Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'Our Mother's Drinking Was Wrecking Us'

Times Online
Children of alcoholics can escape the emotional chaos at home with the right support. Here, three young people explain how their lives have been changed

Katelin doesn’t say a lot but what she does volunteer is pin-sharp. What’s her dad like? “Nice. Hard to trust.” Why does she think he drinks? “ ’Cos he’s lonely. To take his problems away.” She’s just done her nails and can’t stop looking at them. To be fair, when you’re 15, shy and don’t know how pretty you are, that is infinitely easier than confronting painful questions.

Fortunately Katelin lives in Sheffield, one of the few British cities where specialist support is available to the children of alcoholics. If your parents are drug users you have a reasonable chance of finding support because the association between drugs and crime means that drug dependency attracts funding. If your parent’s dependency is alcohol, help is harder to find. While the Government focuses attention on binge drinking by proposing to ban pub and club promotions, the forgotten victims of alcohol misuse are the 1.3 million children whose parents depend on it.

When Katelin’s mum died five years ago, Katelin’s instinct was to stay with her father, but it was tough as he sometimes left her on her own. She is happier now that she is settled in foster care. Two years ago a family worker referred her to SHED, the support service for the children of alcoholics, run for ten years by Turning Point in Sheffield. Since then she has learnt to speak about her feelings and, an even bigger shift, to accept that she isn’t responsible for her dad. She has stopped skipping lessons at school, is making progress, and has become a mentor there. “I like it when people talk about me in a good way,” she says. “I like SHED because it’s given me someone to talk to.”

SHED’s main tool is one-on-one counselling, which may not sound revolutionary but which can be transforming for isolated children such as Katelin, and for others such as Sam, whose life was chaotic until, remarkably, at the age of 10, he wrote to his headteacher saying that his family needed help. As a result, Sam and his older sister, Cheryl, were introduced to SHED.

Sam is now 13, confident, funny and highly practical, though when he talks about his mum his poise falters. “My mum drinks,” he says. “It was wrecking everyone’s life. Didn’t know what was happening. Didn’t know what you were coming home to. Nobody knew what anyone else was doing, there was no communication.

“ I didn’t have friends, didn’t want to have people back at my house, didn’t go to their houses. Had to keep an eye out for my mum. See she didn’t drive. But she did lose her licence. We were really, really hungry and she was going to get food. Five minutes later my dad would have been home. I don’t know, she was always breaking promises.”

How did that make you feel? He looks away, drops his voice because he likes to be loyal to his mum: “Rubbish, that we were both rubbish.”

Sam no longer feels quite so rubbish now that his parents have separated and he lives with his dad and sister. “Everyone’s calm and relaxed, there’s not that raw feeling in the air,” he explains. “You walk into the house, no one snaps, ‘What do you want for tea?’. It’s said in a nicer way: ‘Have a look and see what you’d like.’ There’s more routine. In the past I didn’t want to go to school because I wanted to look after my mum. Now I want to get to school, there’s nothing holding me back.”

The key breakthrough has been the understanding that his mum’s choices about the way she lives are her own, that she is not Sam’s responsibility. This is a major step for a 13-year-old and one that many adults struggle to make when they live with an alcoholic, says his support worker at SHED, Imogen Powell.

“We try to get children to understand what’s happening in their family without them being drawn into it, or hating their parent,” she says. “Without this kind of intervention it can take 10 or 20 years for someone to learn this.”

Sam is an instinctive problem-solver who pours his energy into a church youth group where he designs the website and leaflets. He has also been looking at setting up a youth peer-mentoring scheme.

“It’s all well and good talking to Imogen but sometimes it might be better talking to someone my own age. I’ve been through it, now I can help someone else to get through it. This kind of youth provision wouldn’t cost a lot but there isn’t the money for it.”

At 17, Sam’s older sister, Cheryl, is also mature for her age. She was 11 when her mum’s drinking got out of control after the collapse of a business she ran. “I became accustomed to the arguing,” she says. “It became normal and that was strange because it was like she wasn’t my mum.

“I’ve had to grow up quickly, look after my brother, make sure it didn’t affect my school life. I pushed myself and probably pushed Sam more than I should have. I became the mother doing the cleaning, the cooking. I didn’t want people to know what was happening and I became ashamed. Mum was a smart, nice woman, now she can be violent, prone to being nasty.”

Cheryl says that going to SHED helped her to get away from what was happening. “I wouldn’t have opened up otherwise, but knowing there was someone who would listen to me released everything so that I didn’t feel under so much pressure at home. That made me more confident.

“Having to be a mum at 15 to your brother, who doesn’t want you to be his mum, he wants his mum, is hard and stressful. But you can’t take out your frustrations in front of him. That wouldn’t be fair and would make him feel even worse. Through the one-to-one support I learnt how I could get away from the situation if it escalated. Then, when I talked within a group of other young people, I realised it’s not just me on my own. I made friends here.”

Sam and Cheryl want to use their experiences to help others, Sam as a youth worker, Cheryl as a drugs and alcohol counsellor, and she is already working as a support worker in a day centre.

“Mum has good days and bad days but she isn’t my problem any more,” says Cheryl. “I’m proud of dad for putting us before his marriage and it means we’re in a stable home. It’s upsetting to think that mum puts drinking before Sam and me. Doesn’t mean I don’t love her, I do. I can’t make her change, she has to do it for herself.”

SHED sees between 50 and 70 young people a year and is familiar with the themes: social isolation, conflict, violence, neglect, parental separation, financial problems and children taking on parental responsibility. There is also plenty of literature that suggests that the children of alcoholics are likely to have problems with alcohol themselves. But thinking is changing on this as researchers become aware of children such as Sam and Cheryl, who react to their circumstances with extraordinary resilience.

Lorna Templeton is research manager at the Mental Health Research and Development Unit in Bath and has evaluated some of Turning Point’s work. She is also the co-author of a 2007 study on the impact of parental substance abuse on children. “Services like SHED and Alcoholics Anonymous allow these children to be heard, and to understand that the problems aren’t their fault. That’s vital,” she says. Historically, services to support children have focused on intervention to reduce the risk of neglect or abuse. Lorna values Turning Point’s work because it helps to build resilience.

“We need to know more about the protective factors that help some children to come out of this situation with such strength,” she says. “Some children come through this on their own because they have the determination not to be like their parents, some are lucky to have a supportive parent. There is growing evidence that if a supportive, consistent adult is present, whether a parent, a SHED worker or a teacher, then the risks the child faces are more likely to diminish.

“Early intervention is essential and the key is to focus on the needs and circumstances of each child rather than soley on the parent’s problems.”

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