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January 27, 2005

An Autobiography: A Deaf Adult Child Survives

From: Dr. Frank Lala - Jan 27, 2005


By Frank James John Lala, Jr., Ph.D.            


Becoming a victim of alcohol or drugs is a terrible fate for any individual and a loss for society. The losses are compounded when the victim is deaf or hard-of-hearing, and when treatment is difficult to find.

Perhaps one should first examine Helen Keller's definition of deafness:

"The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus - the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."

A deaf adult child of an addicted family, I was born to middle class parents in Los Angeles, California. My hearing parents, Frank Sr. and Isabel made their living as a salesman and IBM key punch operator, respectively. I was a hearing child. The first five years of my life were with two wonderful, loving and devoted parents. They provided everything a child would need.

Unfortunately, at the young age of five, I began to lose my hearing due to an antibiotic drug (Streptomycin) intended to combat tonsillitis. My parents were heartbroken at the prospect of profound deafness and concerned as to how it would impact my life. They continued to shower me with their affection and love. To evaluate my hearing and speech status, I was sent to John Tracy Clinic. Thereafter, I attended a number of schools before being placed in a private military academy, which, of course, was a hearing academy.

At first things ran smooth. One day an older boy (officer) was in our dormitory for inspection. We all stood at attention in front of our beds. I was about eight years old and was extremely concerned that I might not be able to hear him calling my name if he had anything to say to me about the drawers or closet. I knew if he stood in front of me, I would be able to read his lips and respond verbally without any problem. However, he called my name from behind and I did not respond. I looked for clues from others who stood by their beds to see if there was any indication that my name was called. There was none. Finally the officer tapped me on my shoulder. I looked him straight in the face as he asked me if I heard him call my name. I told him no. He reported this to the principal and I was called into his office. I was asked if I had a hearing problem. I replied that I did not hear well. The principal requested a hearing test and found that I had a hearing impairment, a 60db level of hearing. Consequently, my parents were informed of this and it was suggested that I attend a special school for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. I attended Mary E. Bennett School and eventually was placed at California School for the Deaf ("CSDR") around the young impressionable age of nine.

Afterward and while undergoing this major change in my young life, my parents divorced. CSDR was only temporary for a year as my parents planned that I would attend another private school the next year. A culture shock doesn't even come close to describing the ordeal of attending CSDR school as an oralist with a student body of deaf children who used sign language to converse. I was unable to communicate with them except for primitive gestures.

As I look back though, the first ten years of my life seemed wonderful. Every Christmas, I awoke finding our living room filled with hundreds of balloons. Presents were piled high under the tree. I recall one special Christmas morning I found an adorable German Shepherd puppy just for me!

Even during my first year at CSDR, twice a week dad sent many packages of goodies and toys. They were for all of my classmates or for all thirty-two boys in the dormitory! Today I ponder whether he was just spoiling me or felt bad about the divorce or maybe guilty that I was placed in a boarding school. I suspect all three might be a correct assessment and motive.

At the end of the first year at CSDR and during that summer, tragically, dad passed away suddenly. He died of a heart attack alone on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Simultaneously, mom was in the hospital with an acute ear infection and high fever when the heartbreaking news hit me about dad. And as a strange twist of fate, she lost her hearing too (five years after me). How ironic this seemed because there was absolutely no deafness in our family history other than mother's twin sister, Aunt Mary, who had a similiar ear infection and became deaf also as a result. Both sisters were twenty-eight and in the prime of life. Naturally, they met this hardship with great distress. First, they lost their jobs and that almost immediately forced us into poverty. They loved music and could no longer appreciate the beautiful sounds. Communication with the world -- friends and family, became hopeless and doomed. For us, subsistence diminished to a feeling of total abandonment and our outlook became bleak, desolate and joyless. At the formidable young age of ten, I was compelled to grow up very fast or did I? Physically I became a young man but psychologically, the consequences were many.

The private school was no longer an option and I returned to CSDR. I felt betrayed by broken promises. All the boys questioned me about the goodies and toys. I was angry at dad for placing me in such an embarrassing situation. I struggled with the reality he left me. Scrambling with all of these horrendous hurdles and roadblocks, I changed from an outgoing, friendly person to a withdrawn and frightened young boy. I was so ill-at-ease that I retreated. I gradually began to lose my ability to speak, due to poor self esteem, while I harbored the feeling that my mother didn't seem to care about her son. Isolation and confusion consumed me together with hostility and anger that had not yet surfaced.

I sadly watched mother become an alcoholic just like her sisters Mary and Jean. They also abused prescription drugs. Gone were the Christmas trees, the presents or even someone to talk with on Christmas morning. The life I once knew became a dismal shadow that seemed a fantasy. Probably in search of love, approval and wanting a normal life, I began to shoulder many of the responsibilities. Later, I realized I took on these burdens out of necessity. I collected empty soda bottles from the seedy streets of Los Angeles and exchanged them for cash deposits at the markets. Potato or corn chips and pretzels satisfied my hunger pains. If I was lucky and fortunate the day's collection of bottles, then I treated myself to a slice of pizza or a cold, plastic-wrapped sandwich from a liquor store. Once a kind man at Ralph's Supermarket apparently recognized that I was a hungry kid and instructed me to go around back and loaded me up with edible vegetables and fruits that were about to be tossed.


"King Heroin is my shepherd; I shall always want. He maketh me to lie in the gutters.

He leadeth me beside the troubled waters. He destroyeth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of wickedness.

Yea, I shall walk through the valley of poverty and will fear no evil, for thou, Heroin, art with me.

Thy Needle and Capsule comfort me. Thou strippest the table of groceries in the presence of my family. Thou robbest my head of reason.

My cup of sorrow runneth over. Surely heroin addiction shall stalk me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of the Damned forever."

While at MacArthur park in Los Angeles, I watched an elderly man tend to his video game machine business. Every Wednesday afternoon at the boat house, he collected his money from the slots, cleaned the glass of each machine and repaired  it if necessary. One day, he inadvertently left a large ring of keys still inserted in one of the slots. I took it. When he came back in the next week, he didn't have an extra set so I walked up to him and told him that he left it. He was astonished and immediately checked to see if anything was stolen from the slots. He realized that I couldn't hear, but still offered me a job at the boat house. He paid me cash and fed me at the boat house cafe! I will never forget his kindness and compassionate spirit. Because CSDR was closed, existence during the summer months was extremely harsh and that particular summer he literally kept me going until school resumed.

During the summers and some holidays, there were many times that I didn't eat for two days. Sometimes, I bought a package of macaroni or spaghetti --- but I ate it without any sauce or even butter. It wasn't too tasty for an eleven year old kid, but it filled me up nonetheless. Once back at CSDR, the environment became normal, healthy and placid. The teachers cared about our learning and the dormitory counselors advised and protected us. I had some friends, and the surroundings and atmosphere were peaceful and unobtrusive. It was a place where I could sleep undisturbed for eight hours a night while enjoying hot meals three times a day. It was heaven -- the only real home I had -- and marvelously so, not infested with cockroaches and bed bugs!

I am convinced anger was an integral part of my emotions while I suffered and sustained the anguish of what substance abuse did to my life and family. I swore that as long as I lived I would not drink any alcohol, use drugs or smoke. Somehow in this terrifying and grim existence, I wanted to help others with their substance abuse. Maybe once I graduated from school I would pursue this dream I had promised myself. Too young then to realize it, the negative life I led as a young boy became my positive strength as a young adult. Much later I read philosopher Nietzsche who said something to this effect - "When you experience suffering, you have two choices: either you are going to surrender, accept defeat and perish in the process; or you will overcome it and become a stronger person for it and survive."

Another incident occurred during one of those summers around 3 o'clock in the morning. Outside the rear door of our duplex was a fenced house where all the windows were boarded and the furnishings were covered with white sheets. A large conspicuous sign informed one "DO NOT TRESPASS." Obviously, the grass was not maintained standing tall at three feet. Weird and spooky, it looked like a haunted house. A man lurching at the rear entrance broke down the door and startled mom. She screamed and he fled the scene. Quickly she ordered me to get a butcher knife from the kitchen for protection. My heart trembled with fear questioning what chance I had as an eleven year old child to fend off this wild maniac, burglar or much worse a rapist attacking mom. I could only see, not hear. I stood tall trying to suck up courage to fight off the intruder. I glanced over at mother. She was passed out from the booze. Again I peeked at the doorway; the man was gone. Yet nothing but threatening darkness loomed beyond. I was so scared.

We didn't have a phone and certainly back then a telecommunication device for deaf people (TDD) wasn't in operation. I grabbed both our cats in my arms and locked myself in the other bedroom and turned the light on. Half crazy with fear. I held on tightly to the cats all night. They were my ears. If they heard anything, I'd know someone was lurking around the house. Eventually, I fell asleep. The next morning I slowly unlocked the door to see if mom was okay. Thankfully, she was fine and remained asleep on the couch. This was another pitiful but typical childhood experience that affected me adversely.

I recall at sixteen during another holiday break, I came home to our apartment and found it destroyed. The apartment manager informed me that it was my mother's lit cigarette that set the fire. He threw us out. Secretly,  I knew she was probably drunk and passed out. She was hospitalized with burns from the accident. For three days I walked Hollywood Boulevard where it was safe because of the many all night tourists, until I caught the CSDR  school bus on Sunday in downtown L.A.

The sad aftermath is that I attended the funerals of my entire family (mother, aunts, uncles, and grandparents). They all died from substance abuse of one form or another. Mary was in a coma when mom died of an overdose of sleeping pills. One week later, she passed away without ever regaining consciousness -- never knowing that mother had already died. What was so strange about them is that they shared everything in life and even in death. They are buried beside one another.

As I questioned and examined earlier in this article I grew up quickly in order to survive. Inwardly, I certainly did not understand or comprehend the signifiance or consequence of how as a deaf adult child I suffered from severe psychological problems. I experienced and witnessed alcoholism and drug abuse at a very young age. I did not understand the concept of the disease as it related to alcohol or drug addiction until I was eighteen. By then I had watched mom go through four hours of agony when I refused to give her a bottle of vodka. She screamed, pleaded, and cried. She broke out with body shakes, cold sweats, withdrawal symptoms, binges, blackouts etc. She was pregnant and I refused to give her any liquor because I was concerned about her unborn child. I wanted to nourish her and the baby with food and attempted to bargain with her to eat first. Naturally, I was very naive and ignorant as to the outcome of my refusal to give her a bottle. She was completely at my mercy and she looked like she was dying before my eyes. I was so apprehensive that I finally surrendered. By this time she could not even hold the vodka bottle or open it for that matter. She acted like a total stranger. This was not the mother I knew all my life. At that moment, I realized and understood what the Big AA book was talking about.

My half brother Daniel was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and since his birth is a ward of the State of California. My half sister who is four years older that Daniel has a learning disability (Fetal Alcohol Effects) due to mom's alcoholism. Fortunately, as the first child, I was spared from having any physical or health problems because mother did not drink.

A study was reported in the distinguished New England Journal of Medicine and according to this article, women become drunk faster than men because their stomach is less able to neutralize alcohol. An enzyme in the stomach breaks down most of the alcohol before it reaches the bloodstream. However, women have less of this enzyme than men and about thirty percent pure alcohol enters a woman's bloodstream. Researchers report this could explain why women feel the effects of liquor quicker than men do and it may explain why women are more suspectible than men to liver damage. Moreover, this also may explain why it took only ten years of heavy drinking for mother and aunts to reach the "chronic" late stage instead of what generally takes others up to 30 years to reach.

From a long and weary journey of heartbreak, confusion, and despair, I survived. Death surrounded my family and later, my friends, from the plague of substance abuse. I knew they all died in vain, unless I learned something from their tribulation.

We are not in the hands of an inevitable fate or destiny -- Fate and destiny to shape, mold and frame by the foresight and vision we dare to see for ourselves.

I was pushed into an uncharted territory when I grew up and stared death in the face when it took all of my family members by the time I was twenty-one. I refused to become a victim or a statistic from substance abuse. For a young man trying to overcome many psychological problems, the healing began once I learned to forgive my parents for divorcing; my father for dying much too soon; and my beloved mother, Isabel, for drinking her life away because she didn't know how to cope with life's substantial obstacles thrust at her. I fared much better than my parents' misfortunes and the entire family's afflictions. I certainly paid a heart-rending price; but to state it simply, I made a choice and fought back.

I remained in school and continued my education. I became one of instrumental co-founders of the recovery program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Alcohol and Drug Abusers in southern California. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the deaf substance abuser with my advisors on the dissertation committee, Dr. Harlan Lane and Dr. Betty G. Miller. I authored a lengthy article on deaf substance abuse which was published in the National Association of the Deaf's Deaf American Monograph. I have authored many periodicals regarding my stance against substance abuse. I was a speaker at the World Federation of the Deaf regarding Mental Health issues.

Sharing these childhood experiences growing up in a broken, impoverished and alcoholic home only touches the diminutive corners of my life and its adverse effects on me. We all recognize one cannot totally comprehend someone's life unless they have walked in their shoes. As I counsel today, it is impossible for anyone to tell me that I do not understand the implications of alcoholism or drug abuse because I don't drink or use illegal drugs. They are in for a rude awakening and argumentative challenge!

Hearing adult children of alcoholics have difficulty experiencing a healthy and normal life. They have low self esteem, feelings of isolation, confusion, anger, fear, guilt, high level of anxiety with interpersonal relationships etc. As my intimate epic reveals, children who are deaf of hearing parents already experience many of those same characteristics without having addicted families. If they grow up with addicted families, their dilemma is much more severe. Most of them have communcation barriers with their families due to their deafness and the family's inability to communicate in sign language. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people have communication, isolation and poor self esteem problems along with society's stigma and discrimination. If they are also deaf adult children of addicted families, their problems are compounded.

Recovering persons from A.A., N.A., A.C.O.A. etc experiences similiar diseases resulting from alcoholism and/or chemical dependencies. We all go through our own 12 STEP program. An interesting note is that some famous adult children of alcoholics are: Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Traci Lords, Dr. Claudia Black, Rodney King, actors Chuck Norris and Desi Arnaz, Jr., actresses Suzanne Somers and Angie Dickinson, and many more --- all of whom do not have a hearing loss.

My published book entitled, Counseling the Deaf Substance Abuser, 416 pages is available for order from Midas Management Company for $19.95 - free shipping. See end of article for ordering information. Another book is planned on the subject of deaf adult children of alcoholics. It will encompass material on adult children of alcoholics and specifically, on deaf adult children of both deaf and hearing children of deaf substance abusing parents.

Today, I recommend and urge various universities/colleges that have deaf programs to implement a certification program for deaf students in the areas of alcohol and drug abuse counseling, since there exists a shortage of deaf counselors to meet the needs of chemically dependent deaf and hard of hearing people. Such certification programs could be subsets of general education programs, special education course work, communication studies, deaf studies or they could be offered under the auspices of the psychology department, Gallaudet University should take the initiative by offering a certification program in alcohol anf drug abuse counseling and further, to accept credits as part of the student's degree requirements as an incentive to encourage deaf students to enroll. This certification should be available through Gallaudet University's Online program (Extended Learning).

I continue to recognize the need and demand for more insightful caring bi-lingual & bi-cultural counselors, intake personnel, therapists and other professionals. We need public support both monetarily and in less tangible areas such as morale. Overall commitment on the part of everyone involved in the therapeutic process is greatly needed on both giving and receiving ends, to enable people to bring their best to the process of eliminating from the deaf community the impediment of alcoholism and substance abuse.

The deaf experience is still discussed with the opinions generally away from the assumption  that deafness constitutes a disability which merits ameliorative action on the part of everyone from family to social service agencies and toward the belief that deafness need not be deemed a defect and that deaf people can be recognized as any other language-minority people.

In my opinion, the scourge of addiction or the underlying propenity to abuse substances is a disability. This can ultimately be overcome so that all deaf people shall have a greater probability of living well-adjusted lives.

I've had an interesting life full of death, drugs and alcohol -- my double dose. I've buried both parents and feel I come from an overload of addictive experiences to help others, deaf or not. This is a social problem that needs to be resolved through government programs, public awareness and education. Our deaf citizens have many problems to overcome and it's way too easy for them to go inward. I know; I was there. But through strength in conviction, I overcame any need for drugs or alcohol. I am helping others follow my way, the way to a healthy, normal, self-sustaining life.


This autobiography article are reprinted (Posted, Passed, or Published) with permission of the publisher of the author's book "Counseling the Deaf Substance Abuser."

(C) 2005 Midas Management Company, c/o G. Kassel, P.O. Box 610393, San Jose, CA 95161 []

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Frank Lala, recipient of Gallaudet University's prestigious Laurent Clerc Award by Dr. I. King Jordan in recognition for the work in substance abuse.