Growing Up With An Addicted Parent

April 12, 2018

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

Author Headshot



I remember, as a twelve-year-old, sitting alone in our living room after one of our then-typical family meltdowns…trying to make sense of the pain and general devastation of our once very happy family…trying to understand how kind, decent and loving people could cause each other such unrelenting pain, how we could say the things we were saying, hurl insults, act out in anger and rage…I recall saying to myself, “wars do these things to people, separate loved ones, wound hearts, and tear families apart. But somehow, we’re doing this to ourselves.”

Just as in a war, people are forced to witness the dark side of humanity…those of us who live with addiction also come up against it. It was my beloved Father, the man who loved and nurtured me, who gave me café au lait from his spoon, held my hand when we walked, and took such pleasure in sitting me up on the kitchen counter to watch while he squeezed fresh orange juice for me. My Darling Dad worked hard to give me a life with so much more than had ever been given to him. It was exactly this father who would sit with a glass of scotch in his hand and slowly, glass by glass, descend into becoming a monster. Who would become cruel and terrifying, tearing down what he had worked so hard to build, devastating those he loved the most, making the house shake with his rage, and doing to us with his own hand, those very things he had spent his life protecting us from.

And eventually, the gravity of his illness sucked us all in. At one point or another, we all shared his private hell with him until all of us lost our grip on normal.

Living with the roller coaster ride of addiction, the unpredictability, and bending of reality, the broken promises, the dashed hopes…the disillusionment and disappointment, the secrets and lies…is a traumatizing experience. As the French say, it “marks” us.

When I was young, there was no such thing as family disease or family healing; we thought that if the addict sobered up, the family would get better by itself. We didn’t realize how sick family members became through living with addiction.

My Father never found recovery.

I entered recovery not from addiction but from the fallout of living with addiction. Because I watched the Father, I adored drift slowly into a bottle of scotch that took him far away from himself, us, and each other, I need healing.

Once I discovered them, just sitting in meetings alone was, for me, deeply transformative. Saying what was in my heart and having no one jump up, accuse me of being out of line, slam doors, or rage, or quietly slip out of the room changed me profoundly. I was dumbfounded when people would come up to me after meetings and say they identified with me. For so many years, I had barely let myself know how different I felt. Now I wasn’t alone after all. There was a room full of us, at least.

I don’t know if this experience has made me a better person, but it’s made me deeper, funnier, wider…..and more importantly, it has taught me the value of life. It has taken me to the edge of inner experience where I had to make a choice to choose a lifestyle or a death style; because addiction is slow suicide.

And I chose life.

I want to borrow a quote from Vaclav Havel, who helped to carry the Czech Republic to freedom and was also a prolific author and playwright…..

“Either we have hope within us, or we don’t. It is a dimension of the soul and is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well or the willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things”.

Vaclav Havel

This kind of hope is a great gift of recovery. I have discovered through both personal and professional experience that those of us who live with addiction have a chronic and progressive disease. This disease has its tentacles wrapped around our personality development because we grew up with it, a disease that requires aggressive treatment. It is up to us to recognize this in ourselves and to get the help we need to become well again so that we don’t pass the effects of living with trauma onto the next generation. In finding my own strength and resilience, I have had to learn to stretch and deepen my mind and heart to include all sides of our humanity, to integrate love and hate, to learn to accept people and myself in our full range of both beauty and ugliness, to find understanding and forgiveness not just to be nice to another person, but to become whole again myself. Recovery reflects the kind of hope that Havel talks about. We enter it because it makes sense. After all, it is better than the alternative. We embrace it because we have hope, which gives us the strength to live and try new things. That hope leads us to expand the dimensions of our own souls.

Recovery deepens us because it forces us to look at both sides of life, the good and the bad, and somehow hold both. It makes us more aware of the dark side of life but paradoxically better able to love the light.

Written by: Tian Dayton, PH.D. and Senior Fellow at the Meadows