THE CHILD OF THE ALCOHOLIC
M lYJLy father mostly starts on a Thursday and drinks until he gets sick. Then I have to look after him. I bring him a glass of milk and clean things up when he’s been sick all over the living room 99-Jerome
JEROME IS 12. He is the son of a marketing executive who works in downtown Toronto and lives in suburban Etobicoke. Jerome’s expensive sweater and newish jeans are rumpled and stained. He is thin and quick in his movements, his face intelligent but not happy. His eyes have red rims.
Jerome is not a boy you would notice in a crowd and he is indeed little noticed in the tall brick house he shares with his parents and two sisters, and in the nearby primary school where teachers call him a difficult pupil. He is being noticed now, he understands, because there is something badly wrong with his life, something related to the brown-paper bag his father carries home on a Thursday,
to quarrels in the middle of the night, to promised Saturday fishing trips he and his father never made. Jerome is being noticed because his father is an alcoholic.
Because he is being noticed, listened to, with sympathy, he is eager to talk. He sits in a low chair in a brightly furnished room in the Ontario Addiction Research Foundation on Toronto’s Bloor Street; across the coffee table sits Margaret Cork, a tall, grey-haired social worker. Her expression is thoughtful. Only occasionally will she nod in understanding or ask a short question. Jerome is pouring his heart out.
Margaret Cork, who is unmarried, has spent a lifetime helping out other people’s families, which have been her
concern since she graduated as a social worker from the University of Toronto in 1935. The particular concern with alcohol started 16 years later, when David Archibald was setting up the Ontario Foundation. “Help us out for a year, Marg,” he said; she has been helping out ever since. During the 15 years she has worked as a clinician with alcoholic families she has studied and contributed to the vast body of research literature on the alcohol problem. She has found a conspicuous gap: “At all levels of research and treatment, the children have been grossly neglected.”
Vast as it was, the literature did not explain: Is the alcoholic alone responsible for the breakdown of his family life? Are children harmed by drinking bouts or by the flawed relationship between the alcoholic and his wife? Should the drinker alone receive treatment, or his entire family?
The intelligent Jerome is one of 115 children she selected to help her find answers. Fifty-eight other boys and 56 girls have poured out their thoughts to Margaret Cork. They are between 10 and 16, all from Metropolitan Toronto. more than half of them from middleor upper-class homes. These 115 children are from 62 families that contain 72 alcoholics. In nine of the homes the mother is alcoholic, in 43 the father, in 10 both parents. All the fathers have jobs and have been married a good many years. All 124 parents are between 35 and 50 (the crucial years
— an alcoholic’s drinking pattern is almost always established by the age of 43, which is the average age of the Canadian alcoholic. His life expectancy at this point is 16 years less than that of the non-alcoholic).
The answers of these children are providing a new and disturbing poftrait of life as it is lived by the sons and daughters of alcoholics in the affluent society of urban Canada. This portrait is of obvious importance to the one million Canadians involved in the lives of the nation’s 256,000 alcoholics; it may also be of interest to the families of the estimated nine million Canadians who drink with varying degrees of moderation. For if alcoholism is defined as drinking that cannot be consistently controlled, there must always be a sizable fraction of us nine million out there somewhere in a dangerous no-man’s-land between just drinking and being alcoholic.
Sometimes he comes into my room and sits on my bed or lies on it when I’m in bed. He says that Mom doesn’t love him, that no one does, or he says he’s a lousy father. I get so upset I don’t know what to say. I just cry and cry until Mom comes home. I try to push him off the bed, but he just stays there saying all these things.
Dimly, Jerome remembers a time when things were not bad at home. He remembers vividly one New Year's Eve
— he was five — being awakened by a taxi bringing his father home: angry voices, the sound of his father’s shoulder rubbing along the wall by the stairs, an exclamation, a pause and then a bone-jarring crash. Jerome rushed from his bed and saw his father lying twisted at the foot of the stairs, blood on his head, his mouth stupidly open. That is the scene Jerome remembers from a night of confusion — his mother sobbing, ambulancemen, the police
— that and the thought that his father was dead. (Jerome
does not know it but the clinical records show that this was the time his father was crossing the line from “social drinking" to alcoholism. He came home that New Year’s with a bandaged head, swearing abstinence, but soon began a long slide through Saturday-night benders and allweekend drinking to a permanent and near - obsessional thirst for escape.)
In recent years, Jerome confesses to the understanding Margaret Cork, there have been times when he wished his mother would let his father “keep right on drinking and then he’d finish himself off.” Three times the parents have separated and the three children have briefly experienced a more peaceful life with their mother; each time Jerome’s mother “gets soft and lets him come back.” Sometimes Jerome's father is out drinking for days, but when he is home “everything in our house is just to keep Dad from being upset.” It is a house on edge — Jerome must consider every move. Will this upset Father? Will that start a quarrel? “You feel like you're not a child, like you’re sort of grown-up and have to watch yourself.”
He likes to avoid his parents and their quarrels. He is apart, even from his sisters. All the people he knows ap pear sometimes “a bunch of nuts. I don’t care about any of them — Mom. Dad, my sisters, school, everybody.” He knows there are parents who “pay some attention to their kids, really know what goes on." But they are a long way from his experience. At 12, Jerome is an outsider.
Sometimes when he’s sober he’s like a father should be. *. When he’s sober he’s so nice that I wish he’d drink all the time... 1 wish he’d be one or the other. 1 don’t really know him.
Ambivalence has seeped down deep into Jerome’s personality. He both loves and hates his father. Margaret Cork has heard this time and again in her half-hour talks with those she calls her “forgotten children.” She hears it from Sally, a pale and stooping girl, the 14-year-old daughter of a wealthy contractor. “Sometimes I feel sorry for my Dad,” says Sally, “and then again I get so mad I hate him — I hate both of them. They’re not happy and neither are we, even when he isn’t drinking.”
Jerome and Sally — Margaret Cork notes the parallel in their stories: “Both have feelings of insecurity, confusion. frustration, anger, rejection and isolation. Both are depressed about the future. Because each has developed many of the characteristics often found in alcoholics. I found myself wondering whether one or both might some day be likely candidates for alcoholism.”
The worst times are when Dad hits Mom.
One thing Margaret Cork has learned quickly from the children: drinking sessions are only a minor worry of life in an alcoholic's household. The point is demonstrated dramatically by children from 15 homes where the alcoholic parent has been abstinent for at least a year. The atmosphere in these homes is not markedly different from those where there is wild drinking. The drinker has gone dry. but the destructive attitudes of alcoholism remain to harry his children.
It is the hate between parents that hurts the children
Jerome recalls: “One time when he was hitting her 1 ran up and hit him as hard as I could with one of my toys
— I don’t even remember what it was — and after that it was all a blank. I don’t remember what happened.” When drunk, Jerome’s father starts belittling his wife’s family; inevitably, his wife starts yelling back. “Even when I’m in bed I hear it,” says Jerome. “You can’t ever get away from it, but sometimes you have some peace from the drinking.” Often, his mother won’t sleep with his father and Jerome’s nights are punctuated by his father’s shouted demands that she come to him in the rec room.
The shouting goes on until “they have a fist fight. I come down from my room and start to fight with Dad, too, but it doesn’t do any good. He still hits her. She just takes it and tells me to go back to bed, but I can’t go to sleep. You just feel hopeless.”
Sally’s experience is similar: “I keep wishing he’d just drink like other people. But the nagging and the fighting are worse than the alcohol. He hits Mom sometimes.”
Psychologist James H. S. Bossard has explained that it is gravely damaging for a child to see its mother hurt or threatened. He says that children who see this are “likely to become bitter, calculating, full of hatred for a parent or an entire family group.” And Margaret Cork finds that such fighting leaves deeper scars than drinking scenes. Here is her analysis of the things that most worry the 115
Parental fighting, quarreling 98
Lack of interest of alcoholic parent 96
Lack of interest of non-alcoholic parent 73
Unhappiness of parent 35
Sometimes we go to school in dirty clothes because Mom’s too tired to do the washing.
Jerome’s mother is a nurse in a hospital. She struggles to care for her children yet does not reach them. She dampens their spirits to propitiate her alcoholic husband but in the end she roars into screaming, stand-up fights with him. There is an immaturity about her actions. As Jerome puts it: “I sometimes think if Mom didn’t get so mad, say such mean things to him, he might not drink as much. But she can’t seem to stop yakking any more than he can stop drinking.”
Almost half the children in Margaret Cork’s survey have working mothers and almost all of these children have some negative feeling about it. But one third of the children with working mothers say that it does not matter. Their mother is no longer important.
You can’t really talk to Mom about this, or anything. She just talks about her worries, never seems to care about yours.
For Jerome, the generation gap is vast. To say he feels rejected is to understate the agonies that enclose him. He sees his mother as compulsively absorbed in her frustration as his father is in the bottle.
Most of the 115 children tell Margaret Cork of their isolated condition. Only two enjoy a close relationship with alcoholic fathers, only four with non-alcoholic mothers. In most cases they feel rejected by both parents. In
families where the mother does the drinking, the children can’t get close to the father because he’s too busy with his job and the chores at home.
Many of these marriages, Margaret Cork realizes, are sustained by no love, no sense of responsibility for children. They persist by a process of “extreme neurotic interactions.” Jerome himself gives a hint of this. Talking of his mother’s attitude, he says: “I used to let her nag at him but now I start talking back to her. I guess I do things to make her mad, but I can’t seem to help it.”
Extreme neurotic interaction — and Jerome is caught in the crossfire.
Mostly we all fight or are mad at each other.
Jerome complains: “My sisters call me a crybaby.” Sally complains: “We kids all fight just like Mom and Dad. There’s no way to get away from the fighting unless you leave.” And Margaret Cork, indefatigably building her survey, notes: “In all age groups there was an abnormal amount of dissension and separation among brothers and sisters. Generally there was little warmth; instead there was a deep sense of hostility and resentment. The words of one child best described their feelings: ‘We all just go off and nurse our wounds — nobody cares how you feel.’ ”
I’m always at the bottom of the class. It makes you feel dumb.
“I can’t think about things properly,” says Jerome. “I never have any peace to do my homework. At school I always feel mad or sad. I can’t stop thinking about how things will be when I get home.” Jerome is in the middle age-group of the children under survey; his report on school is not one of the worst.
School keeps getting tougher for the child from an alcoholic home. Those under 12, observes Margaret Cork, often like it and do well — “You can stop thinking about things at home when you’re there.” Those from 12 to 14 are starting to fail; like Jerome, they find it hard to concentrate. Over 14, there are failures of one or even two grades — and the deadly realization that Father will drink the money that could send them to college.
I don’t really know anyone. I don’t think the kids like me much. They ask me to do things with them and my eyes are all red from crying and I won’t let them see me, so I mostly say I can’t go.
How many Canadian 12-year-olds play solitaire? Jerome does. And he watches a lot of TV, plays cards with his younger sister: “I just fool around.” He no longer seeks friendships. He is afraid of being mocked or felt sorry for. “Even if I had a friend, I wouldn’t bring him home. I’m afraid he'd hear the fighting or see my Dad.”
Shame closes many doors for these 115 children. Few are deeply involved in community groups, though one 16year-old boy did become attached to a camp director, later explaining: “He was like a father to me.”
The older children in the sample seem peculiarly deprived. For them, the yearnings of adolescence are stillborn in bitterness; the time of daydreams and the stirring
of ambition is warped. “I used to think I could be a teacher but now I know it’s hopeless to try.”
Thwarted and untrusting, many are already developing a resentment toward authority — “one of the major characteristics of the adult alcoholic.”
I can’t do anything. Do you understand? I CAN’T DO ANYTHING!
Jerome’s view of his place in the family comes out in an angry cry of helplessness. All the children share that frustration. Through her 115 interviews Margaret Cork draws a profile of the impact of parental alcoholism on the children, as the children themselves judge it.
One hundred and eight of these children lack self-confidence; 89 feel ashamed, get upset easily; 75 feel hostile to their parents and others; 73 worry constantly about being “different”; 70 show an “overall sense of anxiety”; 54 are at odds with authority; 50 dream of escape from the family; 48 feel they’ve grown up too fast; 48 are uncomfortable with the opposite sex; 46 worry about not being liked; 31 can’t trust anybody; 25 feel hopeless but passively accept their situation.
After repeated readings of the interviews, Margaret Cork groups the children in terms of the damage they have suffered:
Slight damage 9
Fairly serious damage 56
Very serious damage 50
Those listed as slightly damaged are young; they retain some positive identification with one parent. Fairly serious damage means being constantly at odds with one or both parents, though still keeping a tie with the family. These children, Margaret Cork judges, would be helped by counseling. Those very seriously damaged show an attitude of “constant resentment or open hate” to their parents. Without intensive, long-term therapy the children will grow into emotional cripples.
Alcoholics don’t want to think of any* thing but themselves, or they want to forget something. It’s like there’s a door and they won’t open it because they’re afraid, so they drink.
Life has taught Jerome exactly what an alcoholic is: 58 of the children echo him. They say an alcoholic is a person who has to drink to escape. Another 29 say he is unhappy, sick or afraid of life; 27 see him simply as one who drinks constantly.
I don’t think I’ll ever touch it. I might get to be like Dad...
Five children have told Margaret Cork they are drinking regularly. They are “among the most disturbed members of the group.” Two of them have experienced “passing out.” The schoolwork of all five is seriously affected.
But Margaret Cork worries about the future of the 110 non-drinking children as much as the five drinkers, even though most of the larger group say they won’t drink when they grow up. “Afraid of getting like parent” is the commonly stated reason. Only 37 say they might drink occasionally or in a moderate way.
She calls this “a significant number” prepared to drink.
continued on page 56
And those who say they will abstain may be unable to. “The fact that there seems to be underlying personality disturbance in all the children suggests that, should any of them turn to alcohol to meet their emotional needs, there is then a very real possibility that they will become alcoholics.”
The experience of two generations supports the view. During her months of interviewing the children, Margaret Cork has looked at the clinical records of their 72 alcoholic parents. These records show that two thirds of the alcoholics’ fathers and 10 percent of their mothers were described as alcoholics. She also studied the records of the 52 non-alcoholic parents: half of their fathers were called alcoholics. Summarizing the backgrounds of the parents, she says: “It strongly resembles the picture presented by the children I interviewed. It is a background of alcoholism, financial difficulty, premature assumption of adult responsibilities, parental rejection and parental incompatibility. Many of these parents, when they were children, must also have been fearful, frustrated and in conflict.”
She concludes: “While many things are not known about these two generations of parents, it seems clear that alcoholism — like other aspects of negative family life — may well be passed from generation to generation and is likely to continue to be passed on unless there is some kind of intervention.”
... But then, everybody we know takes a drink or two, so I might.
There are new faces today in the bright room with the coffee table where Margaret Cork does her interviewing, new children. She has launched a youth-counseling service. Fifty children come to talk to her regularly; many are from middleand upper-class homes that have no other contact with social agencies. They range in age from 12 to 30 and they are referred, when necessary, to consulting physicians and psychiatrists.
Because of this counseling, she believes, these 50 “new” youngsters have a better chance of making it as healthy adults than the 115 children in her study. Their parents gave permission only for them to participate in the study and few of them are seen at the new clinic.
Jerome does not attend.
It’s too late for us. He’ll never stop drinking so you just have to accept it until you can get away from the family. □