Children of Alcoholics: Our Instagram Live Q&A with Colleen Perry

If I can share that and share my experiences so that someone doesn't feel alone, whether it's an adult or a child that still living within that environment that's what I'm aiming to do.

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Colleen Perry is a writer and advocate based out of New Hampshire. While growing up her Mom struggled with Alcoholism. She passed away when she was 24 due to her addiction. In the wake of her death, she has found healing in opening up about her past. She founded her Instagram page @Ca_Perry as a place to share her story. The page has grown into an incredible community for children of alcoholics. She also advocates for responsible alcohol advertising and honest conversations about alcohol's impact on society. When she not busy with my advocacy work, she usually outside hiking or skiing with her family.

SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with childhood abuse and trauma?

CP: First of all, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I'm really excited to see everybody! So, Hi. I am an adult child of an alcoholic. I grew up with an alcoholic mother and she struggled with alcoholism for my entire childhood. We ended up losing her in 2015 when I was 24 years old. So, during my childhood, I dealt with a lot of verbal abuse, a lot of codependency and fighting within the household, and varying levels of neglect, depending on you know what was going on with her. Our family life really revolved around her alcoholism, if she was having a good day it was better but I wouldn't call it perfect because it was always something it was there. But when she was drinking it was just chaos. We didn't know when we were having dinner, there was a lot of yelling and fighting in the household. So, it was definitely very challenging to, you know, have a normal adult life or have a normal childhood within that.

SWY: What was your household environment like growing up as a child? How do you think a child's home environment contributes to and affects their trauma and future life?

CP: So for me, it was really, it was a lot of chaos like it was you never knew what was what you're going to be walking into that day. As a small child, that can be very, very unnerving. It just doesn't really set you up for success. You're focused so solely on what am I going to go home to? How am I going to mentally prepare myself for that? You really can't learn and grow in that type of environment. So I think that you get kind of stuck in this suspended animation thing, where it's like your childhood is supposed to be about learning and connecting with other people and learning those skills that you need to be an adult. Whether it's like the emotional skills, or, we had a conversation on my platform last week about just the basic skills like brushing teeth, learning how to do dishes, doing that kind of stuff, you don't learn that either. You just kind of are stuck in this suspended animation of just trying to survive that next day and next day. So, when you get to eventually get to adulthood, you struggle in these ways that are really hard to talk about, because there's a lot of stigma surrounding it. You see this all the time. I talked to people, and they're like, I didn't know that other people felt this way. It's definitely hard because it's so isolating, and people don't talk about it. I think that we need to do a better job of doing that so that these kids don't feel like they're alone. I think that connection is such a huge part of overcoming that.

SWY: What was your home environment like that maybe contributed to your trauma growing up?

CP: For me, I have a major issue with control. That's because like I said, it was really chaotic. So the way that that's manifested itself, in adulthood for me is that we'll go somewhere, or we'll make a plan to go do something on the weekend, and something changes. I personally have a really hard time with that. I tend to get very frustrated, and I get angry. A lot of that is because, for me, that change in routine seems like it's a small deal. But for me, there's so much fear involved with that, because that's the way that it has gone in the past for me. So that's definitely one way that it's, it has manifested for me. I'm trying to think of some other ways, like, I mean, just the basic skills. We weren't taught the things that we should have been. So it's like, I'm trying to learn them as an adult, while also trying to function like a regular adult. You don't get a break because you're a childhood trauma survivor and that's very hard.

SWY: How do you think we can break down the stigma behind children of alcoholic parents?

CP: It's funny because we have this effect, where it's like, one person starts talking and the other people start talking and it starts like a domino effect. As more people start to talk about it, becomes less stigmatized, and it's easier. I know not everybody's comfortable sharing their stories, and that's totally fine and I totally respect that. But for me, I'm at a point where I'm very fortunate enough to feel comfortable and to feel safe, where I can share that story. So, if I can share that and share my experiences so that someone doesn't feel alone, whether it's an adult or a child that still living within that environment that's what I'm aiming to do. I want to start breaking down those barriers and start having those hard conversations about this because it's needed. It's such a huge issue. It's like not just addiction it's other childhood traumas like the ACES they're so they're so interconnected and not well talked about.

SWY: What is one thing you want others to understand about the connection between having a parent who was an alcoholic and childhood abuse and trauma?

CP: Well, it's just, you know, their addiction is a very hard thing to deal with. It's like a roller coaster, it's a lot of ups and a lot of downs. It's definitely very true that it's a family disease. The kids are brought into that the kids see things that they shouldn't at an early age. The kids see the alcoholism, they see the bad decision making, they see the trauma. My mother ended up with DUI, and I was seven years old. She ended up getting sent to the police station, and we ended up being sent too and so in the back of a police car at seven years old. Unfortunately, because of the alcoholism, you are you're brought into that at a really early age and that's traumatic. I think the hardest thing is even if you, make the best of it, it's still really hard and you still carry baggage to adulthood with that. I think we're honestly at the forefront of this conversation, like, we're just getting to a point whereas a society we're willing to even start these conversations. I'm a mom, I'm a millennial, but my parents were right in the baby booms. With that generation, it's like, don't talk about it, don't do this, don't do that. It was very much like my parents spanked me and I'm fine type of thing. That was the only conversation that you had. I think that it's awesome that we're getting into this, you know, this section of time that, we are able to openly talk about it. I think that we're really at the forefront of that.

Viewer Comment: Have you ever tried al-anon? If so, did it help?

CP: I have and I think it's an awesome program. I take some of this stuff from it, but I'm not actively working in the program. I've taken some of the work that they do in the readings and stuff. But, I haven't been able to find a group that I'm super comfortable with. So, I think it’s definitely one of those things where it works for some people and it doesn't work for other people. I personally have not found a group that fits me the best. I find other things for me like connecting with this community. There are a couple of other things like getting out into nature, doing a lot of reading about it. That works better for me. But I also think if it works for you, it's great, it's an awesome resource. I know a lot of people that swear by it, so

SWY: If you could give one piece of advice to a child growing up in a home where there is dysfunction or alcoholism, what would it be?

CP: You're not alone. It gets better. I remember being like 13 and thinking that I was the only person in the world dealing with this. At 13 you're going through so much and even if you have the perfect family life and your life and everything else is set up for success. 13 is a hard age. To add like the childhood trauma and the addiction on top of that was just it was very isolating. There was a lot going on in my life at 13. If I could look bad, that's the age that was the hardest for me. So that's the age when I look back at that inner child. That's the age I use. You know, I would tell 13 year old me like it gets better. It gets so much better, just keep going, there are so many people waiting for you on the other side, like, it's going to get better. It sounds so mundane and I feel like people say that all the time. But that was just my starting point. From that, I got into sports and it got so much better from that. It took me a while to get to like the healing part. But like, I feel like once you get a little bit older, you settle in. 13 is weird, because you're still kind of a kid, but you're trying to figure out the adult role.

Viewer Comment: What are some of the responsibilities you felt you had to take on due to your parent's alcoholism?

CP: Growing up, I was the eldest out of two, and I definitely from an early age felt a real need to protect my younger sister to try to shield her from as much as I could, at that young age. We were five years apart, but I tried to shelter her from what was going on and to take basically take the brunt of it so that she didn't have to. There was there were several instances where I was in the middle of a fight, trying to block my sister from getting in the middle of it. So that was definitely very hard. I had to emotionally put myself in a position that was very traumatic, I don't want to say it was worth it, because I don't think that I deserve that. I felt that responsibility as a younger kid to protect her. But it also on the flip side of that made it so I grew up really fast. I saw a lot more than I probably should have because I was more geared towards protecting her as opposed to protecting myself. That's been a huge part of my journey getting out of codependency because with the alcoholic families, like I said, my mother was the center of it. The funny thing was after she passed away, the codependency stayed there. My role within that was like giving, giving, giving, because from a young age I was doing that and sheltering my sister. I was trying to keep a certain level of homeostasis within our home. So, part of my coming out of that codependency was learning how to put myself first and knowing that if you say no to someone, it's okay and to feel guilty for that. That's still definitely something that I struggle with. But that was the role that I played as the protector for my younger sister, and then also kind of trying to keep everybody happy.

SWY: Are you in your sister still closer?

CP: Yeah. I feel like I'm a little bit further along in my journey than she is right now and that's totally fine. But I think that I'm definitely more open about it and I've been trying to respect her wishes on it, but we're definitely pretty close.

SWY: What inspired you to start your Instagram page?

CP: So it's kind of complicated because when my mother passed away nobody wanted to do her eulogy. So I ended up doing the eulogy for her. Before she passed away she was sober for I think a year beforehand. I wanted to share that, but I didn't feel I could share that without sharing her journey as an alcoholic. So that was the first time in 2015 that I shared my story. I've kind of sat on it for a couple of years after that, like, people were surprised at the funeral. They're like, I had no idea. It was like a weight lifted off of me at that point. Then right around 2018, I went through some hard stuff and I ended up deciding because I was at a low point that I'm just going to try to share this and I did. I just started out with like, a small post kind of alluding to it a little bit, and people started to like it. So, it kind of snowballed and I just started to get a following, and sharing more openly as time went on, and we're here now.

Viewer Comment: What was a turning point in your life?

CP: I'm trying to think, I would say honestly the eulogy, like openly sharing, even if it was a really small group, but openly sharing that my mother was an alcoholic was like, amazing, because I never shared that before that point. It had always been like the open family secret, but I had always thought that it was a false secret. That comes with so much weight and it's so heavy. You feel a responsibility as a child of an alcoholic to keep that secret. But that secret is so heavy. So, when you even if you just tell a friend, or you tell a therapist, or you go to like an Al-anon meeting, once you physically tell someone that your parent was an alcoholic, here's such a weight lifted off of you. So that was definitely a big turning point for me.

SWY: As a child did you ever feel this shame or think am I going to be in trouble if I say something?

CP: So I have a funny story about that, because I was in kindergarten, and we were outside, and I live in the northeast, and there was this giant snowbank I was playing on, and I was wearing my brand new boots on, and then the bus came. My boot got stuck in the snowbank and I was terrified that they're going leave me behind. So, I literally pulled my foot out of my boot and ran to the bus with one shoe on. The teacher found the boot later on, but everyone asked why did you leave that? Looking back, the reason that I did this is at that age, I was so used to watching my parents fight and scream at each other, that I was terrified that if I got left behind, they would yell at me when I got home. That fear was there. But I remember the teacher asking me why I did this and saying, I don't know. But I knew I knew why I did it. But I did not feel safe with that adult because of the way that she approached me. I didn’t feel safe telling them this is what's going on in my household. I remember that as a young kid. I think we need to do a better job of setting educators and people up as safe adults so that they know how to approach these kids that you know are probably not going to tell you the first time because they don't feel safe. So we need to do a better job of educating but that's a whole other thing.

Viewer Comment: What has been the most helpful for you throughout your healing journey?

CP: Getting outside. I am a huge hiker, and honestly, it's the only place that I can get out of my head. When I'm at home, I'm always trying to do stuff, I'm on the computer. I'm trying to make schedules for the next day. I'm always like, what if? When I get outside, it's the only time that I get out of my own head. It's definitely been a really empowering thing for me too because, for so many years within that codependency, I was always the emotional one that couldn’t make my own decisions. That's the way that I was treated within that family. But I also had to keep it together. Climbing mountains that's definitely empowering for me. It's just a really peaceful, calm place for me. So that's definitely been a really big part of my healing journey.

Viewer Comment: What kept you going even when everything seemed difficult?

CP: That’s a really good question, and I've never really thought of it. I would say time in nature kept me going. My own inner strength kept me going for a while. As I said, 13 was rough, and then I got to a point in high school where I was very lucky. When I came into my freshman year of high school I basically fell into this group of friends, and some of them I am still friends with now. That support system helped me through the rest of it until I reached adulthood.