Children Who Numb the Pain with Alcohol

a fall day

This is the second in a series about the connection between child sexual abuse and alcohol.  Recently, I’ve been surprised to realize how even young children learn that alcohol is effective in relieving their shame, their fear and their anger over what abusing adults are doing to them. It works – at least in the short term.

In Drinking: the Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Ann Dowsett Johnston interviews Laura who, as a grade twelve student, is already a recovering alcoholic. Laura started drinking at age nine. She’s quoted as saying, “I felt like I could lift buildings…..I thought; I’ll never love anything the way I love alcohol.” (p. 74.)

The love affair lasted several years. Sexually abused as a child, ‘debilitatingly anxious and bulimic,’ ‘Laura shuffled homes, from her mother’s to her father’s to various aunts and uncles.’ Alcohol was a daily constant, often pilfered from relatives’ liquor cabinets. (p. 75.)

I learned a lot more about children and alcohol dependence by reading Nancy Brown’s memoir of addiction, Facing Life.  The author tells her story of years of sexual enslavement by the father of a family that moved in across the street from her own caring home. Before long, little Nancy was terrified into serving as a sexual prize for the horrible father’s card playing buddies. She felt   trapped and helpless to escape her situation. The only thing that made it bearable was alcohol.

Before she discovered alcohol, she stuffed candy into her mouth, ‘chewing frantically, juice running down my chin.” (p. 16.)

“Soon I started stealing candy from the little corner stores in my neighbourhood…. I’d stuff my pockets and run home to hide it in the back of the closet. … There in the almost dark I made a connection that would last a lifetime. As the sweetness slid down my throat and sleep tugged at my eyelids, I found that I wasn’t afraid any more.” (p. 16 & 17.)

I was startled to relate to this personally. When I was a fat little girl being used sexually by my father and his father, I stuffed my face with spoonfuls of butter and brown sugar. I learned that this dulled the pain. I don’t remember discovering alcohol although, in my adult life, I’ve always been aware of the seductive power of wine and spirits.  It would be so easy to become addicted.

Brown’s description of her first experience with alcohol’s effectiveness is a moving tribute to the power of alcohol as a mood altering substance. She was at a school dance when a male friend offered her his flask of spirits:

“When I swallowed, the liquid burned its way down like a hot, lazy snake, and soon the most wonderful thing happened. It felt as though my fairy godmother had finally noticed my needing her and, in one swift act of pity and kindness, flicked her wand. I forgot that I was the fattest girl in the room. I forgot about the despicable things I’d done in the house across the street. And I forgot the bad-man smell that followed me everywhere. My world hardly pinched at all.” (p.25.)

Nancy Brown was one of those children who never dissociated her trauma. She remembered it all, unlike the daughter of the new neighbours, who was Nancy’s age.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss the experience of children who don’t remember their abuse as well as children whose brains somehow didn’t block them from remembering what was intolerable and inescapable.

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