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Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent's Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father's substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society's "conspiracy of silence" was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.
The elephant in the room. (Illustration: Caitlin Ng)

The elephant in the room. (Illustration: Caitlin Ng)

By the time that I was six and my brother was five, we were used to waiting—and waiting—for our father to show up. On one particular afternoon, we sat in a pool of sunlight that poured through our living room’s bay windows. In the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, the fog usually burns off by midday, and we were baking in our little jackets.

Would he be late? Would he come at all? What would he smell like? I’d started sniffing his trademark leather jacket in search of the new scent of cigarettes. I knew that it meant something—maybe that he was different, less safe. My parents had separated a year before, and when my father came to pick us up for occasional visits, his gait was often wobbly and his words slurred. My mother was working at an insurance company, supporting us on her own, and our nanny would be left to handle the mess. Sometimes she wouldn’t let us leave when she saw his condition, once going so far as to physically pull us out of his car.

That day, as we peered anxiously at every car that rolled down the street, my brother was phoning him non-stop, sick with worry that he wouldn’t show. Suddenly, I got up and walked away. I’d made a decision. “You’re so stupid,” I said to him. “He’s never gonna come.”

Most days I was right, but not this one. When he arrived, I remember his dark brown pompadour was expertly crafted. He always looked sharp—dressed in all black—with dusty hazel eyes and a conspicuous amethyst pinky ring. We piled into his car, and he drove us to the Tenderloin, a rough neighborhood downtown where he lived.

My father totaled the family car during a bender, stole the savings from my parents’ joint bank account, showed up at my mother’s office begging for money to buy drugs, and tried to pick us up at school without permission.

Once we got there, he gave us a quick tour of his small, cluttered apartment—the shiny silver polyester curtains and a dirty beige carpet. At rehab he’d learned about bonsai, and a tiny ragged tree clung to life next to an overflowing ashtray on the long glass coffee table. It was a distressingly far cry from my mother’s cozy, organized home, where neighborhood children would convene to eat Klondike bars and plot epic bike rides of the residential streets.

A woman with long, stringy blonde hair entered the room and introduced herself as my father’s girlfriend. Immediately, her bulging eyes and grubby fingers scared me. I was used to meeting weird people when visiting my father, but she was by far the most manic. Nonetheless, she had prepared for my visit, offering a string necklace of glass blue beads and a large teddy bear. After the offering, she and my father abruptly headed to the bedroom, leaving me on the couch with my younger brother and new toys.

A few quiet moments passed before we heard yelling and objects smashing against walls. Consumed by fear but driven by curiosity, I crept to the door and knocked softly. When no one answered, I peered through the crack under the door to see feet shuffling violently. Muffled wailing started to echo from inside. Welling up with tears, I experienced a feeling so strong that it would stick with me: I was irrelevant and invisible.

I ran to the phone to call my mother, pleading with her between sobs to pick us up. Although I couldn’t verbalize exactly what had happened, I was able to grab hold of one thing: I never wanted to go there, or be around my father, again.

When my mother got the call at work, she told me years later, it confirmed her growing fears that my father was using again. He’d had a problem with drugs in his early 20s, long before they’d met, but she believed that he had been sober throughout their relationship. She was working long hours and, I suspect, hoping that ignoring the signs would make the problem go away.

“I did and I didn’t know he was doing drugs,” she says now. “I had an inkling. You know when you have a gut feeling. But I felt it was important that you see him, so I was torn between protecting you and letting you and your brother have a relationship with him.”

It was around this time that things got worse: My father totaled the family car during a bender, stole the savings from my parents’ joint bank account, showed up at my mother’s office begging for money to buy drugs, and tried to pick us up at school without permission. The problem was now too big to avoid, so my mother obtained a restraining order against him.

After that, my father disappeared from my life for close to eight years, from when I was six until I was 14. But I remember, even at such a young age, feeling shame that he was so odd and unpredictable. When my mother explained his absence by telling us that he was volunteering at a fire station (which I’d later find out was part of a rehab program), I’d tell myself lies in order to cope with the embarrassment. He was too busy fighting wildfires in Yosemite or saving cats from trees to be around like other dads.

Fortunately, my mother had a successful career and was able to provide for us on her own. Once my father dropped out of the picture, she attempted to create an environment completely free of the chaos of my early years. I continued to attend private school, where I took gymnastics and joined the Brownies. We got a dog, a cat, and even a Hamster named Buttons.

But there was one central fact that ensured our harmony. My mother, brother, and I all subscribed to an unspoken pact of silence: We wouldn’t talk about my father—or any of those early memories—at all.

MY SENSE THAT I was alone in these experiences was a weight that I carried constantly. In my upper-middle-class enclave, it was embarrassing enough that I had a single mother, let alone a father who was banned from seeing us. I’d go to great lengths to hide my family history. Even into adulthood, I really thought my story was uniquely humiliating.

Sadly, it’s not. Over 8.3 million children, nearly 12 percent of all children in the United States, live with an addict. At Al-Anon, a support group for loved ones, there’s a saying that every alcoholic negatively affects at least four people. The organization's associate communications director (whose name is omitted due to the organization’s policy of anonymity) says that the number can be as high as 16 if you count not just the children of an addict, but also the grandchildren who could be affected by their family’s dysfunctional past.

Over 8.3 million children, nearly 12 percent of all children in the United States, live with an addict.

While it’s common knowledge that children of addicts are prone to become substance abusers (kids of alcoholics, for example, are four times more likely), what’s rarely discussed is the more than half who don’t. I escaped the throes of addiction myself after a time of experimenting with drinking and drugs, and that makes me lucky. But that doesn’t mean that I’m emotionally unscathed. Now in my mid-twenties, I am still struggling with the effects of my father’s addiction.

In the ’90s, a landmark study conducted by Kaiser Permanente, California, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the social factors that precede the development of disease and disability. Called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, it asked over 17,000 patients to answer a host of questions about their physical health and childhood experiences. In almost 27 percent of the cases, the study found a history of household substance abuse. People who had experienced an ACE—like growing up with an addict—had an increased risk of STDs, obesity, heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. They also showed an elevated risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide.

Robert Anda, a co-author of the ACE study, describes it as a kind of Trojan horse: By drawing attention to culturally “important” consequences of exposure to trauma, such as heart disease and stroke, the study motivated people to care more about childhood distress.

Looking back at his research, Anda told me he is most proud not that it proved a link between childhood adversity and physical health issues, but that it inspired a greater conversation about the psychological impact of trauma. Nearly two-thirds of alcoholism, 60 percent of suicide attempts, and half of all drug abuse and depression are related to adverse childhood experiences.

“The most important thing the ACE study shows,” Anda says, “is that trauma leads to ... issues that make relationships difficult.” And, as the members of Al Anon know all too well, often that trauma is passed on from generation to generation.

AFTER MY FATHER'S DISAPPEARANCE from my life, I insisted that my room be entirely white. I’d put all of my belongings in tiny pouches, one inside the other like Russian dolls, protecting each little stone or ring with layers of fabric. I became an extreme hypochondriac, seeing tumors in bug bites and seeking doctor visits—I was convinced (and secretly hoping) that I was dying. In kindergarten art class, I’d draw figures with arms and legs but no people, all squashed into one corner of my large sheet of paper. I was extremely quiet and overly sensitive, sometimes not talking for hours and then suddenly bursting into tears.

I became an extreme hypochondriac, seeing tumors in bug bites and seeking doctor visits—I was convinced (and secretly hoping) that I was dying.

My anxiety was palpable, and my teacher grew so concerned that I found myself in a therapy class for kids of divorced parents. We sat in a circle reading Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families, and one by one, we told the group our feelings. The goal was to alleviate the guilt that we were surely feeling over our parents’ split.

But I don’t remember feeling any responsibility for the failure of my parents’ marriage—I was actually happy at the prospect that the chaos would subside. In fact, I was more disturbed by the therapy session itself. One boy told of his father throwing his mother into a wall and described going with her to the hospital. I thought our family code of silence seemed preferable to stirring up old horrors.

Looking back on my childhood, I wondered about the experiences of other children of addicts and turned to a paper called “Living With an Elephant: Growing Up With Parental Substance Misuse,” published in the journal Child & Family Social Work. But, as the introduction acknowledges, it can be hard for researchers to understand what it’s really like for children who grow up in a “conspiracy of silence” in which they are “muzzled and isolated from potential sources of support that might foster resilience.”

The article uses the metaphor of an elephant to represent parental addiction: “a huge and dominating presence impossible for children to ignore.” The family coping mechanism of denial, in which the problem is either overlooked or minimized, makes acknowledging the elephant difficult, sometimes impossible. As the study says: “A child would never overlook an elephant in the living room (‘Hey, there is an elephant in the living room. Doesn’t anyone else see it?’) When adults behave as if there is no elephant, the child experiences a distorted reality.”

This lack of affirmation of a child’s suspicions and worries often leads to self-doubt: “It must be me” or “I don’t see things correctly” or “I can’t trust my own judgment.” What happens when something that causes so much pain isn’t acknowledged? Study after study shows that children of addicts develop anxiety, depression, issues with over-achievement and people-pleasing, and psychosomatic illnesses at a higher rate than others. Some may even enact what researchers call the “No Feel Rule,” blocking feelings as a coping mechanism.

I was astonished by how many of the symptoms applied to me. But most of all, I reacted with intense recognition when I read about the “invisible losses” suffered by children of addicts: loss of love, stability, a caretaker, a carefree childhood. One subject said of watching others play when she was eight: “They seemed so young and I felt so old ... standing inside the hallway as I worried about my mother.”

DESPITE PERFORMING WELL ACADEMICALLY in high school, I continued to struggle with nameless anxiety and hypochondria. HIV became an obsession—I was convinced that I had it or was going to get it—and germs occupied my mind to the point that I couldn’t share a drink or touch a door handle. In those days, a couple of sips of beer and a bong hit would render me temporarily soothed, but the effects never really lasted. The nervousness would always resurface in the form of an upset stomach or anxiety attack.

In the midst of my emotional turmoil, my father called to let my mother know that he was clean after one last stint in Walden House, a rehabilitation facility formerly located in Haight-Ashbury. He wanted to rejoin family life and make up for lost time. But while he got close to my mother and brother, who longed for a father figure in the family, I refused to engage. He tried everything, from lavish presents to dinner dates with his charming new fiancée. I believed that his attempts to reconcile were genuine and I knew that I should feel lucky that he was alive. But instead, I felt guilty and horrible that I couldn’t respond to his efforts to rekindle a relationship.

"When adults behave as if there is no elephant, the child experiences a distorted reality."

Throughout my late teens and into my 20s, I resented my father for the pain he had caused, and I condemned my mother and brother for minimizing his behavior. What was once sadness and confusion became intense but silent anger: “How can you just jaunt back into our life after abandoning us?” I raged inwardly. “You owe us an explanation! Do you expect me to forget?”

Most infuriating to me was the fact that my father refused to address his past as an addict. When asked what drugs he used, he would simply laugh it off, mutter “uh ... everything” and change the subject. He did, however, enjoy using his sordid past to pepper anecdotes: “Oh boy, those Mexicans really messed up my back in jail!” he’d say with a smug smile. Or, in a more sincere moment: “I know there’s a God, Alana, because when I was about to die I spoke to him, and he saved my life.”

But why couldn’t he tell me something as simple as what drugs he used? Maybe it was a detail, but it felt to me like a crucial part of my personal history that needed to be clarified. When I expressed my frustration to my brother, who had long been mum on the subject, he said: “Jesus, just get over it. You’re so ungrateful.” My mother, too, was generously willing to forgive and forget, so much so that she eventually hired my father to help with her business. “He always was a great salesman.”

As I now know from the studies that I’ve read, this common conspiracy of silence and denial keeps people from expressing truths that they need to air. Children of addicts are often encouraged by family members to stay quiet, or they do so out of their own pervasive shame. According to the psychological literature, however, such behavior is the exact opposite of what is best for them.

What was best for me was to realize that my anger was rooted in shame—shame not just for being related to a drug addict, but also for feeling that it was wrong to be upset and hurt. As I found, the pain doesn’t go away when the parent sobers up. But if you’re willing to do the emotional work, healing can start there.

WHEN I GREW OLDER, I gained literal distance from my now-sober father by moving across the country. I’d speak to him once in a while from New York, and it was pleasant—I felt safe at a distance. But after six years away, I decided to move back to California to attend graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley.

Stripping off my clothes, I lay in the fetal position on the floor, sobbing and gasping for breath, consumed by racing thoughts: I am going to fuck up my romantic relationship. I don’t deserve the kind of healthy love he provides.

The plan became complicated when, four months before my departure, I fell in love with a tall, blue-eyed man, so good-natured in an all-American way that my friends and I affectionately dubbed him “the baseball player.” We decided to date long distance, and eventually he made the welcome decision to move west to be with me. It was something that I deeply wanted, but as his arrival drew nearer, my anxiety reached an all-time high. Adding to my distress, I was in a bad place with my father again. The second I’d gotten back, he’d started calling me constantly, trying to force a closeness that I wasn’t ready for. I still didn’t know whether I wanted to avoid him or attack him.

Two days before my boyfriend’s flight, I woke up feeling as if I couldn’t breathe, my body burning up, my head pounding. Stripping off my clothes, I lay in the fetal position on the floor, sobbing and gasping for breath, consumed by racing thoughts: I am going to fuck up my romantic relationship. I don’t deserve the kind of healthy love he provides. He will find out that I’m not the person he really wants, that I’m not normal, that I’m damaged and worthless.

Bruce D. Perry, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who serves as a senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy, says that childhood experiences color the way we react for the rest of our lives, for better or worse. “One of the things that happens when you’re really young,” he says, “is that your brain makes associations between patterns, and a lot of those things are stored and processed in an unconscious way.”

That night, I decided that I had to call my boyfriend, not sure if I was going to ask for support or break it off. But right before I picked up the phone, I had a moment of clarity. I wasn’t going to push him away. I was going to accept his love. And, most importantly, I was finally going to confront the elephant.

MY FIRST PRIORITY WAS enrolling in therapy. I was lucky enough to have an insurance plan that partially covered it and a therapist who agreed to see me for half the typical rate. My therapist was the first to validate my feeling that my family’s silence needed to be broken. More than that, I found that speaking my truth was necessary for healing.

After six months of gaining emotional strength through the treatment, I mustered the courage to call my father and tell him that I was researching the effects of parental drug addiction on children—and writing my own story. I’d been putting off telling him for weeks, but I needed his perspective. Surprisingly, he loved the idea and immediately sent me contact information for five of his former counselors and rehab friends.

"If a parent had a heart problem or cancer or something like that, it’d be talked about in school with teachers, there would be support, other families would be offering to help with childcare, bringing casseroles over."

It was around this time that something new came up during my reading about addiction—something that totally deflated the judgments that I had held on to for so long. In Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, author David Sheff examines an important 2012 study of cocaine addicts published in Science. It revealed that addicts have brain differences that predispose them to addiction, abnormalities that are exacerbated once they start using. I began to understand that what my father had been grappling with was not a moral failing, but a disease.

Since that turning point, I’ve learned that people with these neurological weaknesses process drugs differently. Once they try them, it’s nearly impossible for them to stop. While experimenting with drugs is a common choice (over 80 percent of young Americans do it), only one in 10 has the reaction, similar to an allergic response, that saddles them with addiction.

In his book, Sheff argues that because “we punish bad behavior” while “we treat illness,” society must change our view of addiction as a bad decision. And ignoring the fact that it’s a disease that affects public policy and treatment: Addicts are not in a position to advocate for themselves, and family members are “often too ashamed to take on what appears to be a problem caused by their loved ones’ moral deficiencies.”

“If a parent had a heart problem or cancer or something like that, it’d be talked about in school with teachers, there would be support, other families would be offering to help with childcare, bringing casseroles over,” Sheff told me. “But with this problem, because it is perceived to a be a problem of choice and morals, the child is shamed. There’s no sense of community support and so they’re further isolated.”

It’s this moral component that results in a dearth of funding for research and, ultimately, less understanding and treatment innovation. It’s the reason why addiction trails so many other illnesses, like cancer, in advancements. Sheff says researchers in the field estimate that we are 30 to 40 years behind where we could be, if only addiction was taken seriously as a disease all along.

Anda encountered this same perception when trying to get the ACE study published. Although it’s lauded now, that wasn’t always the case—it took him over 10 years and numerous rejections to get it published in a medical journal. Even after it was picked up by the then new American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the research community didn’t immediately accept its findings. Anda says that some of his colleagues shrugged them off, claiming that people were using their childhood experiences to make excuses for their poor physical health.

This skepticism continued for years. “People don’t like to think about these bad things happening to kids,” Anda says. “We have a national cultural conscience problem around paying attention to the traumatic stress of childhood.”

MUSTERING MY RESOLVE, I ask my father if he’d like to get some lunch and let me interview him. I schedule our talk for right before my therapy session, a precaution in case things go south. We’re barely sitting down with our burgers before I nervously blurt out my oft-repeated question: “What drugs did you do, and how did you do them?” I’ve asked before to no avail, but this time I’m prepared to press the issue.

We both avoid eye contact, and then, finally, the answer comes.

“Heroin. I shot it.”

Though my initial reaction is shock and disbelief, I quickly remember that the stigmas surrounding heroin are false. The epidemic is on the rise among affluent whites, with Eric Holder calling the epidemic an "urgent public health crisis."

“Wow,” I say, snapping back into the conversation. “You’re lucky you didn’t OD or get a disease.”

“Well, I have hepatitis C,” he replies casually.

I’m stunned and saddened to hear this, but more overtaken by joy that we are finally unearthing some of our family's secrets.

Later, I ask my father how he thinks his addiction affected me. “Obviously, I wasn’t there, so that couldn’t have had a positive effect,” he answers. “I’m thrilled that your mom was more than adequate, and you had the advantage of seeing things go astray and then come back together. Your mother and I have a great relationship, even though she hates me,” he adds, laughing. Despite his joking manner, compared to the silence I’d received for years, this is major progress.

My father’s openness inspires a like response in me. The next week, for the very first time in my life, I call him for no particular reason, just to talk. Delighted to chat, he tells me about his expensive coin collection that he’ll be leaving with me while he’s on vacation. But before I hang up, he says something that scares the shit out of me.

“You know, I’d love to read that piece you’re working on.”

My heart jumps. “I don’t know,” I reply ambivalently, although I am 100 percent sure that I don’t want him to read it.

“Listen,” he responds. “You don’t need to worry about my feelings. I made mistakes, and I have to live with them.”

I start to thank him, but he cuts me off.

“Actually, I think it would help me in my recovery to really know how much pain I’ve caused.”

Just hearing him say that, I am able to let go of some of mine.

A version of this piece was originally published in Brink magazine, a publication of the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.