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8 Crucial Lessons You Can Learn From an Alcoholic Parent

8 Crucial Lessons You Can Learn From an Alcoholic Parent

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

The ability to break down weighty emotional experiences and vital life lessons into smaller, recognizable bits is a job that poets do well. Many people who have had difficult childhoods, as Oliver did, know how empowering it can be to turn our past experiences upside down and inside out so that we can view them from a different angle. Adjusting our perspective can help us let go of anger, which is toxic when we hold on to it for too long.

Being raised in an unhealthy environment, surrounded by alcoholism or substance abuse, can turn us into fearful and untrusting adults, or people who think of themselves as damaged. Well sure, we are all damaged, if not by addiction, then by some byproduct of it along the way—but not broken. If all you have is this one wild and precious life, do you want to waste it being torn apart by the past? This is not to say that you can just shake off the damage of addiction. It’s not that easy. Young children are especially vulnerable to having their developing sense of self disfigured, and those of us who’ve been through the healing process know that it can take years of hard work to undo.

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In your one life you can’t go back and rewrite your childhood, but you can look at what some of the distressing stuff has taught you. You could look at your unfortunate “role model” as a teacher of how things shouldn’t go. You can decide not to be envious of people who have had “easy” childhoods, and to think of yourself as stronger and wiser for having pulled through. You’ve been offered the chance to see the world differently. These are eight things that growing up with an alcoholic taught me about being a parent and a human being.

1. You don’t get another chance to be a parent

Addicts and alcoholics, just like everyone, get one life, and there is no do-over option for parents. That two, three, or five-year drinking or substance problem may have been just an unfortunate blip in your adult life – but those years were monumental and formative for your child. While you were numbing out, your child probably missed out on a lot from you, and went through some important, personality-shaping experiences. Guess what, you missed out on those. While you were snappy, explosive, and easily pushed over the edge because of you addiction, your child was ingesting all of your behavior, learning from it.

2. Disappearing into addiction robs everyone of the chance to know you—and help you

Addicts and alcoholics are people who can’t deal with their mental or emotional pain or stress, and they self-medicate with substance abuse. They also excuse themselves from being fully present in their lives. Their loved ones get to experience a different version of them: the angry, depressed, violent, emotionally checked-out, or entirely absent version. This means your kids don’t get to know who you really are as a parent. They only know the cantankerous you, or the passed-out you. Or worse, they see you go back and forth constantly and don’t know who you are. Are you an honest, reliable person or an unstable person who says or does regrettable, unhealthy things? If you hide your substance abuse problem from your loved ones, they never get a chance to help you with it, and you miss out on the chance to have a deeper connection with them. We all have weaknesses, so what good does it do to pretend that you don’t?

3. Children of alcoholics don’t learn how to deal with their emotions

One of the most important jobs of being a parent is teaching your child how to deal with their emotions, many of which can be overwhelming. You don’t teach them by slapping them or punishing them for having emotional reactions (would you slap yourself every time you reacted strongly to something?), but by helping them understand why they feel hurt, afraid or angry and how to transform those feelings. You teach them these things because you want them to be well-adjusted adults who can handle all the trials and tribulations of life.

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A mopey or an angry drunk or a numbed-out and high parent isn’t teaching their kids anything more than “Look, this is what mommy and daddy do when they can’t handle their feelings.” They teach them that when life isn’t going the way they want it to, or when they are in a bad relationship, grown-ups “fix it” by having six beers or four glasses of wine.

4. Depression is most likely the real problem

Behind addiction and alcoholism is, more often than not, untreated depression. Some people find it easier to drink or use than to face their depression. Others don’t even realize that depression is the real issue, and spend 20 years battling addiction instead working on their mental health. They just prefer feeling “nothing” to feeling “too much.” Alcohol temporarily dulls the effects of stress hormones, making you feel better for a couple of hours. But once the substance wears off, you’re back—not to one, but zero. This is because alcohol has been found to lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels, which means you feel worse than before. Chronic alcohol consumption can reduce available dopamine, which can increase impulsivity and intensify suicidal feelings. How’s that for fixing things?

Having an alcoholic parent made it painfully obvious to me that something deeper must have been going on to compel a person to drink too much. It forced me to learn more about depression, which was important because it is often hereditary. Once depression is identified, it is treatable and manageable. There are many resourcessupport groups, and people who struggle with addiction and depression who can help you get on a healthier path.

5. Drinking won’t make your anger, shame, regret or fear disappear

Alcoholics and addicts convince themselves that their fear, anger or stress is being muted while they drink or use. Perhaps the volume on their emotions is turned down a bit, but that response is like telling the yelling guy to scream quietly instead of asking him to sit down and have a rational, honest discussion about what’s bothering him. The truth is, feelings don’t go away when you drink, they just get pushed down, which means they’re going to resurface eventually, or get funneled into something else. Watching an alcoholic or addict fool themselves with their disappearing act is frustrating, but it also teaches you a bigger truth. Sooner or later we all have to face our underlying issues—anger, fear, shame or low self-regard—no matter how carefully we thought we’d packed them away.

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    6. Having your life cut short by addiction means not knowing your grandchildren (or children)

    Not only do you rob yourself of the chance to have real, sober relationships with the people you love, your addiction may rob you of a full life. Addiction changes the brain, making it harder for you to stop once you’ve given into it. Your life can be shortened by 10 or 20 years because of your addiction, which is compromising or destroying your health. Liver disease, diabetes, digestive problems, heart problems, increased risk of cancer, neurological problems and a weakened immune system are often the result of excessive drinking. These are serious health conditions that may mean you will not live long enough to see your children get married, or know your grandchildren, or to see things in the world change the way you want them to. You’re gone (literally or figuratively), and out of your pain, but what about those little ones who never got the chance to meet you or learn anything from you? They might well have been the light of your life.

    7. It can take several—or many—generations to heal the damage

    Parents who are alcoholics or addicts pass on many things to their children. Among those are unhealthy ways of relating to others, poor problem-solving skills, low self-esteem, the practice of denial, poor anger or emotional management skills, and possibly the genetic markers for addiction and depression. If you were raised by an alcoholic, you may have missed out on healthy parenting practices. This gap will become more obvious when you step into the challenging job of being a parent. Many children of alcoholics follow in their addict parents’ footsteps, seeing the problem as a family thing they have a handle on, though they may not. There can be several generations of life-wrecking habits held in place by denial before things get better and the adult kids are able to repair the psychological, spiritual or physical damage. Mariel Hemingway’s family story is a perfect illustration of that.

    Even those who heal from the experience and decide to do everything “the right way” may find themselves looking through the holes of their past and seeing how many problems or unfortunate experiences could have been avoided. Self-esteem takes a long time to grow back. Kids who grow up with a damaged or false sense of self may not ever recognize or understand what’s underneath their pain.

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    8. Think beyond yourself

    In that same poem by Mary Oliver she writes, “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” That line reminds me, just like having an alcoholic parent taught me, that there are things we should do with our one wild and precious life. We should be fully present in it, treat others with compassion and kindness, and care for and respect ourselves and our bodies so that we can imprint those qualities on our kids, and their future.

    If you suffer, or someone you know suffers from addiction – try visiting the American National Institute on Drug Abuse or contacting your local health authorities

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash, Leon Ephraim via ununsplash.imgix.net

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    Last Updated on December 2, 2018

    7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

    7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

    When giving a presentation or speech, you have to engage your audience effectively in order to truly get your point across. Unlike a written editorial or newsletter, your speech is fleeting; once you’ve said everything you set out to say, you don’t get a second chance to have your voice heard in that specific arena.

    You need to make sure your audience hangs on to every word you say, from your introduction to your wrap-up. You can do so by:

    1. Connecting them with each other

    Picture your typical rock concert. What’s the first thing the singer says to the crowd after jumping out on stage? “Hello (insert city name here)!” Just acknowledging that he’s coherent enough to know where he is is enough for the audience to go wild and get into the show.

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    It makes each individual feel as if they’re a part of something bigger. The same goes for any public speaking event. When an audience hears, “You’re all here because you care deeply about wildlife preservation,” it gives them a sense that they’re not just there to listen, but they’re there to connect with the like-minded people all around them.

    2. Connect with their emotions

    Speakers always try to get their audience emotionally involved in whatever topic they’re discussing. There are a variety of ways in which to do this, such as using statistics, stories, pictures or videos that really show the importance of the topic at hand.

    For example, showing pictures of the aftermath of an accident related to drunk driving will certainly send a specific message to an audience of teenagers and young adults. While doing so might be emotionally nerve-racking to the crowd, it may be necessary to get your point across and engage them fully.

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    3. Keep going back to the beginning

    Revisit your theme throughout your presentation. Although you should give your audience the credit they deserve and know that they can follow along, linking back to your initial thesis can act as a subconscious reminder of why what you’re currently telling them is important.

    On the other hand, if you simply mention your theme or the point of your speech at the beginning and never mention it again, it gives your audience the impression that it’s not really that important.

    4. Link to your audience’s motivation

    After you’ve acknowledged your audience’s common interests in being present, discuss their motivation for being there. Be specific. Using the previous example, if your audience clearly cares about wildlife preservation, discuss what can be done to help save endangered species’ from extinction.

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    Don’t just give them cold, hard facts; use the facts to make a point that they can use to better themselves or the world in some way.

    5. Entertain them

    While not all speeches or presentations are meant to be entertaining in a comedic way, audiences will become thoroughly engaged in anecdotes that relate to the overall theme of the speech. We discussed appealing to emotions, and that’s exactly what a speaker sets out to do when he tells a story from his past or that of a well-known historical figure.

    Speakers usually tell more than one story in order to show that the first one they told isn’t simply an anomaly, and that whatever outcome they’re attempting to prove will consistently reoccur, given certain circumstances.

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    6. Appeal to loyalty

    Just like the musician mentioning the town he’s playing in will get the audience ready to rock, speakers need to appeal to their audience’s loyalty to their country, company, product or cause. Show them how important it is that they’re present and listening to your speech by making your words hit home to each individual.

    In doing so, the members of your audience will feel as if you’re speaking directly to them while you’re addressing the entire crowd.

    7. Tell them the benefits of the presentation

    Early on in your presentation, you should tell your audience exactly what they’ll learn, and exactly how they’ll learn it. Don’t expect them to listen if they don’t have clear-cut information to listen for. On the other hand, if they know what to listen for, they’ll be more apt to stay engaged throughout your entire presentation so they don’t miss anything.

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