The world was recently shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Degrassi child star Neil Hope – around four years after the event.
Neil Hope, born in Toronto Philip Neil Hope in 1972, died in lodgings of a heart attack related to alcoholism, in November, 2007. Neil was the youngest born into a family with alcoholic parents.
Children of alcoholic parents find different ways to “cope”. Neil was fortunate in that he was one of those selected for a part in a TV series, with a social message. From the age of 10, Neil became a Canadian actor best known for the character, Wheels, that he played in the long running Degrassi TV series.
As Wheels, Neil played out the life of a child, in working class Canada, born to alcoholic parents. As Wheels, Neil went through the trauma of his adoptive parents being killed in a car crash, the discovery that his birth mother was dead and that his father had abandoned him.
Wheels drinks alcohol and ends up in jail – having killed and injured pedestrians due to drunk driving. The character Wheels last appeared on TV in 2003.
In real life, the end of the Degrassi series, was for Neil – the end of hope. He neglected to care for himself, took to alcoholism, and died within three years.
For Neil, television had always been a means of escape from the pressures of life in his world. Two alcoholic parents who fought and squabbled, who were emotionally withholding, and lived separate lives, with the children divided between them, both emotionally and physically.
It would seem that any money earned by Neil was used to help support the family.
Before the Degrassi series ended, Neil had come to terms with the issues involved for a child of alcoholic parents.
In 1992, at the age of 19, he spoke out about alcoholism, in series called the Degrassi talks, and also made a documentary entitled The Darker Side, about the effects of parental alcoholism on children.
In an obituary article, in the New York Times, in the year 2012, after Neil’s earlier death had been discovered by his relatives, mention is made of an interview that he had, with entertainment media, in 2005.
In acknowledging that his life had gone pretty much downhill since the end of the Degrassi series, Neil says that he was too immature when the Degrassi series ended -” another season or two – and my life would have maybe been a little different than it is now”.
Perhaps, maybe, it is hard to say, but for Neil to have produced his contribution to the Degrassi talks, and to have made the documentary -”The Darker Side”, he would appear to have had wisdom beyond his years, and personal experience of the family dynamics of alcoholism.
In 1992, alcoholism was widely regarded as a disease. There was guilt and shame attached to the “stigma” of alcoholism, that was passed on to the children.
People such as Neil, a child of alcoholic parents, in their interactions with the media, make it fairly clear that alcoholism is not a disease but a problem of family dynamics.
Until very recently, their position has been ignored. Medical science has insisted upon a genetic model for alcoholism that can be potentially treated with drugs, with no exploration of relevant family dynamics.
Ten years ago, when Neil spoke out on behalf of the children of alcoholics, there was little interest. Neil was both a product, and a victim of his times.
The problem for children of alcoholics is that there will have been multiple traumas inflicted, that make the young child feel emotionally confused and conflicted. You might “get it” that you did not cause your parents to be alcoholics, you might get it that it is not your responsibility to have stopped them.
But how much more could you have helped your brothers or sisters, protected, supported your parents, stopped the rows, made some kind of intervention. The list of “could have”s” and “should have’s”is endless for the child forced to take a parental position, making them feel powerless and insignificant.
Ultimately, how worthless and unlovable must you be, that your parents always preferred to drink alcohol, than to care for you.
Good people like Neil Hope, born to alcoholic parents, ultimately suffer from their negative beliefs, and finding that alcohol provides “relief’ – also become alcoholics.
When people die early we often hope to gain some inspiration from their life.
Neil Hope should not be remembered for his alcoholism, nor should he be remembered only as a child actor.
The great achievement of Neil Hope, was the work that he did, perhaps unrecognised at the time, that enables us to see more clearly the plight of children born to alcoholic parents, providing insights that enable us to move forward, in the best treatment of alcoholism, and its effects on young children.
It is sad that Neil died a lonely death, one that many alcoholic’s fear, and that his family did not learn of his death until many years later.
However, there is a positive to this tragedy – fate works in many strange ways. Recent publicity about the untimely death of Neil Hope has also thrust into the media spotlight the work that Neil did, his contribution to the Degrassi talks, and the documentary “The Darker Side”.
A decade on from when these works were first published, we are now more enlightened, and ready to help alcoholics and their families by using comprehensive methods to resolve alcoholism, addiction and the related trauma.