Thirty-five years ago, twenty young professionals in the fields of addiction, mental health, and education gathered in Santa Barbara to discuss their work with young and adult children from alcoholic families. From that gathering, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NaCoA) became a reality. As I look back, I realize this was an emerging time, a tipping point when many young professionals were utilizing the strength of their own experiences of being raised with parental substance use disorders (SUDs) to give voice to the experiences of those with whom they were working. Few of us had any experience with building or running a nonprofit organization. Though Robert “Bob” Ackerman often called us “missionaries,” more realistically, we were “passion-aries.” We were not willing to sit in fear about what we did not know. We mobilized with trust and faith that the experiences of those affected by addiction in their families was more powerful than the shame of the disease. In many cases we just moved blindly forward.
There were so many firsts that were occurring. For me one of those was my work being written about in a full page article in Newsweek (May 1979) that acknowledged the phenomena of young and adult children. That article led to my appearing on The Phil Donahue Show—a nationally syndicated television show that preceded the Oprah Winfrey Show—with five young children between the ages of nine and twelve talking about their experiences in addicted families. Never before had this topic been aired on national television. From the mouths of babes—for sixty minutes they talked and shared personal artwork that depicted their lives. In the next few years books were written by many NACoA founders, including myself, Bob Ackerman, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, Cathleen Brooks Weiss, Timmen Cermak, Julie Bowden, Herb Gravitz, and others. While not a founder, Janet Woititz’s book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, was also extremely critical to the adult child movement. In essence, a language was being developed, and a framework was being offered that helped people raised in such families begin to speak out and break the emotional isolation of shame, fear, and loneliness that was so pervasive in their lives.
While some of these professionals’ work was focused on children still in the home, others focused on this group of people being named the “adult children.” In my mind this term was meant to indicate people now of adult age who had been raised in alcoholic or other drug-addicted family systems. The birth of NACoA was a moment where we who had come together knew that collectively we could do so much more than as individuals.
A significant part of NACoA’s early mission was about education, and for several years it offered conferences throughout the country. At the time, these conferences were moments of great validation and healing and also became the initial training ground for clinicians. Thirty-five years later, NACoA continues to educate everyone from clergy to social workers and physicians. It is a major advocacy organization on the part of young and adult children, with its name now the National Association for Children of Addiction, referring to those impacted by any addiction, not just alcoholism.
There have been many gifts within this early movement. The work of NACoA created a foundation for the codependency field. We began recognizing the delayed responses, those behaviors that often did not show as problematic until people were out of their family systems. Today, with breakthroughs in neuroscience, we have a highly developed understanding of the science of trauma. However, it was the early work that empowered the masses.
By looking at addiction in the family, we could see the impact of physical and sexual violence and the resulting mood and anxiety disorders. We were recognizing the generational repetition that included switching of addictions and process addictions. This helped to create a bridge between the addiction and mental health fields.
While we as professionals have grown in our understanding of the effects of addiction on young people, addiction continues to be rampant and children are still being hurt by the disruption that it does to families. There are between fifteen and eighteen million children whose daily lives are influenced by chronic inconsistency and unpredictability. They live with arguing and fighting and the disappointment of parents being preoccupied elsewhere. With the current opioid epidemic, particularly the use of heroin, children are experiencing more neglect than ever before and face a far greater likelihood of death in the family.
Social media images of parents passed out in cars from drugs while their children are sitting in the back seats have gone viral. The online video of a two-year-old in a store trying to wake her mother who passed out from an overdose has been seen by millions. As more and more parents become addicted to opioids, thousands more children are being placed into foster care systems. Overdose deaths have surged and claimed more lives in 2015 than homicides by guns (AP, 2016). Children are witnessing overdoses and having to learn how to use Narcan to save the life of a parent or sibling. As the opioid crisis continues to climb, claiming more victims and leading to more deaths, our children are falling through the cracks. It is our children who are the hidden victims, unable to protect themselves from this drug use.
Jerry Moe, vice president of The Betty Ford Center and director of its national children’s program, and Brian Maus, the program director of Camp Mariposa, with fifteen camps for children of addiction throughout the United States, both tell me how shocked these children are to meet other kids who have similar experiences. They truly feel totally alone. Sadly, what I wrote about in It Will Never Happen to Me in the early 1980s is still relevant. They have learned the three rules: do not feel, do not trust, and do not talk. They are scared, sad, angry, and so lonely. Many are already engaging in self-destructive behaviors such as cutting. Many show signs of depression, and are certainly anxious. It is our job to be there for them and offer resources that tap into their strengths, reinforce their worth and value, give them coping skills, assist them in problem solving, and possibly most important, teach them how to ask for help. Back in the 1970s, Margaret Cork of the Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto, Canada, eloquently referred to these youngsters as the “forgotten children” (1969). It is our job to see that is no longer true.
NACoA’s vision is a world in which no child who struggles because of family addiction will be left unsupported.
The Adverse Childhood Experience study (ACE) has been available for over twenty years. The research is clear. Without building protective factors in these young people’s lives, their risk factors will dictate their lives, and we will continue to see the generational repetition of trauma and addiction.
We must continue to be the voice for these children. Our knowledge base needs to be systematically integrated into the education of all primary health care, mental health, and addiction professionals as well as our educational systems and faith communities. We all need to take responsibility where we can and collaborate within our communities as one.
Thank you, NACoA, for continuing to be the voice and advocate for our nation’s most vulnerable young people.
Associated Press (AP). (2016). Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than guns. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/drug-overdose-deaths-heroin-opioid-prescription-painkillers-more-than-guns/
Cork, R. M. (1969). Forgotten children: A study of children with alcoholic parents. Toronto, Canada: PaperJacks.