Roger Marsh: In North America millions of people have had their lives absolutely wrecked by the effects of alcoholism. Estimates suggest that nearly 30 million people have grown up with at least one alcoholic parent and the numerous children living in that unhealthy atmosphere develop severe relational issues. They struggle to communicate with the outside world and are unable to fully trust other people. When those responses are not properly addressed, kids carry that baggage into adulthood. This is a devastating societal problem that is often times ignored or swept under the rug, but we believe it needs to be addressed so that true healing can take place.
Over the next three days here on Family Talk, we'll hear just how emotionally scarring an alcoholic parent can be. On this classic broadcast, a panel of guests share their childhood experiences in homes overshadowed by alcoholism. This is a very sensitive subject that I know is going to resonate with many of our listeners. But our prayer is that you will find hope and some encouragement from it.
Before we begin, please know that this program is intended for mature audiences, so parental discretion is advised. With that caution let's get started. Here now is Dr. James Dobson on this edition of Family Talk.
Dr. Dobson: Three of the four do not want their names given and we're going to honor that for you all. I'm just going to give enough information for people to understand where you're coming from. First we have Ann, and Ann as I said is not your name, but it's good to have you with us today. Next we have Chris, who's a licensed psychotherapist in the state of Colorado. Then we have Joe, who's an industrial engineer.
Finally, and we will identify this person, we have Curt Grayson. Curt, like the others, grew up in an alcoholic home and he's a licensed marriage family and child counselor in the state of California with a degree from Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University in La Mirada, CA. Curt has a Doctorate in Organizational Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles. Curt Grayson and Jan Johnson are the co-authors of a book. It's called Creating a Safe Place: Christians Healing from the Hurts of Dysfunctional Families.
I'm sorry to take so long to get the program going, but I sure appreciate your being here.
Guests: [crosstalk 00:03:21].
Dr. Dobson: Curt, I know back in 1986 you started small support group for adult children of alcoholics at the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California, and you called it New Hope. You're no longer involved in active leadership with New Hope, but I'm interested in what you did there. I think it has relevance for us. Start at that point. Tell us what New Hope was all about and how did it work?
Dr. Curt Grayson: Well the support group, the idea really is a chance for people to come and talk about what they experienced in an alcoholic home. I know in my own situation I realized that we never talked about the alcoholic home, we just lived around it. It's kind of like the story of the elephant who walks through a house and no one acknowledges that the elephant is there. This is a safe place for people to come and share the pain that they went through and also find hope in talking about it.
Dr. Dobson: Now people who don't know anything about adult children of alcoholics and don't understand the process here will say, "Why would people want to come wallow in that every week? Why not forget it? Get on with their lives. Why spend one night a week talking about the misery of their childhoods in homes of an alcoholic?" What's your answer?
Dr. Curt Grayson: Well I feel like it's important not to stay in the past. My goal as an adult child of an alcoholic in recovery is to move forward in my life, but I know what we experience with support group by talking about what happened to us, we're able to free ourselves up and not be prisoners of the past.
Dr. Dobson: Ann, you were commenting in my office that the great benefit of a session like that is not just sharing the pain, but sharing it and then still being loved. Somebody still cares for you.
Ann: That's correct. That's right. It's so important to feel that acceptance and love out there. That you can reveal what's happened to you in your life and that people will not reject you. You're so fearful of the rejection coming and there you can go and feel the love by opening up and sharing the real you. Each week it becomes a little easier to share a little more and with the love and support of friends that actually give you hugs and encouragement, it encourages you to go on. You can heal the past by getting in and dealing with issues that you haven't looked at.
Dr. Dobson: You buried them down there some place.
Ann: I had stuffed mine down my entire life. I had not dealt with feelings because it was too painful to deal with feelings. I didn't know what a feeling was. I suppressed everything, including anger. I think that's one of the things that comes out, and it's okay to express anger. It's okay to say, "I was angry." Anger comes out of hurt. Out of being hurt deeply.
Dr. Dobson: In that kind of Christian environment where people meet with that common understanding of the love of Christ. In that atmosphere of openness allows the healing to occur, doesn't it?
Ann: That's right.
Dr. Dobson: Well all four of you have gone through some of the same trauma. Let me just throw it open to the group, and talk to us about what it's like to grow up in the home of an alcoholic. Or in some cases two alcoholics, mother and father. What is that experience like? We're talking to people right now who know already the answer to that because they have experienced it. There are others who have no idea. Explain for that second group.
Chris: I think the main thing for me is the fear. The absolute scariness of being a little child and not having parents around and knowing even though you don't have the words to describe it, knowing that there's no one in control except yourself. Then so how do you deal with certain things? One of the ways that I dealt with things is I hid. I actually had a little favorite closet that I would go in while my parents were verbally arguing. My father had been heavily drinking, and that was the safest place I knew, underneath my bed or in my closet. My best friend was the cocker spaniel.
Dr. Dobson: Was just your father an alcoholic or was your mother also?
Chris: When I was growing up my father was the alcoholic, very much so.
Dr. Dobson: Yeah, but your mother did not fill the role?
Chris: Not until later in her life, but as growing up as a child.
Dr. Dobson: What were you thinking in that closet, Chris? What was going on in there?
Chris: Stop it, stop it, please stop it. It's too noisy. When it gets noisy it gets dangerous, and I couldn't say that when I was age two or age three, but something bad is going to happen. Something really bad is going to happen. In my family unfortunately it got pretty violent. The verbal was just screaming and it got violent. People got hit. I got hit.
Dr. Dobson: And you remember that very clearly today from age two or three?
Chris: It's interesting you would say that. I repressed so many of these memories until about seven years ago. Then when I became a Christian and asked the Lord to mold me and make me into his image, these memories started to occur and I did not know that incest and physical abuse is part of my history.
Dr. Dobson: Oh my goodness. Joe, do you remember your childhood?
Joe: Sure do. There's something that's real important I think to say. Before I got into recovery I didn't remember my childhood. People would say, "Well what was childhood like?" I'd think and I'd say, "Well previous to about 13, 12 years old, I didn't recall." What it was like was very violent. My parents both were alcoholics. My experience was, for instance, coming home from school when I was a kid, I didn't know whether my mother was going to be drunk or not and when she got drunk she was usually violent. If she wasn't drunk she was a real nice lady. A real nice lady. There was a lot of different messages going on. A lot of confusing things.
Now if my mother wasn't loaded that particular evening, things went okay. My dad came home, he didn't typically drink at work nor after. However, if my mother did drink during the day, I came home, the house was in a terror, my dad came home, he was absolutely angry, they got in fights, they beat one another up. What is that like for a little boy to see his mother get beat up by his dad? I can remember trying to get in between them when I was little and getting myself kicked around. It does desperate things. Desperate, deep down things to one's own soul.
Dr. Dobson: Did you seek to hide like Chris did? What would you do when your parents were in a brawl?
Joe: Well sometimes I got in the middle of it. I was a real acting out type person, and often times they put myself and my three sisters to bed. We got out of the way when we were smaller. When I was in my teenage years I finally got to the point where I could stop them. I was strong enough to stop them and I tried to make some peace there.
Dr. Dobson: So this went on year after year after year?
Joe: Oh sure. Sure. It goes on now as we speak. They live in my head. Well I am an alcoholic.
Dr. Dobson: In fact they did. Yes, one of the reasons Joe used that term is he is a recovering alcoholic. In fact, 70% of the children of alcoholics become alcoholics.
Chris: That's true.
Dr. Dobson: That's the figure. Isn't that amazing?
Joe: That's correct.
Dr. Dobson: 70%.
Dr. Curt Grayson: Also, if you grew up in an alcoholic home you're four times more likely to become an alcoholic yourself. Or to go on and marry an alcoholic.
Dr. Dobson: Yeah. That's the amazing statistic, that you've seen all this tragedy and you turn around and link yourself to somebody who's going to perpetuate it in your adult life.
Joe: There's another very important thing here, Dr. Dobson. Often times when we talk about alcoholism or the victimization of the alcoholic family, adult children of alcoholics, I think what comes across as, for lack of a better term, a wimp factor. That here we are, we're bellyaching about this and that and the other thing. The fact is that people who are raised up in that environment, and I include myself obviously, are tough people. Very tough people. It isn't that this is about "oh, look what happened to me." It isn't about that. I mean, we can live out a life of being a victim over and over again but really I'm here today to really talk about not being a victim and being a victor over it.
Dr. Curt Grayson: That's right. I think that in a way, I know that I feel like I've become a survivor. If you've lived through an alcoholic home the way we have, you are a survivor.
Dr. Dobson: One of your parents was an alcoholic?
Dr. Curt Grayson: Both of my parents were alcoholics and I can really relate with Joe because at the age of about five, maybe six, when my mom and my stepfather would fight, they were both alcoholic, I would stand in the middle of them, this little teeny kid, trying to push them apart and as soon as they would hit each other and go to their separate corners I would go and do about an hour's worth of counseling with my mother at age five.
Dr. Dobson: You're kidding. Saying what to her, Curt?
Dr. Curt Grayson: What can a five year old say other than, "Mom, I'm sorry it happened. I'm sorry I couldn't stop it. I couldn't stop him this time." I felt like at that age I should have been the one to stop it.
Dr. Dobson: Can you remember how you felt?
Dr. Curt Grayson: Certainly, I felt confused. Certainly I felt panicked. I remember that. I lost a lot of my memory as Joe said, but the things that I do remember are some of the most traumatic things, and as I've started to deal with my recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic many memories have come back. Not memories that I've wanted to come back, but I've been able to get a feeling for the healing as I've gone through that. Especially to me, I remember the feeling of comforting my mother, comforting my stepfather, saying, "It's okay. I wish you wouldn't fight but I understand that you did and I'm sorry it's my fault."
Dr. Dobson: Several of you have already made reference to the fact that you couldn't remember a lot about your childhood, at least until you began to recover from some of those experiences. My wife Shirley went through the same thing. I mentioned to you all in my office a minute ago that Shirley and I went together day and night for a year before I knew that this was her childhood. Something so significant to her past, she could not tell me even though we were very close and obviously heading toward marriage. She could not reveal it to me. I remember one night we were sitting out talking together and she said, "There's something I have to tell you." I thought, my goodness, what in the world? It was this big, heavy thing. Then she told me about her childhood as though somehow this was a dark blot, a secret, some kind of something that would make me not love her anymore. It didn't have anything to do with my love for her. This is something her father perpetrated, and yet she saw it as a great handicap, a great blot on her worthiness and that's rather typical, isn't it?
Dr. Curt Grayson: Of course.
Dr. Dobson: Do you all feel that way? Feel somehow depreciated in value because of what you had gone through?
Chris: I think it's the shame of having a parent as an alcoholic. I also think as a child feeling responsible. I know there are many, many times I thought, "if I could just do this, then daddy wouldn't drink so much." One specific incident was I was in the fourth grade and my first marking period I happened to get straight A's and I thought my father's drinking was a little less, so I decided if I went through the whole fourth grade with straight A's, maybe by the end of fourth grade he'd stop drinking. I got all those straight A's. He didn't stop drinking. It got worse. But it's that feeling of being responsible and if I could find the magic key to make everything okay, it'll be okay.
Dr. Dobson: You're nodding, Curt. Is that familiar territory?
Dr. Curt Grayson: Well I took it the other way. Instead of being a good kid, I caused problems in school. I decided my goal in life was to get D's and F's in second and third grade, and I proved to my family, that was about the time that my parents were going through a divorce and my mother actually married my stepfather and then the drinking got a lot worse and I remember trying hard to get D's and F's and not knowing why I was doing it.
Dr. Dobson: Is it clear to you now?
Dr. Curt Grayson: I think I understand a little better that I was basically asking for a cry for help. I was saying, "Mom and Dad, I'm unhappy. I don't like what's going on and I'm going to show you that I need to get noticed."
Ann: Earlier you talked about seeking out those same kind of personalities in future relationships, such as if we don't become alcoholics ourselves we tend to marry those and get into relationships.
Dr. Dobson: And you did, didn't you?
Ann: I did that. What I've learned in recovery is that subconsciously we seek out to recreate the situation that we lived with as a child in trying to fix it. You want to go back and relive it and make it all better, make it right. There's that responsibility again as that child, trying to take and fix it all for everyone.
Dr. Dobson: Summarize the feelings for me. It's feeling rejected, unloved, unlovable.
Dr. Dobson: Lonely? Is that [crosstalk 00:16:39] one of the common characteristics?
Dr. Dobson: [crosstalk 00:16:43].
Chris: It's feeling as if there was something I could do. There's a magic answer. There's something, if I could find that then mommy and daddy will be better. I also think that a big feeling with me was confusion because I had good daddy and bad daddy. I would have daddy who would be so drunk that I believe that he was in a blackout and he would do atrocious things to me, to my mom, to my siblings. Then on another day he would make us the most fantastic kites, better than you could buy in any store, and he'd teach us how to build rubber band guns. I mean, he would be this wonderful, I have wonderful memories of my father. That as a kid you want to hold on to and you tend to deny the other. The other happens, but what do you do with that? At any moment is it good daddy or bad daddy? Who's going to come into my room? It's really confusing.
Dr. Dobson: Ann, what was your childhood like? We haven't heard the details of that yet.
Ann: As Joe mentioned earlier, I don't recall a lot of things in my childhood. I think that having been married to an alcoholic I've mostly dealt with the issues today and I'm just now getting into the ACA and dealing with some of the childhood issues that I know are there and that I need to work on.
I do have a memory that I think will help people understand a little, about Christmas. In therapy several years ago I found myself doing a lot of crying. Waking up in the morning in tears and not knowing why I was crying. As the therapist began to ask me to look into my childhood and remember what Christmas was like at my house as a child, all the pain came back. The pain that I had stuffed down and never looked at and never thought about all came out, and what it was like was I was an only child. My father was the alcoholic in my home, and what he did was he would go to a bar and not come home until very, very late in the morning. 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Christmas, he never bought my mother or myself a Christmas present in all of our life. There were two years that he did go on the wagon, so to speak, he became sober, and he did remember Christmas for us. I remember him purchasing a gift for me, which I still have to this day.
Dr. Dobson: Those two Christmases are the memories that you hold onto?
Ann: The highlights of Christmas for me. The other ones were, mother and I were alone. Our relatives are in the East Coast, so mother and I were alone and mother tried to make Christmas something special for me, but I would wake up early in the morning and I would go and waken my mother and it would be mother and I and we would open the few little gifts we had and then the rest of the day was just like any other day of the year. There was no family. There was no fun. There was no laughter. There was no joy. There was no meal shared. Dad was drunk in bed, passed out cold. He didn't even know Christmas existed.
Dr. Dobson: Is it similarly for the others [crosstalk 00:19:52]?
Dr. Curt Grayson: During Christmas for me it was more Christmas Eve, our whole family would go to a friend's house and we'd have a Christmas Eve celebration and usually by about 10:00 or 11:00 at night, and the kids were up until 1:00 in the morning because the parents were too drunk to take us home. They would be passed out on the couch drunkenly singing Christmas carols. I still get that feeling Christmas Eve of just being very nervous and having it be no connection with Christ, having it be a painful memory.
Joe: Yeah I can remember when Christmas Eve, that vision that came to me is myself and my three sisters, we lived back east, it was snowing usually at Christmas time, and we'd be looking out the window looking for the car coming up the road. My parents were usually out drinking. They usually got home real late on Christmas Eve and my older sister and I, we decorated the tree for my little sister. We became the parents. We had our own little Christmas. It just never was quite there. We always yearned to have a nice Christmas, and occasionally we did have a nice Christmas, which was real nice because my parents weren't bad people. Don't get me wrong. They were good people, but they were sick.
Chris: One of the things that I was thinking of, and I did not realize this until I was an adult, Christmas morning it was like my father was there but he really wasn't there because he was so sick with a hangover. I didn't realize until I was an adult that not everyone left a bottle of bourbon and cookies for Santa Claus.
Dr. Curt Grayson: Absolutely.
Chris: That brings in how the family feeds into it.
Dr. Dobson: Yeah. In fact, the things I read about this problem, one of the characteristics is that the children of alcoholic parents don't know what normal is.
Chris: That's right.
Dr. Dobson: Because they haven't seen it, so they think what they experienced is normal, which explains why they perpetuate it in their own families later on.
Chris: Yeah. Later then as an adult, at least for me, there is a real sorrow of the loss of a family. I feel family-less. I feel orphaned because I did not have that normalcy. I did not have that closeness.
Dr. Dobson: Today you feel that way?
Chris: Yes I do.
Joe: Most of the stuff is unconscious too. I didn't realize that all of this had happened. My unconscious I guess realized it because I was acting out all over the place and I eventually became an alcoholic, which I see as a response to some of this, but it wasn't like I woke up at 21 years old and said, "Hey, let's have a messed up life." It wasn't like that. I just kept struggling.
Dr. Dobson: I would like to just continue talking and recording what we have to say and then we'll air it tomorrow or the next day and get on with a little more of the detail. Can we do that? Just continue here?
Dr. Curt Grayson: Absolutely.
Dr. Dobson: As kind of a wrap for this first program, Curt, I want to go back to something you said just before we went on the air, that when you start talking about this subject the people who are hearing it, the listeners who have been there are predictably going to feel certain things. We have an obligation to speak to those. We're not only informing those today who don't know anything about this subject, but we're talking to those who are experiencing it now or have been through it as a child. What are they likely to have felt in this last half hour?
Dr. Curt Grayson: I think if it's like me, if you stuffed your feelings for a long time and never admitted that the events that took place in the home were that tragic or you've kept all of the bad feelings away, people that I know that come to our support group every week often within five minutes of talking, we begin to see tears and we begin to see people who begin to get in touch with what happened to them. Often times things shut out for many, many, many years and so I would like to say to the listeners, if you are feeling some pain or feeling some depression or some things that you're remembering in your life, it's very normal. As a matter of fact, it's healthy and part of recovery, is to begin to get in touch with these feelings and that's part of why we're here today.
Dr. Dobson: Well Curt, Ann, Chris and Joe, thanks for participating today and stay right where you are. We'll just continue talking.
Roger Marsh: A compelling message to conclude this somber Family Talk broadcast. I hope that you can appreciate the bravery of our guests who have so openly shared their stories. As you've just heard, they're still dealing with the painful effects that alcoholism has had on their families. Now there's still a great deal to discuss on this subject, so be sure to join us again over the next couple of days.
In the meantime, be sure to visit our broadcast page at DrJamesDobson.org. Once you're there you'll find a resource recommendation for you that fits in perfectly with this interview. It's called The Healing Journey for Adult Children of Alcoholics by Daryl Quick. This is a helpful tool to start the healing process if alcoholism has caused pain in your family. Again, you can find that resource by going to DrJamesDobson.org and then tapping onto today's broadcast page.
Well thanks so much for joining with us here today. Be sure to tune in again next time as we continue this discussion about adult children of alcoholics. That's coming up on the next edition of Dr. James Dobson's Family Talk. I'm Roger Marsh. God bless, and we hope you'll join us then.
Announcer: This has been a presentation of Dr. James Dobson Family Institute.
Roger Marsh: Hey everyone, Roger Marsh here. When you think about your family and where they will be when you're no longer living, are you worried? Are you confident? Are you hopeful? What kind of legacy are you leaving for your children and their children? Here at Family Talk we're committed to helping you understand the legacy that you're leaving for your family. Join us today at DrJamesDobson.org for helpful insights, tips and advice from Dr. James Dobson himself and remember, your legacy matters.