The Globe and Mail, January 18, 2003
Gordon Campbell’s drunken driving arrest is more than a painful episode in the life of an individual and more than a “severe misjudgment,” as the B.C. premier’s said, in the career of a politician. It highlights the dysfunction that characterizes the lives of many adults whose childhoods were blighted by the alcoholism of their parents.
Mr. Campbell was 13 when his father committed suicide in a state of alcohol-related depression. A childhood spent under the shadow of alcoholism could explain much about the premier’s public stiffness and perceived aloofness from ordinary people. It also helps to account for a political style that has him, without the least show of concern, institute policies which throw old people out of nursing homes or force pregnant women to travel long distances to give birth or impoverish the most helpless and vulnerable members of society. On a personal level it is not a lack of humanity that underlies such manifestations but wounded humanity; not a lack of feeling but, on the contrary, too much emotional pain.
The children of alcoholics suffer daily from the impossibility of having their emotional needs met by the parents. Worse, their expression of emotion is itself inhibited. If the parent becomes abusive under the influence of alcohol the child is afraid; if the parent becomes sullen and withdrawn the child perceives rejection; even if the parent turns jovial the child feels terribly insecure because he senses the instability in the parent’s mood and demeanour. In all cases the child, at least unconsciously, feels abandoned and confused and fearful, never knowing what the next moment or the next day will bring. For a young child the parent is the universe, the sun, the earth, the ground of being. When that universe is characterized by a fundamental instability the child has no rest. He experiences fear, frustration and rage but lacks the safety of being able to confide in an adult who would invite, welcome and validate his communications of emotion. He is confronted by a dilemma that has no satisfactory resolution.
The developing human brain can tolerate only a certain degree of stress beyond which it has to move to defend itself. If the parent cannot receive and tolerate the child’s vulnerability the child’s emotional brain has a limited number of mechanisms to shield itself from further rejection. One way is to disconnect its apparatus of feeling from conscious awareness. This flight from vulnerability protects the child from being agitated by feelings which, if expressed, might endanger his connection with the adult world. That is the survival benefit of emotional shut down. The cost is an inhibition of normal feelings, a loss of compassion for the suffering of self and others, an unforgiving attitude towards human frailty.
The former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, whose social policies were cut from the same cloth as those of the Campbell Liberals, was also traumatized by the alcoholism of his father. As a mask for his absence of genuine emotion he developed a charming pseudo-persona, a surface bonhomie which covered a lifelong cognitive and emotional vagueness and disconnection. That is what him made him capable of confusing for recollections of actual reality Hollywood movies he had acted in or had only seen.
The other mode of psychological self-defense available to the child of the alcoholic is to maintain a close relationship with the parent by becoming a compulsive caregiver. Such a child may physically care for the alcoholic parent or become the emotional bedrock and support of the alcoholic’s spouse. A person who grows up in this manner will show excessive compassion for others and little for herself. She will be incapable of saying no to others’ needs or yes to her own. The cost, until she learns to shed this debilitating dynamic, is fatigue and stress and the threat of illness. It is surely no accident that a strikingly large proportion of adults who develop cancer, autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis, or neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis give histories of having been reared in homes where one or another of the parents drank. The same is true for adults who suffer from depression or anxiety or other chronic emotional problems. Some turn to alcohol themselves to escape a lifetime of psychological suffering.
Although the economic and political decisions of a government cannot be reduced to the formative experiences of its leader, even supporters of the Campbell government have been shocked by the apparent lack of humane spirit in the formation and execution of its policies. “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression,” wrote the novelist Saul Bellow; “if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.” The loss of self-affirming vitality and even of compassion may be the price paid by the adult child of the alcoholic for the enforced suppression of painful emotion early in life.