CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 39. . . .June 7, 2013
“Alcoholic”, “crack cocaine addict”, “weird dad”. It takes brutal honesty to describe yourself in that fashion, and the writer of the above pull-quote is none other than Robert Munsch, icon of Canadian children’s literature and the author of stories like The Paper Bag Princess and Love You Forever. He also admits that “I’m sober now, but I’m not fixed. Using drugs for as long as I did messed up my ability to control myself. I was convinced that I could do it just once more and then stop, but I couldn’t. That’s what makes addiction a disease.” (“Introduction”, p. viii.)
Hooked: When Addiction Hits Home offers 10 brutally honest portraits of young people who grew up in families where either their parents or siblings were addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, or work. Although the family stories differ in their details, each of the stories contains similar elements: a portrait of the young person’s family life and its dynamics; recollections of how he or she reacted to and coped with the addicted parent or sibling’s behaviours; the responses of other family members to the addicted parent or sibling’s hurtful and destructive behaviour; and finally, the outcome, now that he or she is an adult and can reflect on how addiction influenced his or her personality, for better or worse.
Each of the profiles begins with a capsule statement about the young person and the family story which will follow: “Greg’s father was an angry drunk. It took Greg a long time to realize that the best lesson his father’s drinking taught him was to accept all his emotions, even when they seemed contradictory or wrong.” Wrestling with conflicting emotion is also a common thread in these stories; these kids often find themselves torn between love and loyalty and total disgust and anger at their parents and the care-giving situation in which the child often finds him/herself. After leaving home because life with her alcoholic/bulimic mom has become impossible, Carmella returns home from work one day and sees her mother’s car crashed against a telephone pole. Her mom, perhaps drunk but certainly hung over, stands outside the car, in tears. Carmella recognizes her and stops to comfort her, all the while thinking, “I hate this. I hate being bigger, stronger, and more capable than this woman who’s supposed to be taking care of me.” [italics are in original text]
There’s a pervasive loneliness in all of these stories. Sometimes, the non-addicted parent is doing everything possible to keep the family together; sometimes, the child takes on a parental role, protecting either siblings or the non-addicted parent, assuming support roles far beyond their years: “I felt like the glue that was holding my family together. My parents never talked to each other, and my brother was too young for either of them to talk to, so I was the link between everybody. It felt as though if I weren’t there, the family would break apart.” These are kids who often find themselves parenting their parents and younger siblings.
As Robert Munsch pointed out in the book’s “Introduction”, denial of the problem is a common family strategy. Interspersed with the first-person accounts of each addicted family are pull quotes providing factual content, either about an addiction, the physiological and emotional aspects of an addiction, or its impact on the family unit. In “No Reason to be Ashamed”, Pierre’s story of growing up with his profoundly alcoholic mother, we read that “avoidance and denial” are very common problems in the families of addicts. Many addicts’ partners and spouses will sometimes go so far as to facilitate ongoing substance abuse, rather than risk confronting or shaming their loved one. Pierre’s father would often pour his mother her first drink of the day, and despite the fact that her drinking exceeded anyone’s sense of “normal”, no one confronted her about it.
All of these young people find some way to cope. Sometimes, the coping behaviour is unhealthy: they act out, zone out, bottle up their feelings, or, themselves, abuse alcohol, drugs, or food. Other times, they respond to the situation by being extraordinarily productive, supportive, helpful, or by becoming academic super-stars. One thing is certain, though: all are marked for life by their experience of their family’s struggle with addiction. Sometimes, there’s regret for have lost their childhood, or for growing up in a situation where basic life skills, like shopping for groceries, never are taught. Others see themselves as having grown strong, resilient, and incisive. Growing up with a father addicted to alcohol, food, and sex teaches Hannah “that extremes are dangerous. . . . Living with someone like him helped me understand what balance looks like. It helped me understand the kind of person I wanted to be . . . and the qualities I wanted to cultivate.” Those who are now parents are hopeful that they have the emotional resources necessary to provide a safe and healthy environment for their own children.
Hooked: When Addiction Hits Home is a short, but powerful book. In addition to the 10 personal profiles, the book concludes with “Common Questions” posed by young people living in addicted families. “For Advice and Help” offers a short listing of emergency resources (i.e. help lines and web resources), suggestions for someone to talk to (individual or in support groups), and resources for more information on addiction. The book is aimed at young adult readers, but I think that this is a resource likely to be recommended to an adolescent by guidance counselors, social workers, or similar support workers. There’s some strong language in this book, and while the suggested age and grade range 12+/grade 7, I think that age 14+/grade 9 is a more likely audience. Living with an addicted family member has to be difficult, and for those young adults facing the challenge, this is a book which will truly “hit home”.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.