Tamara was finishing her last year of college and looking for a 1-credit hour elective course to finish out the psychiatric concentration in her pre-med major at a prestigious university. As she began to mull over her options, it occurred to her that with the end of college near and medical school on the horizon, she’d be unlikely to return home anytime soon. That sounded spectacular, but then she remembered her brother and her father…at home…with her mother. And suddenly she was wracked with guilt and knew that no matter what, even if it meant delaying medical school, she needed to go home to help — to convince mom to get help, to convince her dad to stop enabling, and to convince her brother to get out while he could. When she finally found a 1-hour elective entitled, “Addiction: A Family Disease,” she signed up without hesitation. What was her role in all of this?
Alfred was a superior lawyer. He was just promoted to full partner in his firm and celebrated with an “up and comer” award from his local bar association. And yet, in spite of all of his success, his inner world was rife with self-loathing and harsh criticism. Correspondingly, he often felt alone in a crowd, as though no one really knew him. The women he dated initially swooned over him, then felt run-off by his constant approval and affirmation-seeking, which came off as clingy and desperate. And the more clingy he became, they more they squirmed away for their own survival, and finally the more demanding and controlling he became in an effort to get them to stay. To make matters worse, Alfred seemed only half-aware of this, and when anyone suggested he might have room for improvement relationally, he felt rejected and hurt. And besides, he reasoned, he didn’t have much of a template for what relationships should look like having grown up in an alcoholic home.
Libby was a beautiful, outgoing, and winsome woman. People never knew the reason she left home at 16 and started tending bar to pay the rent on her studio apartment, but she figured they didn’t need to. After she settled down a bit in her late twenties and got married to one of the bar managers, the two of them opened their own restaurant in the south part of the city, and as a rule, it did quite well. But the bar and restaurant lifestyle was wearing on her, and when she began winding down her long work/party hours, her husband didn’t. So they fought. Hard. Physically sometimes, but always verbally. And the whole thing was fueled by booze, even when they hadn’t even been at the restaurant. She couldn’t help but notice how much it all felt like things growing up, and how lonely and worthless she felt as a result, reasoning it must somehow all be her fault. When she told one of her friends about their most recent-go round, she suggested she might benefit from something called Al-Anon.
What does it mean to be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic?
Very simply put, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA or ACOA) are just what they sound like — persons who grew up in a home where one or more parents were alcoholic, meaning any pattern of alcohol use that is excessive and/or interruptive of a parent’s ability to be functional in their caregiving role. It may also mean that the alcoholic parent’s own life was disturbed in terms physical health, or social, relational, emotional, spiritual, career, or economic functioning.
What It’s Like to Grow up in an Alcoholic Home
Adult Children of Alcoholics in Nashville are often shocked at just how much their upbringings have in common with one another, particularly because they experienced themselves growing up as so isolated and alone. But in fact, there are some extremely commonly occurring themes. See if one or more of have a familiar ring:
- The Burden Bearer:
- Adult Children of Alcoholics remember growing up being largely occupied bearing family burdens, and in particular, care-taking for their alcoholic parent(s). This may involve direct care for their alcoholism such as nursing them during hangovers or episodes of alcohol poisoning, or it may mean more indirect care, such as dealing with the havoc wreaked by the alcoholic parent’s actions — dealing with the repercussions of the relational, economic, or other messes they caused.
- Feelings Within the Family:
- Potent and undeniable feelings of isolation and loneliness
- Confusion and mixed feelings of love, resentment, and even hate for themselves and their alcoholic parents
- Genuine panic and anxiety, as well as ongoing insecurity and fear on a number of levels, including toward the alcoholic parent and toward others “discovering” what’s really going on.
- Overwhelming guilt
- Tangible family impact:
- As a result of things like poor work performance, absences/tardiness, drinking while on the job, etc., as well as excessive spending to support drinking, financial insecurity is a virtual guarantee, unless the family is independently wealthy (and even then, sometimes).
- Resentment and anger become palpable as a result of continual broken promises, both as it regards “changing” or stopping drinking and other important matters (e.g., promises to be at school events, promises to take family trips, etc.) that simply cannot be fulfilled by an active alcoholic.
- Short and long-term confusion, in particular for older children, informed by:
- Surrogate parenting for younger siblings
- Reverse parenting — children finding themselves concerned and worried about parents, rather than the other way around
- Surrogate “spousehood” — when one parent is not alcoholic but their spouse is, children may “fill in” for the emotionally or physically absent alcoholic parent, providing emotional intimacy or practical support (“the man of the house”).
- Being party to constant or severe fighting between parents, including emotional, mental, verbal, and physical abuse.
- Mood fluctuations in the alcoholic parent resembling Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- The family’s overall way of relating to one another involves denial, scapegoating, making excuses and enabling. This becomes a part of the child’s way of coping with life.
- Fantasy about running away, being adopted by friends or extended family members, and even regarding the death of the alcoholic parent.
- Fear about others finding out about the alcoholic parent, the family’s enabling or chaotic environment, leading to difficulty making lasting emotional connections with “outsiders.”
- Mislabeling and misdefining of terms like “family,” “closeness,” and “loyalty,” because they are so frequently used in ways that are destructive within the family, and often, in direct violation of how healthy people would use them.
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Being an An Adult Child of An Alcoholic: What It’s Like When You’re All Grown Up
Even though they often believe they should’ve somehow outgrown their childhood experiences, Adult Children of Alcoholics in Nashville often experience emotional and mental struggles that have a direct connection with their families of origin. Here are ten:
- They don’t understand “normal” — it doesn’t occur to them at other people grew up without any semblance of the absolute chaos they endured.
- They may be “pathological liars” — i.e., they lie when it really serves no purpose, even when it may make things worse.
- They are extremely self-critical and self-shaming/judging.
- On the other hand, because they are so self-critical, they often refuse to entertain the constructive criticism of others, and may come across as self-centered and self-aggrandizing. They are notorious for saying things like, “No one could possibly be harder on me than I am on myself.” But because their self-criticism is so focused on shame rather than correction/growth, they are doomed to repeat their dysfunction over and over.
- Dramatic, disproportionate emotional responses to events, particularly when they are out of control.
- Excessively responsible and rule-following, or exactly the opposite — irresponsible and rebellious.
- Loyal to a fault, especially to persons or situations that are destructive.
- Tending to date or marry persons who are alcoholic, and/or to abuse substances themselves.
- Constant approval and affirmation-seeking.
Some Final Thoughts
As is depicted on talkshows where clearly dysfunctional people take no ownership for the way their lives have turned out, most of us are uncomfortable “blaming” our parents for our own current struggles. But honestly evaluating and acknowledging the ways in which our upbringing has impacted us isn’t even about “blame,” but about laying out the puzzle pieces that comprise our life and understanding the picture painted, in the interest of developing a lifestyle more consistent with our truest desires for freedom and happiness.
Here are some good starting points for Adult Children of Alcoholics who want to begin a new way of thinking, relating, and being:
- One: You own too much of the historical struggle. As children, we live in self-centered worlds — they tend to think everything is their fault, including mom and dad’s own struggles, which always say much more about mom and dad than they do their children. But there’s no way around this — when the people who are supposed to care for you can’t care for themselves, it’s not our fault. Period. It’s not your fault.
- Two: Our successes are real, but they often cover up how much we’re wrestling on the inside. We have a tendency to appraise ourselves as having done very well considering how much we had to fight through as kids, and that much is surely true. But even though our successes in business, medicine, academics, or other areas are worth celebrating, they don’t mean that there isn’t major upheaval on the inside. We’re not all or nothing, black or white people — we can genuinely succeed in some areas and need major work in others. The largest step you can take in getting yourself help is admitting that your insides don’t match your outsides. This isn’t about you being fundamentally flawed — quite the opposite. It’s about you being worth the hard work of healing, growth, and change.
- Three: Simply by virtue of having grown up in an alcoholic home, you are exponentially more likely to repeat what you learned growing up, even if you don’t drink. Adult children of Alcoholics often believe they have “beat the system” when they refuse to drink alcohol at all, or grossly limit it to a few times a year at special events. But the erratic emotional, mental, and relational tendencies they learned don’t need alcohol to repeat themselves, because alcoholism is only a symptom of much larger problems. We discover ourselves acting out our roles of caretaker, enabler, or scapegoat as adults even when alcohol isn’t involved.
Stopping the Cycle
Perhaps the most staggering news of all about Adult Children of Alcoholics is that they don’t have to continue onward. They can be free, content, happy, self-reliant people, without the guilt and shame. And while the work itself is difficult in that it requires them to face things they’ve spent a life time trying to get away from, getting started is relatively straightforward:
- Learn, Learn, Learn. Although it may seem counterintuitive, Adult Children of Alcoholics tend to be excellent observers of human nature and human relationships. So take classes or read books about people, and learn new skills and techniques to relate to others healthily and consistently with how you want to live.
- Your Mind is a Dangerous Place — Don’t Go Wandering There…ALONE. If you grew up in an alcoholic home, then you already know — being alone with your own thoughts can be extremely lonely. So, let someone help you with your thinking. Look around you for a friend or mentor who is willing to be honest with you about where you need to grow, and solicit direct feedback from them. Of course, “trust” is key because you’re going to need someone who can help you counter-balance some of your self-criticism by also acknowledging where you do well. But like most people, guides are human. Cut them and yourself some slack while you build this new kind of relationship.
- Capitalize on Your Successes. Adult children of alcoholics are often pillars of their communities and exceedingly strong in particular areas, particularly as it relates to career, civic life, and helping others. Take time to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments, and then ask yourself what has there is to be learned from your successes that you could apply to your personal life.
- Get support. There is less stigma and more help for ACOA’s/ACA’s than ever before:
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