Many children of addicted parents keep their worries to themselves because they want to protect their parents. (Picture: Getty)
“My mother wasn’t a bad woman.” With this sentence Sonja Keller begins to tell about her childhood. A childhood in which she had to get up independently every morning because nobody woke her up. In which she made her own breakfast and went to school alone. In which she had to clean the apartment because nobody else was able to do it and in which she and her brother got a can of ravioli or goulash soup to eat at noon and often nothing at all in the evening. “Sometimes, when my mother became aggressive through the alcohol, I hid our hammer from her so that she couldn’t beat us with it,” says Sonja Keller, who actually has a different name. The mother hit her anyway. She used the carpet beater instead of the hammer. Sonja Keller’s mother was an alcoholic.
Sonja Keller’s childhood was an endless loop of loneliness, suffering and care for her mother. Today she is an adult. But the scars of the past have not healed.
For such children, the “Action week for children of addicted parents” took place for the first time in Switzerland. Various organisations wanted to draw attention to this topic. The addiction counselling service of the Wil region also took part. It set up a media table in the municipal library with factual and children’s books and background information on addiction, mental illnesses and their effects on the family. This remains beyond the action week until next Saturday. “Much too long these children went forgotten , say the addiction counsellor Rahel Gerber.
“Addictive substance abuse is a big issue in Wil.”
Sucht Switzerland estimates that one to three children per school class grow up with one addicted parent. In Wil, the number is likely to be similar. “It is worrying how many cases of neglect we have to deal with at schools,” says Stefan Chiozza, Head of Education at the City of Wil. However, he also includes children whose parents are involved in a divorce war or are mentally ill. Based on his experience, Chiozza assumes that the number of these cases has increased in recent years. Addiction consultant Gerber also knows the problem from her daily work. “The abuse of addictive substances is a big topic in Wil. Once someone told me that you can get cocaine here faster than cannabis,” she says.
What children experience from addicted parents often accompanies them throughout their lives. They have to be constantly alert and adapt to their parents’ moods. They have to take responsibility far too early. “The children are often overwhelmed. It is difficult for them to develop a healthy self-confidence,” says Gerber. And this has consequences: “One third also becomes addicted and one third suffers from depression or other mental illnesses”, says the addiction counsellor. About one third could lead a normal life.
One of them is Sonja Keller. “I have been in psychiatric treatment for more than 30 years,” she says. Her diagnosis: a severe borderline disorder. She has also been suffering from anorexia for years. She says:
“How much I eat is the only thing I can really control.”
Keller tried to take his own life twice. Still today, she says, she has sleep disorders because the fear that her mother will do something to her in her sleep is so deep. Her mother died 24 years ago.
Usually it does not take much to help the children of addicted parents. “You don’t have to tear them out of their families,” says Gerber. Because that could also be traumatizing. Often it is enough to have a caregiver with whom the children can talk.
“The children must feel that they are all right.”
That gives her life stability. According to the expert, this is precisely where the problem lies: the suffering of children often goes undetected. “In many families, the addiction of parents is a secret, and children are almost impossible to get to,” she says. There are certain behavioural patterns that point to broken family relationships. For example, when performance at school suddenly drops sharply or when a child reacts very aggressively. But many children don’t stand out either. And they rarely talk of their own accord. “They love their parents and want to protect them,” says Gerber.
Despite everything, a mother who loved her children
Sonja Keller also says that she loved her mother. But when she talks about her, it sometimes sounds as if she is talking about the life of a distant acquaintance. Her voice remains objective. Perhaps this is because she has written a book about her life under a pseudonym. “That helped me to see everything from a distance,” she says. At the same time Keller tries to understand what is difficult for outsiders to understand: she wants to understand why her mother became who she was. A woman, born in war, traumatized and mentally ill. A mother who was not able to take care of her children. Despite everything, Keller is certain: “My mother loved me and my brother.
The campaign week for children of addicted parents took place for the first time in Switzerland from 11 to 17 February. Various organisations from the fields of addiction, families and child and youth protection carried out campaigns in twelve cantons to raise awareness of the issue. The addiction counselling service of the Wil region also took part and even decided to leave its media table in the city library for three weeks. Those affected and interested can inform themselves there until next Saturday. Other countries, such as Germany, have already been carrying out the action week for several years. (law)