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What Adulthood Is Like After Growing Up With an Alcoholic Parent

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Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

My brother and I are ACOAs: Adult Children of Alcoholics.

I carry that label like a badge of honor as I am not ashamed, and I can’t change it. That knowledge, that acceptance, that truth, serves me well and has led to the healthy place I am today. Many things have happened to me in my life, but nothing affected me more than this fact. Nothing.

I love my brother. Unconditionally. Forever. There is nothing he could ever do to change that.

Although my love for him was tested time and time again through appointments with doctors, therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, 911 calls, suicide attempts, lies, debt and destruction. My brother — a sweet, kind, soft-spoken, magnificent man — due to the progression of his substance use disorder, eventually did things few could fathom and I was along for the ride. It was like I got on my first roller coaster at a carnival and I was not quite sure what I was in for. It was full of twists and turns. I felt sick, scared — I was holding on for dear life and I just wanted it to stop.

And it didn’t stop, for 12 years.

No one taught me how to be a sister; I just became one. I entered the world in a particular birth order I didn’t choose, but it defined the role I took on in this world. My brother would become an alcoholic and I the sister of an alcoholic. It is a job that came with a lifetime contract but sadly, no one gave me the skills to complete the assignment.

Once upon a time, over 40 years ago, we were an average, everyday, “normal” family. A beautiful nurse mom. An oldest sister (me) who loved her family very much. A little boy, four years younger, with a round face and a huge heart. And a baby girl, one year old with big piercing blue eyes, white blond hair and still the most beautiful baby girl I have ever seen. And a Daddy who drank too much.

I was affected in different ways by different people. My dad’s drinking and the things I witnessed would change who I would be forever.

My daddy wouldn’t pick us kids up from the babysitters when it was closed because he was with his friends at the bar. Which in turn, left a 2-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister feeling abandoned, forced to snuggle close together on the couch watching “Sonny and Cher” until the little boy’s eyelids were too heavy to stay open. And our mommy would come and get us late in the night after she finished her job at the hospital.

I didn’t know that not all daddies kissed other women. I didn’t know that not all daddies come home drunk every Friday night, yelling at mommy, crying, screaming and fighting. I didn’t know that not all 9-year-old sisters would crawl down from the bunkbed above beside the brother they love, to rub his short brown hair and whisper a lie in his ear, “It’s alright, everything is going to be alright” just so he would stop crying. I didn’t know that not all big sisters would have to find a coat in the middle of the night because we were leaving daddy. She led her frightened and wailing little brother out the front door, their Daddy stumbled in hot pursuit while mommy and the children sped away in mommy’s car.

These experiences would make me strong, stoic, confident and able to take on the world. I know these things seem like great attributes to have, and certainly they have afforded me the ability to withstand and come out flourishing, happy and healthy from many hardships in my life. But at times I am a little too rigid, inflexible, trying to always do what is right — as I was always so damn scared that my life would turn out the wrong way.

I believe my little brother, although too young to remember those early childhood events, was also affected, but in a different way. He began to drink too much and struggle, but I didn’t realize at the time this would lead to his alcohol abuse. I remained silent, I didn’t want to hurt or embarrass my parents.

It is 2018. We continue to progress in our knowledge and knowing more now about some of the causes of addiction and mental illness. I believe my brother had lasting repercussions from how he “felt” about those Friday nights when our dad would come home drunk. And why he grew up to be scared, fearful, lacking in confidence and struggling with anxiety.

In early adulthood, I worked hard to redefine my interpretation of “normal.” I loved my parents, but I was going to do things differently. Better. My husband and I chose to have a sober home, to give our children a different life so that who or what they would become would not be based on alcohol. So, I have no excuses for my choices — I am not making one. During my journey with my brother, I knew I was hurting my own family. I knew I was allowing my children to witness things that were unhealthy and could have an impact on who they would become. My own sons witnessed things, which from my perspective, were so much worse than I ever lived through as a child. I remember the hurt and heartbreak in my husband’s eyes when, after years of the struggles to help my brother, my husband asked me, “If it was me, would you have divorced me by now?”

I didn’t reply. But the silence was deafening. The answer was yes.

Addicts aren’t the only ones who feel ashamed, lost, broken, sick, tired and alone. They aren’t the only one’s who have regrets, are sorry and seek forgiveness.

My brother’s addiction took over my life. I sacrificed my health, my career, my own children and my marriage. My brother was not in any way responsible for that — I was. Every minute of every day, I was consumed by the same thought ringing loudly in my ear. “Someone I love is going to die.” And that thought propelled me in the wrong direction, fed my head and my heart false information. Just like my parents, although unintentionally, fed me false information when I was just a little girl.

My brother is etched deep in my soul. It took years of therapy and healing to come to terms with the most powerful truth I have to live with. Why did I sacrifice the well-being of my own two young sons for that of my brother? I loved him like he was my own son. That is what else I took away from my childhood. I became the caregiver. The nurturer. The people-pleaser. The one whose needs came last. The one everyone looked to for help. The one that could never say “no” to the ones she loved.

Being a ACOA affects all of us in different ways. This started so long before my brother’s addiction.

If I could rewind, I would do things differently. Much differently. I would still be there for my brother, but I would get help for myself first. I would not follow my heart, but I would listen to the advice of the professionals, those who know so much more than I. I would stand beside my brother, not do the work for him. I would set a healthy boundary — what is best for me and my family, but also what is best for him. I would say “no” when required and not feel guilty for it. Sometimes “no” is the greatest gift you can give your loved one, and yourself.

Above all, I would have found my voice long ago and accepted the truth of not only myself, but my whole family. Things may have turned out much differently. For me. And for my brother.

But I can’t rewind — life is about moving forward.

My brother lost his brave battle with alcohol addiction and mental illness on March 18, 2012.

I didn’t know that early childhood trauma and/or sexual abuse can cause anxiety, depression, more severe mental health issues, alcohol, drug addiction and even suicidal ideation later in life.

I didn’t know many things — after all, we aren’t supposed to talk about these things that happen behind closed doors. But when we don’t talk, it keeps families hiding, our loved ones sick and a continued cycle generation after generation.

I love my brother. Forever. Unconditionally. Nothing he could ever do could change that, even though we grew to have a very different interpretations of “normal.”

Jodee Prouse is a sister, wife, mom, friend and outspoken advocate to help families come together during their journey through addiction. She is the owner of Buff Bomb Bar, a bath and body company, which supports mental illness and the author of the powerful memoir, “The Sun is Gone: A Sister Lost in Secrets, Shame, and Addiction, and How I Broke Free.” 

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Unsplash photo via Olaia Irigoien

Originally published: March 26, 2018
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