was a child, maybe 7 or 8 years old, Fred Nelson remembers
what would happen when his mother and her boyfriend drank.
After a few beers they would start arguing, then the boyfriend
would hit her.
knew then that there was a problem," said Nelson, now 54.
"I knew that something wasnít right about all of
are adaptable and often donít know anything but their own
"normal." But Nelsonís youthful intuition was
or other substance abuse by a parent is considered an adverse
childhood experience, or ACE. In 1998, a group of
psychologists coined the term in one of the largest
investigations of the effects of childhood abuse and neglect
on later-life health and well-being. That study ó and others
that followed ó revealed a relationship between ACEs and
negative well-being throughout life.
mother was an alcoholic. Now, so is he.
Bachman is a psychologist who specializes in addictive
behaviors and disorders, and the generational tale that Nelson
shares wouldnít surprise him. According to Bachman, the
majority of his patients suffering from addiction have
extraordinarily traumatic pasts. In many cases, that includes
coming from a household where a primary caregiver struggled
with substance abuse as well.
kids growing up in families where one or more members are
struggling with addiction, the issue is the inattention to the
childís needs that the drug-addicted parent
demonstrates," Bachman explained. "One of the
hallmark diagnostic features of opioid drug dependence is that
thereís a constant craving for the high. Thereís
compulsive behavior around getting the next dose, and thereís
a sense of, ĎTo hell with the consequences. Getting high is
much more important than changing a diaper.í "
Haupt was a few years older than Nelson when she first
understood her father had a problem. Growing up in Lake
County, she said her dad always drank and had drugs around the
house, but she thought thatís just what adults did. But
around 11 or 12, when she started inviting friends to sleep
over, Haupt realized her fatherís behavior was out of the
dad would be barbecuing or whatever, and then heíd start
drinking. Then some kind of argument would happen and it would
turn really violent and loud," said Haupt, who now lives
in Texas. "And my friends would get scared that they were
in danger, and to me I was like, ĎOh, no, heís not going
to mess with us. Theyíre just arguing.í I was just so used
to this. ĎDonít be scared. This is normal.í But for
them, it was not normal and they wanted to go home."
National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that a quarter of
children in the U.S. grow up in households where there is
substance abuse, and studies suggest that children of addicts
are eight times more likely to develop an addiction of their
pyramid depicts the conceptual framework for the ACE study.
Adverse childhood experiences make up the base, and each level
escalates from there: disrupted neurodevelopment to social,
emotional and cognitive impairment to adoption of health-risk
behaviors to disease, disability and social problems. The tip
of the pyramid is early death.
childhood was plagued by ACEs. Beyond witnessing his motherís
alcoholism and abuse, he struggled in school and got involved
with street gangs. He said a female relative sexually abused
him when he was as young as 5 years old, a secret he kept from
his family for decades in fear of creating problems.
that base, his adult life followed the troubling and dangerous
progression of the ACE pyramid. Nelson struggles with alcohol
and cocaine addiction. He said he has been diagnosed bipolar,
and he contracted HIV under the influence of drugs. He has
been in and out of prison and rehab. Right now, he is
receives help from Heartland Alliance Health, a Chicago
organization that works in communities across the U.S. to
serve those who are homeless or living in poverty. He has been
attending its therapy sessions for years. Joan Liautaud,
Heartlandís senior director of clinical operations, said
destructive behavior is a common reaction for children of
substance abuse, but pointed out that the unhealthy
pathologies arenít limited to substance problems.
very common for these children to develop addictions of their
own. And when I talk about addiction, I mean
broad-based," she said. "So it could be some sort of
compulsive behavior. Ö Thatís on top of things that most
people struggle with, more typical things like identity
development or self-worth."
now 31, never battled drug or alcohol abuse, but she realized
she ate and shopped compulsively when she was emotional or
was partially because when things got really crazy, my mom
would say, ĎOh letís go shopping.í To escape. To get
away from this, letís cover it up and pretend itís OK by
doing that," Haupt said. "It wasnít until later
that I realized that itís not healthy to cover up pain. You
have to kind of figure it out, deal with it, face that pain,
instead of burying it down. Thatís why people get addicted,
because they get addicted to not feeling pain."
elaborated that the compulsive behavior often manifests as
codependent caregiving or a desire to over-commit. Bachman
also noted that even if people break the cycle of substance
abuse, they may continue to seek out the sort of treatment
they received as children.
adulthood, oftentimes a child raised in that neglectful
environment will seek out other adults who will behave in
similar ways," Bachman said. "Or the child who has
now become the adult, that personís default behavior is to
treat others with neglect and abuse. Thatís what his or her
role model taught him or her."
those unhealthy behaviors continue to manifest themselves in
Nelsonís life today.
come from what they call a dysfunctional family. I have a lot
of resentment," Nelson said. "So when I think about
those things, thatís enough to make me feel like, I donít
know ó itís not like I canít be happy and have a good
life, but sometimes that plays a part in why I act out the way
I act out."
more encouraging note, Bachman suggested that there are ways
to be proactive for a person coming from that sort of
not nature vs. nurture ó itís nature and nurture,"
Bachman said. "The person who knows with great certainty
that the biological parent or parents were alcoholics, were
heroin addicts, were meth addicts, if that person is at all
conscientious about his or her health, never touch the
molecule to which thereís a genetic vulnerability. So if
that personís parents were heroin addicts, that person is
well advised to tell the dentist, ĎNo, I donít want
Percocet after my oral surgery. Thank you, but no thank you.í"
an adult has managed to sidestep a struggle with addiction,
there is still emotional baggage to be dealt with. Liautaud
said a person must relearn how to cope with difficulty,
hopefully by building connections, whether itís to family or
work or some sort of spirituality.
way to build those connections is to start with taking a look
at yourself and barriers that youíve developed for really
good reasons," she said. "Growing up in a family
where thereís addiction and chaos, youíve developed
certain coping that serves you well and helps you survive when
youíre in that environment. And then you find when youíre
out of that environment that it doesnít work so well. So I
think thatís a ripe time to take a step back and think about
what you want, think about why it is that you might have built
these barriers, and then areas that you connect to."
built connections through yoga, which she studied for years
before becoming an instructor herself. She said the practice
attracted her because it taught her to sit with pain rather
than try to bury it with distractions.
want to help other people who are like my dad, even though I
couldnít save him. He passed away in 2013," Haupt said.
"With addiction, a lot of times people donít feel
connected to anybody. They feel alone. And they feel like
nobody will understand or people will judge them for whatever
reason. So I wanted to teach yoga because itís a very
nonjudgmental place to kind of address that kind of stuff and
learn about yourself."
strategy Liautaud suggested is creating structure. Households
with substance abuse are marked by turmoil, so establishing
routine can add a feeling of safety and order where there once
sense of structure is crucial for Nelson. For the past year,
he has been living at the Olive Branch homeless shelter in
Englewood, although some nights he stays with a friend or lays
his head down on the Red Line. He attends mental health groups
at Heartland. Heís working with his health insurance
provider to try to get new rehabilitative care. He is
attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
canít afford to have a lot of idle free time," Nelson
said. "Right now, if Iím in a situation where Iím
like, OK, I canít think of anything constructive to do or
anything positive, then my mind goes into the areas it doesnít
need to go in. Ö So for me what always works best is I have
to have a schedule. This is what Iím going to be doing at 9
and 10. I have to have things to fill my day up, otherwise Iím
going to be bored, then I get depressed, then I resort to
serves him too. Someone he can lean on is his mother ó she
reminds him of the importance of attending his meetings and
avoiding people and places who might trigger him. Sheís now
15 years sober.
a miracle," he said.
like so many others, hopes to claim his own miracle.