Sunday, May 20, 2012

Parental Alcoholism, Parental Mental Illness, and Shame: Three Threads In the Tightly-Woven Tapestry of Complex PTSD

My Father

After my father’s memorial service in August of 1962, somebody, a friend of my father, I believe, let slip that my father had been an alcoholic.  “What a pity that such a brilliant man was an alcoholic.  He was simply too sensitive for this world of ours.”  Those were the words.  I was too upset to remember who the person was, and that information doesn’t really matter, but I remembered the words and have thought about them over the past five decades.

Now that I have more knowledge of alcoholism, mental illness, using alcohol to self-medicate, and the accompanying behavioral quirks of both alcoholism and my father’s mental illness, I can look with more understanding and compassion on the members of my nuclear family—and on myself.  Compassion and understanding, however, do not erase the damages, the C-PTSD symptoms, resulting from living with a parent who has an untreated mental illness and who self-medicates with alcohol.  At age 73, I'm still working at the task of undoing the damage done, in part, by my father's behavior.

Parental Alcoholism:  One Thread of the Tapestry

I have heard others talk about being raised by alcoholics.  I have listened to friends talk about the knock-down, drag-out fights, the violence, the yelling and screaming, the abuse, and all the craziness present in many homes where parents are alcoholics.  My childhood home, however, was not like this.  My childhood home was quiet, too quiet.  My parents were, evidently, “quiet, functional alcoholics.”  They quietly did their drinking, went to work, came home, and went through the motions of parenting. Each of us came and went individually and unattached to one another.  Our house was a hotel—except that the people living there were blood relations and not strangers.  But the normal interpersonal family attachments were simply not there!  My parents were wed to their bottles of Jim Beam but not to each other.  My brother and I were their responsibilities but not their children.  They took care of responsibilities, but they loved and were attached to their cigarettes and their booze.  If they felt loving attachment to my brother and me, we didn’t know it.

Despite his outstanding performance as a teacher and his other accomplishments, my father was a shy person who avoided interaction with other people, including his family, when he was not required to be “on stage” in the classroom.  He spent a lot of time holed up in the bedroom grading papers when I was very young; later, when we lived in houses with basements, he holed up in the basement where he built his ham radio stations.  In a recent telephone conversation with my brother, my brother revealed to me that our father had bottles of alcohol stashed in the basement where he spent so much time, a piece of information I did not have—one more piece I can use as I work to complete the puzzle of my own past and trace the roots of my C-PTSD.

As I was about to graduate from high school, I realized that my father’s “sick headaches” that kept him home from work more and more often appeared to be related to the number of drinks he had.  And then one hot summer day when I was in high school, my father, who had been working at Mt. St. Helens as a park ranger and was usually gone all week, came home in the middle of the week.  He revealed to my mother that he had caught himself standing behind a co-worker, axe raised, ready to bring the blade down on the co-worker’s head.  He told her that he was going to Portland to find a psychiatrist and get help.  And that is exactly what he did.

Effects of Parental Mental Illness: Another Strand of the C-PTSD Tapestry

When I was a child, my father seldom talked directly to me unless I had done something to make him angry.  Then he yelled at me. Until I was about ten years old, I thought that mothers talked to their children and fathers did not.  Only when I was I was about ten or eleven and I began to babysit in our neighborhood and observed fathers speaking lovingly and directly to their children did I realize that my perception of fathers was skewed: Many fathers actually enjoyed direct conversations with their children!  What a revelation!  My father required my brother and me to read at the dinner table, a requirement meant to prevent any conversation! 

At the time, I didn’t understand why my father never spoke directly to me or carried on what might be a normal conversation with me, and my speculation on this matter led me to make some very erroneous and damaging assumptions concerning my worth as a human being.  These assumptions contributed to my deep sense of shame and feeling of being invisible and totally worthless as a human being.

What I did not know when I was a child was that my father suffered from a mental illness that impaired his ability to make and sustain close relationships with other human beings, including his own children.  His diagnosis was “Borderline with schizoid tendencies,” a diagnosis that described his behavior accurately, especially in the area of relationships.* I learned this when I was in my early forties, and now that I know more about his illness, I understand and have forgiven his behavior toward me.  Forgiving him has not, however, taken away the marks his behavior left upon me.  Erasing those marks is part of my present work in therapy. *(See the Mayo Clinic website on the Internet for a list of symptoms of borderline and schizoid personality disorders.)

After my father died in August of 1962, I grieved not for the loss of what had been but for the loss of what might have been.  Now, however, in the year 2011, when I think of my father, I remember his courage in recognizing his demons, in seeking help, and in using that help to change his life.  I am inspired by his example at a time when I am working hard in therapy to heal the wounds of my own past. 

Shame: A Third Thread In the Tapestry of Complex PTSD

If you read my essay on shame (See “Of Shame and Snowballs” at and its contribution to C-PTSD, you know that shame is often a component of C-PTSD, and shame usually originates in childhood.  Although my father was probably oblivious to the effect of his behavior on me, his failure to interact with me was a contributing factor to my shame.  I lived in the same house as this male adult who was reported to be my father, but because this person seldom interacted with me or addressed me directly, I doubted my own existence.  Was I really there?  If I existed, why didn’t this man talk to me and interact with me as other fathers talked to and interacted with their children?  Was I so inferior and so flawed that he regarded me as not being worth his time? 

The only way I could explain my father’s attitude toward me was to conclude that there was something wrong with me, something that made me unworthy of being his daughter, but try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what that something was.  Add together the shame I felt as a failed daughter to my father and the shame I had long felt as a failed daughter to my mother, and the sum, the result, was a burden of shame heavy enough to sink a battleship.  Later, when I was a young adult and in college and tried to commit suicide, the shame did almost sink me. 

Now, in my early seventies, I am trying to undo the tightly woven tapestry of Complex PTSD, tease apart the strands that comprise the whole and step through and beyond the tatters into a better place, a place where I can enjoy just being myself, the self I have never really met.  I’m looking forward to that!


  1. I can understand why you felt that way, Jean. It’s really hard to appear confident, knowing that it wasn’t molded and shaped within the home. And it takes a lot of understanding to know the reason why a person does something. We each have a story to tell, so it's not good to judge someone with a fleeting impression that you may have had.

    Scott McKinney @ Midwest Institute for Addiction

    1. Please clarify your comment. It appears that you feel I am judging my father unfairly. In fact, I lived with him for eighteen years, was the object of his violent behavior, watched him drink, connected the drinking with the behavior--he WAS an alcoholic. He WAS mentally ill. He DID abuse me. That is all fact, and is not simply my judgment.

  2. I apologize for the confusion. What I meant was that people in general should take care not to judge others based on initial impressions, as that might mean over-simplifying the being of another person into a basic notion that may or may not be the product of a singular experience or a series of experiences altogether. Overbearing shame and lack of self-esteem, for example, are traits that some people are quick to dismiss as mere character flaws, not understanding that there are underlying factors that can drive these traits to become deeply rooted into the character of a person over time.

    The charge of facing one’s demons is a daunting proposition, and as you admire your father for being able to face his, I admire you for having the courage to face yours. I wish you well in your journey towards healing.

  3. Thank you for clarifying your comment. And I agree totally that one should not judge a person by obvious behavior. I believe my father was probably drinking to gain some peace from the mental illness he was diagnosed with near the end of his life. Nobody, including my father, knew that he was mentally ill, and in those days--the 30s, 40s, and 50s--getting psychiatric help usually put paid to any chance to retain a job, especially in a small town such as Longview, Washington. Being mentally ill was something to be ashamed of, and nobody wanted a diagnosis or treatment then. Why did my mother drink? Who knows. She was basically selfish and self-centered, and I expect that having to deal with my father put a lot of stress on her, so she may have found that alcohol was a means of relief. When he finally did go for mental health help, my father began to change, but my mother did not. By the time my father died at age 52, he seemed to enjoy his life more and drank less. When my mother died at age 81, she was vile-tempered and maintained a full glass of whiskey from the time she awoke until she went to bed at night. All I can legitimately address is their observable behavior and its impact on my life when I was a child. As it was, I decided when I was about 8 that whatever life I had was up to me to shape and that my parents were dependable for providing food, shelter, and clothing but nothing more. After listening to other children of alcoholics, I can see that I was really pretty lucky in being able to depend on them for that much. Count my blessings!