It was late in the evening — the light from the television screen dimly enveloped the plain, desolate living room — and the sound of Bill Cosby’s “Kids Say The Darndest Things” was muffled beneath the profanities and hatred coming from behind a door, the next room over. Crouched in the corner of the living room, wrapped in her “blankie,” a little girl awaited the ending of a screaming match that began over a grocery trip gone wrong.
Filled with anxiety and fear, her golden hair covered the tears streaming down her tiny, flushed face. If only for a split second, quiet would flood the air — and just as quickly as it came, it was shattered by the sound of her mother’s yellow hairdryer crashing into the wall. The girl had always despised that hairdryer, and she was glad to later learn it had broken. The mother often forced her daughter’s fine, wispy hair into a perfect hairdo with the help of the hot, yellow hairdryer. Often, the little girl would cry from the pulling, tugging and manipulating of her golden strands; much like she would cry from the pulling, tugging and manipulating of her parents’ emotional and physical war. If she complained about having her hair done, her mother would whack her head with the heavy, wooden hairbrush.
But she never complained about the screaming, unusual sleep habits, the absence of her parents when she needed them most and the emotional toll it took on her little mind. Uncertain of what would happen if she did complain, she never said a word. Both of her parents used methamphetamine to feed their daily addictions. She knew that something in this routine was not normal; but she remained puzzled by the cause of her parent’s behavior. She was only four years old.
As the young girl grew, her life began to change. She was only five years old when her parents finally decided to split up. Usually this would leave a young child confused and hurting, but she never felt that her family had unfairly been torn apart. For things to be torn apart, they would have needed to begin together.
Shortly after the split, her father obtained full custody of his daughter. Her mother disappeared, consumed with her own habits and lifestyle. Her dad became her entire world; they spent every day together. In the early morning, before he went to work, they would sit side-by-side and eat a bowl of Wheaties together. After a long day, they would watch episodes of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” together. He would tuck her into bed, often chase her around the house playing tickle monster and remind her he cared.
Things finally seemed better; he was always there, and he made sure she was fed, clothed and happy. Some nights, she’d wake up and he wouldn’t be home and she would stay up until he returned. Other nights, she’d sleep on his friend’s couch as the grownups played darts and drank until dawn. But he never failed to make her feel safe and loved. Many picture-day photos displayed her 80s’-esque side ponytail held up by a bright pink scrunchie and her cheesy, toothless smile. To her, the side ponytail was the best hairstyle in the whole wide world; she was clueless that her father wanted the ponytail straight but he could never manage to get it just right. To her, anything beat the emotional turmoil that the yellow hairdryer brought.
During the next few years, she spent a lot of her time with her paternal grandmother, also known as Granny. Granny would play make-believe, tell bedtime stories and taught her how to read at a fifth grade level, when she was only in second grade at the time. It was a time for her to be what she was — a little girl with dreams of riding a pony, growing up to be a vampire slayer and writing her own stories about a detective who found toys for children who lost track of their own. One afternoon, Granny asked the seven-year-old a seemingly simple question, “How would you feel about living with Granny for awhile?” Bursting with excitement and curiosity, she replied, “Yes! Daddy and I could live with you!” Quickly, she learned that daddy wouldn’t be coming along.
The excitement and curiosity faded behind her grief, sadness and discomfort. On January 22, 2003, her father went into a rehab facility and she spent the next year living with Granny, an alternative to living in a foster care home. This was not the first time that her parents’ addictions had affected her. However, it was the first time that her father’s addiction and choice to receive treatment radically changed her.
Addiction affects everyone involved: the addict themselves, family, friends and acquaintances. Above all, the children of the addict are often impacted more so than anyone else. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 12 percent of children under the age of 18 live with at least one parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. SAMHSA also reports that they are more likely to be neglected, to develop feelings of emotional disturbance, illness and develop their own addiction into adulthood.
In an interview, Nicole Dionisia, a residential substance abuse counselor at Michael’s House in Palm Springs, Calif., described her work with addicts and children of addicts. She said that it is difficult to fully predict what effect a parent’s addiction and treatment will have on their children, however, it is clear that treatment is a step in the right direction for the parent.
“I would say most of our patients have at least one parent who is also an addict or alcoholic, which means that they have a genetic predisposition to becoming addicted to a substance, as well as being exposed to the lifestyle that comes along with it, however, that is not always what happens,” she said in an interview. “For anyone in this situation, either the addict or the child of an addict, I would always recommend getting help. Seeking treatment, counseling or other resources of help is the best thing to do.”
Dionisia said it seems unfair that children, who are often helpless in these situations, cannot receive the guidance and help they deserve. However, many are able to access help later in life through various organizations that provide services for them to understand and make peace with their past, present and future, she said. Dionisia said the children of addicts, regardless of age, will always carry remnants of their parents’ addiction with them; however, they have the power to change the way they perceive their circumstances and move forward in a healthy, positive way.
Addiction does not discriminate; it can take hold of anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, wealth or age. Therefore, each experience and circumstance of a child of an addict varies greatly. If you met Stephanie Adame, wife and mother of two in San Jacinto, Calif., you would never guess she comes from two addicted parents. Her story is one of vulnerability and strength.
“Growing up was very stressful; I hated my life as a child,” Adame said. “I felt forced to mature much quicker because my parents were hardly around. They were usually locked in their bedroom getting high.”
Adame recalled the day that her childhood home was raided by the sheriff’s department. Screaming and barking police dogs filled the house, striking fear into the five-year-old girl. The police took Adame’s parents away and she was sent to foster care. There, she learned about addiction and why her parents were not fit to take care of her. Today, Adame struggles with severe anxiety that stems from her experiences with her parent’s addictions. She still receives counseling services that she began at age 12. Five years ago, her father sought treatment and has been clean since.
“Now that I have children of my own, I have the perfect example of what not to be,” she said. “You have to be strong, take it day by day and push through in order to heal.”
In the beginning, I told the story of a little, golden-haired girl. Now, she is no longer a seven-year-old girl but a 21-year-old woman: I am that woman. Since my father, John Folk, sought recovery, he has been clean for 13 years. My father constantly shares his story and counsel with other addicts.
“Recovery has taught me to be honest with myself,” he said. “Bad, good or indifferent, I know that my decisions affect those around me.”
Personally, my father’s decision to seek treatment was life-changing, for both of us. I haven’t seen my mother in 10 years. Though she has sought treatment multiple times over the years, she’s never been fully clean and sober. Through her struggles, addiction is still an ever-present factor in my life, that never goes away completely. However, through counseling, I’ve managed to make peace with my situation. I have been fortunate, but some have not. Addiction is not simple. It is painful and often times, those affected by it do not know how to move forward.
Although many children of addicts feel isolated, we are never alone. The availability of encouraging, helpful resources is growing rapidly: the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), SAMHSA’s National Helpline and the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization (ACoA) are all national organizations to help provide support and resources to children of addicts who are already grown or are still a child. If you or someone you know is a child of an addict, encourage yourself or someone else to seek the help they deserve. It is my hope that another child of an addict will use the resources offered to receive help in moving forward.