Dear Forgotten Child,
Just over a decade ago now, I came across a book about growing up in an alcoholic home that was to change my life. Using non-professional language and few technical terms, the author set out to offer insights into the long-term effects of parental drinking on a child’s life.
The introduction to an early chapter concludes as follows: “For those of you who question the extent to which you are affected by growing up in an alcoholic family, this chapter will prove very illuminating”. What an understatement. Mesmerised, I turned the pages. It was like reading about me. Gradually I began to recognise so many of my own traits – ‘super-responsible’, ‘low self-esteem’, ‘showing loyalty where it wasn’t deserved’ and the one that resonated most – ‘always feeling on the outside looking in’.
Unknown to me I was suffering from depression and at the time believed that I was such an awful person that I simply didn’t deserve help. But the author also seemed to be saying that sometimes we can’t escape the effects of our childhood years. So even though at that time I believed I was this awful person, I reasoned that maybe it wasn’t all my fault that I was an awful person and if it wasn’t all my fault, then maybe – just maybe – I might deserve help. The final chapter set out a list of places where you might go for help and explained a little about counselling and psychotherapy.
The author also published a beautiful letter from an 89 year old woman for whom an article about Children of Alcoholics in a national newspaper proved to be an eye-opener. In her quiet and poignant letter she wrote of how she felt that she was a ‘half-person’ and that if she could only tell ‘the whole miserable story in absolute truth’ to someone before she died, that she might shed the load of guilt, lies, deception and perhaps finally in her twilight years, realise who she really was.
When I finished reading that letter I put the book down and thought, “I don’t want to be a half-person. I don’t even want to be a three-quarters person. I want to be a whole person.” A short time later with the help of a wonderful professional, I set out on what was to be a long journey home. It wasn’t easy. I fell off many cliffs on the way, ending up in deep ravines. But when the darkness closed in and the lights would go out, hands would appear and I finally found my way through. Ten years on life is much calmer now. The cliffs and ravines have given way to a more gentle rolling landscape of hills and valleys.
The French poet Paul Eluard’s insight that there is another world but that it is in this one, resonates often as I savour the extraordinary ordinariness of my now, full life.
But I have often thought how helpful it would be if we could widen our conversation around the problem we have as a nation with alcohol to include the voice of those who grew up in alcoholic homes and who live with that legacy, but in a way that does not add to the stigma of alcoholism thereby preventing people accessing help.
I came across a review recently of that little book I read all those years ago :
“I read [this book] several years ago and it took me out of a place where I was lost and confused, and into a place where I could see cause-and-effect, where a lot of my destructive thought processes were exposed for what they were – natural reactions to an impossibly difficult childhood.”
If you have begun to recognise yourself in what I have written, just remember that there is help out there. You don’t have to go it alone anymore and you more than deserve that help.