likely to deny the green light to.

What Nacoa does so effectively is fully explain the nature of the deficit which can be created and passed on by alcoholic parents. These explanations are a source of significant reassurance to me. In recovery, awareness is all. As with any unhelpful thinking style, once the child-of-alcoholic deficits are made clear, a new perspective can quickly follow. It allows me to see that my alcoholism is not (all) my own doing, fault or problem.

Equally revelatory to me is the fact that the Nacoa checklist of how children of alcoholics might think, feel and behave is also the matrix for the symptoms of the untreated alcoholic. These many forms of frustration are what I found myself grappling with as I tried to turn abstinence into the equanimity of true sobriety.

Nacoa has helped me triangulate my recovery and see it from a further point of view. Previously I had approached my alcoholism in two main ways. One is the standpoint of cognitive therapy and addressing it as the result of maladaptive responses to life events. Another has been the 12-step approach and accepting that I have my very own set of character defects like self-pity and selfish motives.

However, it can be unsatisfying to see the issue as soluble only by either handing it over to a higher power on the one hand or by being entirely rational on the other. Human nature can completely mis-fuel both these theories. I will still use a composite of both these approaches on a daily basis. Nacoa brings back in my own personal and family experience. Without that we can never fully understand ourselves.

And my dad? He’s been a central part of my recovery – emotionally and financially. He was the one who waited patiently outside as the AA meeting went on, or dropped me off at my latest counsellor in early recovery. My parents bore the brunt of my disappearance into addiction – mine was the only empty chair at their 50th wedding anniversary. Each new part of the explanation for our alcoholism we now share. What we also share is the hope that we can help prevent alcoholism seeping into the next generation. And for that, my children also have Nacoa.

The Nacoa helpline is 0800 358 3456, helpline@nacoa.org.uk, nacoa.org.uk

Mark Reid is participation and recovery worker at Path 2 Recovery (P2R), East London NHS Foundation Trust

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