The Dangers of an Alcoholic Mother

Posted on February 26th, 2010

The Dangers of an Alcoholic MotherWhen you hear the words “alcoholic mother,” you already have a mental image that’s disconcerting and confusing. It’s actually a dichotomy. Mothers are supposed to be nurturing, caring individuals, not falling-down drunks. How can the two possibly go together? The sad reality is that alcoholism knows no gender boundaries, nor does it pay heed to age, race, nationality, religious persuasion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. A woman can, therefore, be an alcoholic and a mother at the same time. There are a host of dangers in being an alcoholic mother. Let’s look at some of them.

High-Functioning Alcoholic Mothers Keep the Disease Hidden

Take a look at the headline cases of high-functioning alcoholic mothers who drove drunk and killed occupants of their own and others’ cars in vehicle crashes. Or the mothers who were passed out drunk while their homes burned down. Interviews with husbands, friends, neighbors, and co-workers reveal a far different story. To them, the woman in question was a good wife and mother, excellent worker, friend and neighbor. Reportedly, they never saw her drunk or out of control. They had no clue that the woman they thought they knew so well was in such a dangerous state.

High-functioning alcoholics are like that. They pull the wool over everybody’s eyes – and manage to get away with their alcoholic lifestyle (sneaking drinks, chugging drinks, binge drinking) for quite some time. But there is always a reckoning. For some high-functioning alcoholic women, when that day comes, it’s more than just a wake-up call. It’s often a tragedy beyond comprehension.

You have to wonder what would make a woman try to continue on such a path of self destruction. As a mother, she should be thinking about not only her own children, but the children and other lives of those who could be affected by her gross negligence of getting behind the wheel intoxicated. Why wouldn’t she seek help to overcome her addiction?

The truth is that we don’t know why high-functioning alcoholics, women as well as men, mothers and fathers, refuse to seek treatment. It may be the stigma attached to alcoholism that still persists today despite the recognition that addiction is a treatable disease. It could be a sense of pride that causes the women to refuse to admit that they have any kind of a problem with alcohol. That’s what happens to men, they rationalize. I just take a few drinks, nothing to hurt anybody.

How wrong they are. By the time their secret is revealed, the damage has already been done. The lives they’ve ruined – including their own – are needless consequences. Sadly, even if they somehow get off relatively unscathed (legally, no deaths, minor injuries), morally there’s an unpaid debt. This doesn’t have to do with the disease so much as the fact that the women aren’t accepting responsibility for their actions and, in the case of the alcoholic mothers, not taking proper care of their children.

Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy

Mothers who consume alcohol during pregnancy risk serious harm to their unborn infants. The range of effects that can occur is called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and includes physical, mental, behavioral and/or learning disabilities, possibly with lifelong implications. Every year in the U.S. more than 40,000 babies with an FASD are born to mothers. This costs upwards of $6 per year nationally.

FASD is comprised of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), and fetal alcohol effects (FAE), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).

What is it about alcohol that harms a fetus? Alcohol is a teratogen. This is a substance that causes harm to the developing fetus. When consumed, alcohol crosses the placental barrier and enters the bloodstream of the fetus. As a result, the alcoholic content in the fetal bloodstream is equal to or exceeds that of the mother. Even a few drinks (social drinking) can harm the fetus. As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) warns, “Every woman is different. No amount of drinking is 100 percent safe, 100 percent of the time, for every individual woman.”

Neglect of Existing Children

Besides the risk to unborn children, there’s also the significant risk of negative consequences to existing children of the alcoholic mother. Alcoholism is a progressive and often life-threatening disease. Without treatment, it steadily causes a host of physical, psychological, social, legal, vocational and familial problems.

The children, however, are often the ones who suffer the most. As minors, they are not able to adequately take care of themselves, although many children of alcoholics try to function as adults – and lose their innocent childhood in the process. Nor should they have to. Again, being a mother is supposed to mean that the woman nourishes and cares lovingly for her children. The alcoholic mother is more concerned with her intake of alcohol than in doing what’s best for her offspring.

Unfortunately, many alcoholic mothers refuse to see the problem. Or, the problem sneaks up on them after months and years of alcohol consumption with no seeming problems other than a few more hangovers than before, a few missed appointments, being late for work, missing the children’s school activities or forgetting to pick them up, not making their lunches, doing their laundry, or reading them bedtime stories. Time somehow gets lost in the continuum between the last drink and the next one. Yet the problem not only exists, it is becoming dangerous for the children in the household.

Research shows that children of alcoholic parents are more likely to themselves drink alcohol excessively. The younger alcoholic consumption begins, the more likely the child is to develop a problem with alcohol and/or other harmful substances. The alcoholic mother, being consumed with her own need to drink, can neither see the dangers to her children, nor likely care much about it.

Divorce is common among families with an alcoholic mother. So is the escalation of physical abuse, and incidents of violence and sexual abuse.

Vehicular Crashes

Although mentioned previously in the section on high-functioning alcoholics, vehicular crashes are another very real danger that exists with alcoholic mothers who drink and drive. Regardless of whether they have other passengers (or their own children) in their car, these alcoholic mothers are a danger to every other driver and passenger of motor vehicles – and pedestrians – on the roadways.

Their judgment and reaction time is significantly impaired. They often speed excessively, take chances by running red lights, taking curves at unsafe speeds, cannot compensate for weather or road conditions, and are overconfident in their driving ability. Their vision is often blurred, further complicating split-second decision-making, already severely compromised by alcohol.

Premature Death

Although more men drink than women, according to experts, among the heaviest drinkers, women equal or surpass men in the number of problems resulting from their drinking. Female alcoholics have death rates that are 50 to 100 percent higher than male alcoholics. This includes deaths from suicides, heart attacks and strokes, cirrhosis of the liver, and alcohol related accidents.
When the alcoholic mother dies, the entire family is impacted – especially the surviving children. Caring for the children falls squarely on the shoulders of the father, who may be ill-equipped to deal with the situation. In the case of single-parent families, the children’s lives may be irrevocably changed. They may need to be taken in by relatives or go into foster care – neither of which is ideal.

Risk Factors for Alcoholic Mothers

Women who are mothers need to be aware of risks that may make them more vulnerable to drinking more excessively and becoming alcoholics. These risks include:

  • Parents, siblings or other blood relatives who have an alcohol problem
  • Spouse or partner who drinks heavily
  • History of depression
  • History of physical or sexual abuse in childhood
  • Ability to “hold her liquor” more than others

Typical Characteristics of Alcoholic Mothers (and alcoholics in general)

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is a disease that’s based in the brain. In the short-term, alcohol’s effects on the brain are what causes drinkers to feel relaxed, high, or sleepy. Over the long term, the brain’s changes (in some alcoholics) can make the urge to drink as compelling and urgent as the need to breathe or eat. In addition, alcoholics have the following characteristics:

  • Cravings – or compulsion to drink.
  • Loss of control – inability to stop drinking once alcoholic consumption has begun.
  • Physical dependence – the body becomes dependent on the presence of alcohol, and suffers withdrawal symptoms when alcohol intake is stopped after heavy drinking. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety.
  • Tolerance – alcoholics require increasing amounts of the substance in order to achieve or maintain the “high” they seek.
    Get Help to Quit Drinking
    Alcoholic mothers should consider the following strategies to help them quit drinking:
  • See your doctor – Start by talking with your doctor. Discuss alcohol use and its problems. Your health care provider can help you really look at the negative effects alcohol is having on your life and can make recommendations on where to get treatment.
  • Get professional help – You can’t quit on your own. Research shows that alcoholic mothers who voluntarily enter treatment for alcoholism and stick with it have a higher likelihood of success than those who try to be their own doctors. You need professionals to create a personalized treatment plan for you based on your needs, monitor your progress, and help you learn about triggers and cravings and avoiding relapse.
  • Join Alcoholics Anonymous – This is a 12-step fellowship that is comprised of others who have had problems with alcohol and are dedicated to remaining clean and sober – and helping newcomers achieve sobriety through encouragement and support.
  • Avoid triggers – These are the people, places, or situations that make you drink, even if you don’t want or intend to. For alcoholic mothers, this also includes having any alcohol present in the home – even beer. Avoid all triggers as a first step to your determination to quit drinking altogether.
  • Plan how to handle urges – You will learn about coping mechanisms in treatment, and once you’re in recovery is when you’ll really put this knowledge to the test. Experts recommend that when the urges or cravings occur, do the following:
    • Remind yourself why you want to quit.
    • Talk it over with a trusted friend or family member, AA sponsor or 12-step group ally.
    • Distract yourself with a healthier alternative, a hobby, activity or educational pursuit.
    • Acknowledge that the craving occurred, but that it will pass in a short period of time – in other words, just ride it out and don’t give into it.
  • Learn how to say no – When you’re in recovery, there’ll always be some occasion when others will ask you to have a drink with them, or will offer you an alcoholic drink in social settings. Have your polite responses ready so you don’t have to think up one on the spot. The faster and more convincingly you can say, “No, thank you,” the quicker the temptation will pass.

Resources on Women and Alcohol

Help is available from many sources for mothers and women who have a problem with alcohol or who are alcoholic. Start with these:

  • If Promises Treatment Centers is not an option for you, there are many ways to find treatment. You can call a Promises intake advisor who has a list of recommended providers they can refer you to, or you can visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Treatment Facility Locator, http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/ or call their the toll-free referral helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357).
  • 12-minute video, Alcohol: A Woman’s Health Issue, available free from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/, or call 1-301-443-3860. Also check out NIAAA’s other publications on subjects such as FAS, the dangers of mixing alcohol with medications, and family history of alcoholism, among others.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous, for referrals to local AA groups as well as informational materials available on the website.
  • National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI), http://ncadi.samhsa.gov/ or call 1-800-729-6686.
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), providing educational materials and phone numbers for local NCADD affiliates for information on local treatment sources, http://www.ncadd.org/, or contact them at 1-800-NCA-CALL (1-800-622-2255).

The Worst Danger – Refusing to Change

While alcoholism cannot be cured, the alcoholic mother can choose to change her life. Through a genuine desire to change and a commitment to seek and go through treatment, her life can turn around. It often takes hitting rock bottom for many alcoholic mothers to be able to see that there’s only one good way out of their situation – getting treatment.

In the final analysis, the worst danger is refusing to change at all. Until a woman accepts that she is an alcoholic and takes the necessary steps to overcome the disease, no amount of prodding or begging or demanding by husband, partner, children or other family members, friends, co-workers or others will make any difference.

If you are an alcoholic mother, or are close to someone who is, remember that there is always hope. The desire to change has to come from within, and so does the commitment. Seek and accept help where it is available, including the rock-solid love and support of the family. Make the determination that you want to have a better life, one that is not dictated by the pursuit and consumption of alcohol. You may be an alcoholic, but alcohol does not define who you are – not the person you want to (and can) be.

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