Growing up as a child of an alcoholic

Health Agenda
Mental Health

Growing up as a child of an alcoholic

Now a happily married mum of three, Natalie* grew up in a house where both her parents struggled with alcohol addiction. Here she reveals what that was like, and how it impacted her life.

Growing up, both of my parents had alcohol addictions. That sounds awful, I know, but at the time, the life I lived felt very normal to me. It was only as I got older that I realised not everyone had parents who would regularly drink and get drunk, and discovered the effects that had on me, my relationships with others, how I saw myself and even my own relationship with alcohol.

I remember being quite young and my dad talking about a man he worked with who was an alcoholic; about how this man would come to work smelling like booze, how he had a red face and how his wife had left him because he got drunk every day. My dad thought this man was ‘pathetic’.

My parents didn’t look like alcoholics. Alcoholics on TV hid bottles of vodka in linen cupboards and turned up to events drunk, falling over and slurring their words. They were embarrassing.

Neither of my parents did that. They both worked, had friends and spent time mowing the lawn and cooking Sunday lunch. They were normal. We were normal.

Except some things weren’t. On Saturdays, when I was about five or six, while my mum looked after my younger sister, my dad took me to the pub. I’d sit and eat a chocolate bar while he drank beer after beer with mates. Then he’d drive us home.

Life as a child of alcoholic parents

Every night my mum would drink ‘one glass of wine’ – a glass that always seemed full – in front of the TV, until she passed out on the sofa and I’d cover her with a blanket and go to bed.

After my parents split up when I was 12, their drinking escalated. At one point my dad was drinking a bottle of spirits every night – I’d count them in the rubbish bin. I didn’t see my mum for a year after she left to go and live with a man we didn’t know.

I started getting drunk around the age of 14. Friends and I would share straight vodka we’d stolen from our parents’ drink cabinets. More than once, I passed out or vomited, or both. My parents rarely noticed I was even gone and would laugh and smile knowingly if I admitted to being hungover. They almost seemed proud.

The impact of growing up with alcoholic parents

Almost 30 years later, both of my parents still drink. My mum has her bottle of wine every night. My dad has eased off the hard stuff but never goes a day without a few beers and a bottle of wine. Age has slowed them down, but the effects of years of abuse are very visible. My mum forgets things and is always in a bad mood. My dad struggles to think clearly or have a real conversation.

My relationship with them both is distant. I don’t hate them or even blame them, but I keep them at arms-length. I wish they could have been there for my sister and me when we were growing up. I joke to friends that I’ve been looking after myself since I was 11, and it’s true.

I do think my parents’ addictions have impacted me, but as I’ve grown up and older, I’ve been able to recognise that, which has helped combat some of the negatives. My 20s were full of relationships with older men who drank too much, and I took some risks around sex that I wouldn’t have if I’d been sober. When I met my husband – the kindest man I’ve ever met – I realised I deserved more and finally had a relationship worth being in.

What having alcoholic parents has taught me

I rarely drink in front of my children, and if I do, it’s only ever one or two. I regularly go weeks or months when I drink nothing, simply to prove to myself that I can, that I’m not my parents.

I tend to crave alcohol when I’m stressed, which as a working mum of three happens a fair bit, but I don’t always give in to the craving. I’ll do something with the kids or have a shower. After half an hour I don’t feel like a drink anymore.

I think it’s possible to be a healthy child of alcoholic parents. I have a healthy relationship with alcohol, I’m happily married and I’m a good mum to my beautiful kids. But it’s not something that makes life any easier. I’ve had counselling in the past to unpack a lot of the stuff I dealt with as a child and that helped a lot.

Most of all, I think I’m sad for my parents as I see a lot of what they missed, and are still missing, as a result of their dependence on alcohol. I don’t invite them to any of my kids’ school concerts or birthday parties because I can’t be sure they won’t drink. They know that, but it doesn’t change anything.

I’d encourage anyone struggling with alcohol to seek help, as much for themselves as their kids. Life can be so much better – I know because I’ve seen both sides.

Getting help with alcohol addiction

Reset drinking habits with the Daybreak app⁺, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.

The Daybreak app is fully subsidised by the Australian Department of Health, which means all Australians get free access.

HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support.

Download the Daybreak app on the App Store or Google Play.

Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:  

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
June 2021

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