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Children of Alcoholics : Nationwide Movement With Orange County Origins Aims to End Pain, Denial

December 17, 1987|JAN HOFMANN | For The Times

"I'm sorry," wails singer Brenda Lee on the office speaker system.

"So-o sorry.

"Please accept my apo-o-logy. . . ."

The handful of clients in the waiting room of the Adult Children's Center in Orange this evening don't seem to be paying attention to the song. They just keep on perusing the magazines, pausing now and then to glance nervously at their watches. But they can easily identify with the words.

The song just happens to be on the easy-listening station's playlist for the night, but it might as well have been dedicated to these people, and to children of alcoholics everywhere.

Bump into them on the street--step on their toes with all your weight--and they're likely to say "I'm sorry" before you can open your mouth. It's a reflex they learned as children. Now they've come here to unlearn that habit, along with other skills they once needed to survive in a home where something was terribly wrong, but no one could acknowledge the problem.

Lou Stoetzer, director of the Adult Children's Center, says it goes back to one of the most-cited images in the alcoholism treatment field: "The elephant in the living room. Everyone pretends they don't see it. The mother keeps cleaning up after it and saying, 'I wonder where all this elephant dung comes from?' " But the children, he says, have their own problem. That invisible elephant, the parent's alcoholism, keeps stepping on them, and they grow up pretending it doesn't hurt. After all, it doesn't exist, so how could it be a problem?

Just in case, when they can't hide their pain, they apologize for it, figuring that since it can't be the elephant's fault, it must be theirs. Although they may never take a drink themselves, "these people get every bit as sick as the alcoholic," Stoetzer says.

The tendency to apologize is only one common trait among children of alcoholics, the experts say. They often have a need to be in control--children of alcoholics don't like roller coasters, for example, and they'd rather be the driver than the passenger in a car. They tend to be afraid of intimacy and have trouble trusting others or just relaxing and having fun.

As recently as five years ago, most mental-health professionals would have pegged this group as just about the least likely of any to need their services. Children of alcoholics also tend to be high achievers, eager to please and slow to make waves. They just didn't seem the type to need therapy.

Now they're the mental-health field's fastest-growing market. "I've been in the field for more than 25 years," Stoetzer says. "And I can't remember any one thing that has identified the need for services as this has."

The change is due in large part to the efforts of Orange County pioneers who saw through that controlled adult facade and recognized the wounded children underneath.

In 1981, therapist and consultant Claudia Black of South Laguna wrote and published the first book on the subject, "It Will Never Happen to Me!" and is now recognized nationally as one of the founders of the children of alcoholics movement.

A dog-eared copy of the book found its way to what Stoetzer describes as a "renegade" Al-Anon group in Costa Mesa in 1982 that departed from the prescribed format and evolved into one of the nation's first adult children of alcoholics support groups.

The following year, the National Assn. for Children of Alcoholics was founded in South Laguna. This month, the organization is beginning its biggest public awareness effort. Information packets featuring posters with Marvel Comics heroes such as Captain America and Spiderman are being sent to every elementary school in the nation in an effort to identify and treat the problem at an earlier stage.

The movement's strong Orange County base is no accident, Stoetzer says. "Orange County and the West Coast in general is full of people who fled to escape their family's pain. But when they get here, it follows them."

Several famous Americans, including President Reagan, actress Shirley MacLaine and comedian Carol Burnett have publicly identified themselves as adult children of alcoholics, and Stoetzer says that has made it easier for some people to move out of their own denial.

But the biggest impetus behind the movement is at the grass-roots level, says Gerald Myers, executive director of the National Assn. for Children of Alcoholics.

"When our organization was founded, we started contacting professionals and saying, 'Listen, folks, you have to deal with this issue,' " Myers says. "We weren't very successful. So we decided that if we couldn't get through to the professionals, we'd go to the general public. There's a tremendous groundswell now. And it's the children of alcoholics themselves who are demanding that there be services for them."

There are about 28 million children of alcoholics in the United States, according to the National Assn. for Children of Alcoholics. Most of those--about 21 million--are adults.

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