Health: Children hit by the bottle: Growing up with an alcoholic parent can be devastating. Paddy Burt explains where young victims can turn for help

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Andrew Mason remembers coming home as a schoolboy to find his mother so drunk she was unable to speak. 'The kitchen would be a mess, stinking to high heaven, vodka bottles everywhere. I'd go to my mum's bedroom, and she'd just about register my presence. But she wasn't really there for me.'

Mr Mason, now 23, was an only child whose parents split up when he was four. He cannot remember when he realised that his mother was an alcoholic. She was a television journalist who always drank a lot with her friends. The biggest effect of it, he says, was the sense of being totally rejected. 'Sometimes she'd play the loving mother, at others not. It was clear to me she was saying: 'I don't need you, I wish you weren't here'.

'Of course, I thought it was my fault. I would try everything to keep her happy and stop her drinking. Nothing worked. All the time I was trying to control the drinking and I couldn't. I ended up being very uptight and terribly ashamed.'

Although the problems of alcoholics have been well aired, less attention has been paid to the emotional damage inflicted on their children. Yet one survey estimates that more than 2 million people in Britain grew up in a household in which one or both parents were alcoholic. Psychologists believe it is common for children of alcoholics to blame themselves and sacrifice their own welfare in trying to protect them.

The survey, due to be published later this year, was commissioned by the National Association For Children Of Alcoholics (Nacoa). In interviews with the adult children of alcoholics, 62 per cent said that parental drinking caused problems such as violence, tension, stress, too little money and an 'unstructured and unregulated home life'. The result, for the children, was loss of confidence, low self-esteem, lack of love and sometimes of ability to love. Adult children of alcoholics tended to worry about their own partners becoming alcoholic, and of becoming alcoholic themselves.

According to David Stafford, a founder member of Nacoa, the results came as a shock. 'We expected to pick up something, but nothing of this size,' he says.

Mr Stafford, a psychotherapist and author of Children of Alcoholics, spent 10 years working with families before helping to establish Nacoa in 1991. The association has helped to set up self-help groups for the children of alcoholics and also provides information about counselling.

'Few of these children appreciate how their experiences have maimed them,' he says. 'They prefer to remain unnoticed because of society's insensitivity towards alcoholism. They reject even the slightest imputation that all is, or was, not well. In their need to protect the drinker, they nearly always sacrifice their own interests and development, getting their sense of self-worth by trying to please other people.'

Mr Mason recalls how much he blamed himself and how he tried to keep his mother's drinking a secret. 'I was terrified of my friends finding out. I thought it was my fault she was drinking, my fault that she wouldn't stop. My whole adolescence was affected by it. After 12, I grew up pretty damn quick. I couldn't even tell my dad. I didn't tell anyone. I felt she was my responsibility.'

Feelings of anger and hostility are also common. 'One day I came home and found her crying on the stairs. I just walked past. I thought: 'Screw you'. I became immune to her manipulations. Alcohol had turned her into a demon. She told me the doctor had said she had only a year to live, and I thought, well, you'd be better off dead.

'That should have been the beginning of her recovery, yet it damn well wasn't. Because she had every reason to hate herself, she didn't care if she drank herself to death. She had absolutely no respect for herself.'

Andrew Mason's nightmare ended at the age of 16 when his father found out about the alcoholism and took his son to live with him. His mother is still alive and has cut down her drinking. He is now studying for a postgraduate degree. But less than a year ago, after breaking up with a girlfriend, he tried to commit suicide. It was, he feels, a cry for help rather than a serious attempt to end his life. Mr Mason is now attending psychotherapy sessions.

He is also being helped by going to Nacoa meetings. 'They are brilliant, because I am accepted for what I am. I don't have to hide. I can't deny the huge effect all this has had on me, but the message from Nacoa is that I can do something about it.'

According to David Stafford, the major damage stems not from gross neglect or abuse but inconsistency. 'The parent's moods tend to be totally unpredictable: drunk one moment, hungover the next. And because of the way such families function, it's not just the alcoholic who swings wildly in mood, the partner does, too.'

This means that most children of alcoholics end up looking after their parents. 'They come to believe that if they can control their parents' moods, then somehow their own well-being will be increased,' says Mr Stafford. 'So they tend to base their own welfare on their ability to alter the behaviour of other people. Which, of course, is the basis of many of the difficulties they later experience in close relationships.'

At 16, Jamie Parsons still lives with his mother and alcoholic father. 'He may not be dead drunk but he's always drinking. People don't immediately think of him as an alcoholic, but close friends know he always has a glass of whisky in his hand.'

This father becomes argumentative. 'He's always picking fights. My mum's put up with a lot and I resent the way he treats her. Last night, for instance, he didn't come home. He didn't even bother to ring up. Mum was dreadfully worried because anything could have happened to him.'

Jamie has been going to Alateen, a part of Al-Anon for teenagers who are affected by the problem drinking of a relative or close friend, since he was 10. It has, he said, provided valuable support. 'I've met people who are going through the same things as me,' he says. 'I don't mind telling people about my dad's problem any more because I've talked and talked about it and now I've got confidence. I'm no longer ashamed of my dad. I think he should be ashamed.

'Talking about your problems really is the best way to get rid of them. Yet although there are times when I tell myself I have no problems with life, my father can still smash all that in a moment.'

Nacoa: 0272 573432 or write to PO Box 64, Fishponds, Bristol BS16 2UH.

Alateen (part of Al-Anon): 071-403 0888, 24-hour confidential helpline.

'Children of Alcoholics', Piatkus, pounds 8.99 paperback.

Names have been changed.

Illustration: Amanda Hutt