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- April 18, 1988
- Vol. 29
- No. 15
Breaking the Silence
Children of Alcoholics Learn to Live with Themselves by Making Peace with the Past
There are far too many houses like Somers' in America and far too many children who, having grown up with an alcoholic parent or parents, lead disturbed lives long after they have moved into homes of their own. Today most people recognize that alcoholism, which strikes one out of 10 Americans, is a disease. What is only beginning to be understood are the devastating effects the illness can have on the estimated 28 million children of alcoholics. Deprived of love and stability, such kids are often taught to hide the problem—and take on aspects of the adult roles abdicated by the parent. Once grown, many suffer from low self-esteem, a need for approval, troubled relationships and a badly skewed sense of what constitutes normal behavior. Children of alcoholics are also 3½ times more likely than others to become alcoholics themselves.
The outlook is not unrelievedly bleak. There are now nearly 4,000 self-help groups for families of alcoholics, including the Children of Alcoholics Foundation, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and such well-known organizations as Al-Anon and Alateen, which help victims identify their problems and deal with the sense of shame they may still carry. For many of them, reopening the door to childhood is liberating, but it can also be agonizing. Their memories are not of cheery suppers with doting parents but of being dragged into bars; of a loving dad or mom who can turn into an emotional bully; of fights that may end in violence; and of constant dread that the family itself may suddenly come apart forever. On these pages PEOPLE presents the stories of four celebrities who have triumphed over such experiences—and of four children who are still living through them.
SUZANNE SOMERS: GROWING UP WAS AN EMOTIONAL BATTLEFIELD
For 35 years, Frank Mahoney was a drunk, and his daughter Suzanne Somers kept quiet about it. So did her mother, Marion, her sister, Maureen, and her two brothers, Danny and Michael. "In the '50s people kept their secrets and we kept ours," says Somers, 41, formerly of ABC's hit series Three's Company and now starring in the syndicated She's the Sheriff. Two years ago Somers obsessively began scribbling in a notebook her painful memories of growing up in a family dominated by an abusive alcoholic. The result is the recently published Keeping Secrets.
By the time I was born, my father, who conveniently worked in a brewery, was drunk almost every day. I'm sure he woke up hating himself for the little he remembered from the night before. So the first thing he'd do would be to have another drink so he wouldn't have to remember. Our family sickness, pretending nothing had happened, started then.
Early in his night's drinking, Dad would still be coherent and funny. He'd tell me I was darling, smart and wonderful. But then he'd cross that invisible line. Pretty soon he'd be calling all of us kids dummies and my mother a lousy housekeeper. Despite drinking almost every night, he always made it to work on time and brought home the paycheck. Weekends, when he didn't drink so much, he'd have the shakes, but he'd be outside tending the garden. Our love would be restored.
He wasn't violent, though he did throw a lot of dishes. My dad was a bully in the emotional sense. He would push at us until 2, 3 or 5 in the morning. One night, when I was 14, he drove me to a rage I didn't know I was capable of. He came into my room drunk and started ripping apart some pretty clothes my mother had made me. He wouldn't stop, so I picked up my tennis racket and rammed the wooden edge down on his head. He fell to the floor, and blood spurted out of his head. I thought I'd killed him. I kept screaming, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" After my mother took him to the hospital, I began cleaning up the blood. That's how I dealt with it, I erased it. I washed for hours, and when I had finished I went into my closet and fell asleep. I hid there almost every night to avoid my father's abusiveness.
In their teens, my brothers and my sister started drinking and eventually became alcoholics too. It's a mystery why I didn't start. But I was just as sick. I was so used to living in a crisis-oriented environment that after I left home, I began creating them. When I was 15, I met Bruce Somers, a college student. Two years later I got pregnant, and we married. It was a mistake. I didn't know how to get out of it, so I had an affair. That ended the marriage, but then I was left with a new set of crises, feeding and clothing a baby and keeping a roof over our heads. I decided to try modeling, including doing nude photos one time when I needed money for my son's medical bills.
Then there was my lying. I was taught to tell the truth at home, but I'd hear my mother telling the brewery that my father couldn't come to work because he had the flu. They were lies of protection, but after a while we were all lying all the time.
In 1967 I met Alan Hamel, now my husband and manager. I was sure he couldn't like the real me. I didn't want him to think I was poor, so I told him I'd inherited $30,000 when my father—I said he was a doctor—had died. At Christmas Alan saw a card signed "Love, Mom and Dad." He confronted me and I told him everything. I thought he'd leave me. Instead he said, "That hurt you more than me. We'll start over now." It was a big step for me.
The family hit bottom in different ways, but we've all gotten help. Maureen, who has been in AA for 12 years, convinced Mom to go to Al-Anon. By 1976 Dad was no longer coherent at any time. Mom was dragging him to bed nightly. So she stopped picking him up and covering up for his drunkenness. When he woke up one morning on the floor, he realized, "She's not going to take care of me. If she doesn't, no one will and I'll die." A few months later, he got good and drunk and went to a rehabilitation center. He said, "I'm here to get sober," and fell off the porch. He hasn't had a drink since.
I'm not easy telling all this stuff, but I know there are little girls out there hiding in their closets and adult children of alcoholics who don't know what normal is. I hope this book can help them. As my mother told someone who disapproved of the book, "I want to shout from the rooftops how grateful I am we're all recovering!" We should have died, but we didn't. We made it.
CHUCK NORRIS: A TIME CAME WHEN HE HAD TO FACE DOWN HIS FATHER
Chuck Norris has made a career of being a tough guy. A top-ranked karate champion who by 1970 had more than 20 titles, he parlayed his macho image into a string of hit action movies. His latest film is Braddock: Missing in Action III. Norris and his wife, Dianne, have been married for 29 years and have two children, Mike, 25, and Eric, 23. Despite his image, in his recently published autobiography, The Secret of Inner Strength: My Story, Norris, 48, says that growing up with an alcoholic father left him anything but strong and confident. His father, Ray, an itinerant mechanic, went on binges that lasted for months, leaving his wife, Wilma, to support their three sons. Embarrassed by the family's plight, Norris developed a debilitating shyness and was plagued by physical and psychological insecurities that dogged him into adulthood.
Writing my book was therapeutic. It lessened my resentment toward my father. I now know the drinking was a disease beyond his control. Before, all I thought was that he was a drunk. It wasn't until my dad came home from WW II that he really started to drink. At first when he'd get drunk he was quite jolly. But as time went on, the alcohol made him very mean. He'd go off for two or three months at a time, then he'd pop back in, work a little bit and then quit.
His absences were actually pleasant times. My mom was working—just menial jobs, since she had only a ninth-grade education—but there was none of the tension, the tippy-toeing around, like there is when there is someone in the house who's liable to blow up at any moment. When he was around, I was embarrassed to bring friends over, since I didn't know when he would come home drunk or how he would act.
By the time I was 10 years old, we had moved 16 times. Moving like that, you never establish relationships as a kid that help you grow. One time we were living in Oklahoma. Dad was gone for a while. My mother was working in a cafe, and we lived upstairs. Then one night Dad showed up around midnight and said we were leaving. We had to sneak out because we couldn't pay the rent. He was driving real drunk, and as we were going across the desert he started weaving across the road. My mom was screaming that he was going to kill us. My brother Wieland and I were crying. Finally, my dad stopped the car and yelled, "All of you, get out." He was going to dump us right there in the middle of the desert. Mom begged him, and he finally took us to my grandmother's house.
Being as poor as we were, on welfare with my mom working, I had to take on certain responsibilities, like taking care of my brothers. That made me grow up sooner than other kids my age. It was like I was head of the household, but of course I missed my father's attention and affection. The biggest problem I had was poor self-image, which was probably the main cause of my shyness. I was always afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I wouldn't speak much.
Mom did the best job she could. She instilled in me that things aren't always as bad as they look. But I never learned how to play ball or defend myself or get the guidance from a father that a son needs.
When I was 16, my mother finally decided enough was enough and left my dad when he came home drunk and hit her. She married a really nice guy she worked with, and I didn't care if I ever saw my dad again. One day later that year, my dad returned. He had been drinking. He was waiting outside the house for my stepfather to come home. He said he was going to take care of him. I said, "You aren't going to touch him." He said, "Are you going to stop me?" I had been terrified of my father all my life, but I said, "If I have to." I didn't know anything about fighting then, but we went to the backyard and squared off. He wasn't scared, but finally he said, "No, I'm not going to fight you," and he got in his car and drove off. I met him on the street once six years later, and that was the last time I ever saw him until I took care of his funeral in 1972.
The turning point for me was when I was in the Air Force in Korea. I had gotten involved in the martial arts there. I stuck to it, earned a black belt ranking, and that was the first time I'd ever accomplished something difficult on my own. When I came back to the States, some GIs asked me to teach them, so I arranged to give a demonstration and a talk. I practiced my speech for about two weeks. But as I was walking up to the microphone, all the muscles in my body tightened and sweat started to pour down my body. I remember introducing myself, but after that it's like a fog. It was the first time I forced myself to crack that egg of insecurity I'd carried all through my life. And from then on, I kept forcing myself to go a little further, until I had completely overcome it.
I didn't want to open my soul up for everyone in a book. But I thought if I could explain my problems, then people in similar situations would find encouragement to rise above their own tragedies. If I can do it, anyone can.
LOUIE ANDERSON: FLEEING GUILT, HE TOOK REFUGE IN LAUGHTER AND FOOD
What Louie Anderson, 35, remembers most vividly about growing up in a St. Paul housing project is the stress of living with his hard-drinking father, Louie, a trumpet player in Hoagy Carmichael's band. A sense of humor was required, and Anderson had one. After finishing high school, he worked with emotionally disturbed youths and discovered that he could disarm even the toughest kids by just being funny. He began performing at a local comedy club, then moved six years ago to L.A., where he became a regular at the Comedy Store and made his debut on The Tonight Show in 1984. He will co-star this summer in a feature film, The Wrong Guys, and is producing The Johnsons Are Home, a TV sitcom pilot based on his own family.
A couple of weeks ago, right before a run-through of The Johnsons Are Home, one of our cameramen asked me if I was a child of an alcoholic parent. We don't mention drinking on the show, but he told me he was from an alcoholic family. He said that he could relate to lots of little things the characters said and to the kids trying to be normal in the middle of chaos. Then I realized how many people have been affected by alcoholism.
Recently, my mom said my dad always drank. He was a musician who traveled the country, and my mom met him in South Dakota, where she grew up. They married, ran away together and eventually had 11 children. I was the 10th. I remember coming home from school and knowing when I walked in the door, without even seeing anyone, whether or not Dad had been drinking. That's how sensitive you become when you grow up in that environment. When I was 10, I wanted this road racer that cost $4.88, and I wanted it bad. Dad said we couldn't afford it. Then we went into a liquor store, and he bought a case of beer that cost about $4.88. I never got over that. It made me think I wasn't very important to him.
My mom wouldn't let Dad go to certain places because she knew he would drink. So to get away, he'd say he was going to the store, and he'd take some of the kids. One time he took us into a bar. I remember knowing it wasn't okay, but I was too young to say anything. It was snowing pretty heavily that night, and by the time we left the bar, it was really late and my dad was really drunk. We were driving home, and I said, "Dad, we have to turn here. You should put on the brake." Instead, he pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and we flew up over this embankment. My little brother was in the middle, I was near the door, and my dad was passed out in the driver's seat. The car landed upright, so no one was hurt. A neighbor came up to ask if we needed help, and I said, "No." You see, my dad's drinking was a problem we weren't going to share with anyone. There was something wrong with my family, I realized, but it was private.
There is another incident I never forgot. My dad and I were home alone, and he fell down the basement stairs. I couldn't get him up. And I realized I loved my dad, but I also realized how powerless I was to help him. I just put a pillow under his head and stayed with him until my mom got home.
I don't think I ever felt loved by my father. I blamed myself somehow for his drinking. Maybe if I were a better child and did more to help, then maybe he wouldn't drink. I think that's common among children of alcoholics—you think it's your fault. You spend the rest of your life trying to make up for that. Drugs and alcohol weren't my choices for escape. Mine was food. If I was under stress, I'd get a couple of Big Macs, while an alcoholic might pick up a couple of beers.
The thing that helped me most over time, though, is performing. I talk about my dad and get to work out a lot of my anger and anxiety. The mass acceptance of an audience is a way to make up for the simple affection I never got from my father.
Dad died of cancer in 1979. Before he went, I decided we had to talk. I asked him why he had been the way he was. He started telling me that both his parents were alcoholics, and that when he was about 10, both he and his sister were put up for adoption. His sister went to a minister's family, and he was adopted by a Minnesota family who had two children but needed a third hand to help them farm. He lived in a different part of the house from the other kids, and when they'd pass desserts around, he'd only get one helping. The other kids got seconds, but if my dad reached for seconds, he'd get his hands slapped. When he was 16, he told the Army he was 18 and enlisted. I'd never known any of this, and we cried about it. I finally felt a lot closer to him and was able to forgive.
Last Christmas I videotaped everyone in my family talking about Dad. Everyone said their worst memories were when he drank, and the saddest time of their lives was when he died. I asked what they would say to him if he were here at that moment. They all said that they wished they had spent more time with him and said "I love you" more often. One thing you realize as the son or daughter of an alcoholic parent is that a lot of people share in such pain. But the pain is not repairable. It's a pain you'll have to learn to live with.
SUSAN SULLIVAN: IN HER OWN DEFENSE SHE HONED A WIT THAT DREW BLOOD
The episodes on CBS' Falcon Crest in which Maggie turns to alcohol as a way of escaping her family problems ended last month. The story line was suggested by actress Susan Sullivan, who plays Maggie, and was inspired by her life with an alcoholic father. Although Maggie quit drinking after four episodes (when she stopped cold turkey), Sullivan, 43, says she will continue working with Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), an ancillary program of AA, in order to help her grapple with the problems that her father Brendan's addiction fostered in her.
Selfishly, I wanted Maggie to develop a drinking problem as a way to examine it for myself, but part of me resisted getting into the role at first. I thought I knew everything about being an alcoholic because I'd lived with my father, but I didn't. I was looking at it from the outside. I don't drink, and after all those years watching and judging my father when he was drunk, anytime I would see people who drank too much, I had no tolerance for them. The iron gate came down.
I remember as a little girl, maybe 3 or 4, standing in front of the house and watching for my dad to come home. I could see by the way he walked whether it was the daddy I could talk to and be with or the other daddy. I don't have a lot of different memories. There are whole periods of time I just seem to forget. I think that's a sad comment.
My older brother was the rebel who became an alcoholic and a drug addict (he's now a drug counselor and doing extremely well), but I learned to survive by being in control. As a very little girl I started acting. Because of my father's drinking, my mother had to go to work. I was almost 10, and I became the little housekeeper, cleaning the kitchen, taking care of the house. Later, acting really saved my life. It was my talent that got me into college and brought me jobs, my house, everything that's good in my life.
My father was verbally abusive. He just chipped away at all of us, especially my mother. He was so bright, and the sarcasm of a real wit cuts to the core. I now see myself do that with my friends. I do it to men all the time, and it has cost me. A girlfriend sat me down one time and said, "Susan, you hurt people so deeply, and it's done in humor and everybody laughs, but please don't do it to me anymore." I value the fact that she said that because I was unaware. That's my father in me.
My father encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be, but he could never quite give me his full approval. In my senior year of high school I played Mama in I Remember Mama, not an easy part. Afterward I remember my father saying, "You were very good, but who was the guy who came on in the second act? He didn't say much, but you really felt his presence." That was his way of controlling, and I see myself do it with my friends.
Toward the end of my father's life, I said to him, "I never felt I was good enough, no matter what I did," and he said, "Because it was so easy for you. I wanted you to feel like you had to work." Of course, he was talking about himself. My father was an advertising writer, very gifted, but he was frightened I think. My grandmother had looked at my father and said, "This is going to be the next Eugene O'Neill." I think somehow the burden of this expectation was so terrifying that he never lived up to his potential. I am, I suppose, in the category of an overachieving woman. Part of my drive has been to compensate for what my father didn't achieve in his own life.
When he was dying of lung cancer in 1980, my father said to my sister and me, "Have children." He never said that before. He never even said, "Get married." He also said, "You know, you mustn't be looking for your father in men." I said, "Dad, that's the last thing I want to find!" I've never been married, but I've gone through a lot of different ideas in terms of the kind of man I think I should be with. The problem is that you don't really know what a good relationship is because you didn't grow up with one. Trust is a big problem. I'm out there waiting and testing.
—By Daniel Chu and Bonnie Johnson, with Lois Armstrong, Jennifer Ash and Todd Gold in Los Angeles
- Margaret Nelson,
- Dianna Waggoner.
November 26, 2015
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