I am the adult child of an alcoholic. I haven’t identified as such since I left my last ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) meeting sometime in the mid 90’s. Ironically, I didn’t realize that my dad was an alcoholic until shortly after he passed away. I was 14 when he died and I thought his behavior was simply how dads behaved.
My dad was one of my favorite people. I looked up to him, I feared him, I trusted him and I distrusted him. He had two very distinct personalities. The man who tenderly hugged and kissed me goodnight every night, who took me to Cardinal baseball games, who taught me to throw a ball (like a boy, of course) and to ride my bike… that same loving man had a monster living inside him. And that monster was as frightening to me as the other side of him was beautiful. A monster that grew each time he took a drink. As my dad drank throughout the day, the monster would take over and I had no idea where my “real” dad had gone. And the monster roared its terrible roar and sat in my dad’s chair in the living room. Sadly, I was, this monster’s child. Now and then, the monster in him would break loose and dance with the monster in all of us. We all, at one time or another, shared his private hell with him until all of us lost our grip on normal.
This was my family– my dad, my monster– and I had to do something to make sense of living with a parent who made me feel both safe and terrified — a parent whom I loved and hated all at once. All children are faced with integrating parts of their parents that they both love and hate, but for the child in the alcoholic home, this becomes a uniquely challenging and daily occurrence.
Living with addiction required us to grow up in the midst of constantly shifting, reactive, overlapping worlds. Simply existing in, maneuvering through these worlds and trying to make sense of them required creative, complex, occasionally ridiculous strategies. This is where the word dysfunction was born. By definition, dysfunction is abnormal or impaired functioning—yep, that sums up my childhood.
As with any dysfunction, it is nearly impossible to explain to someone who has not been through it what it’s like to grow up in a home where addiction dominates. Sure, I can say routines were thrown off; there was constant upheaval, but that doesn’t fully describe it. What really hurts is that you can no longer count on anyone the way that you once did. In conversation with a therapist once, she asked who I could trust as a child. Ironically, the answer was my dad. Her expression was one of knowing – the complete absurdity that the most unpredictable, volatile person was in fact the one that I could trust. I could trust his rage. I could trust the fear would envelope and almost paralyze me. Who I couldn’t trust was my mom or my siblings because you see – they were simply in reaction to him. How could I trust someone who was walking around on eggshells and just doing their best to avoid, numb or tolerate?
My strategy was invisibility. You watch the parent that you love turn into the monster and you go into reaction – I became invisible. Someone invisible can’t be yelled at or hit. You learn to read all of the signs. You develop an acute sense of other people and know unequivocally when to proceed with caution and when it’s safe to let your guard down.
What you don’t see coming is the shame. You don’t even notice that you don’t have friends over. Or if you do, they leave before dinner – before it gets too late, before the beer turns to straight whiskey. You live in a constant state of fear and there’s a deep sadness and a pain that no one talks about – what would they say? Denial is the safe haven where everyone resides. Until one day, when it all falls apart.
Adult children of alcoholics can and often do suffer from some features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that are the direct result of living with the traumatizing effects of addiction. Years after we leave behind our alcoholic homes, we carry the impact of living with addiction with us. We import past, unresolved pain into present-day relationships, but without much awareness as to how or why.
There is a world of literature about trauma and neuropsychology has deepened our understanding of how pain from childhood actually gets recorded in the mind/body and becomes part of our psyche well into adulthood. The good news is something called neuroplasticity – this is the ability to change our thinking, our behavior and our emotions.
If pain is left unresolved then it seeps into every part of our being. However, if we are willing to face it, feel it and share it then something magical happens. When we allow ourselves to feel it, to truly experience it (whatever the “it” may be) then we can truly heal it. We can then begin to make sense of years of senselessness. We heal. We become whole again.
THE LAUNDRY LIST – 1977
The Laundry List, written by Tony A with Dan F., appears in his book by the same name, which also includes his version of The 12 Steps. Tony had special insight into what made adult children of alcoholic’s needs different, and did a remarkable job of articulating ACoA issues.
Tony A’s Laundry List
- We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
b. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
c. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism
d. We either become alcoholics, marry them, or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
e. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
f. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. This enables us not to look too closely at our own faults.
g. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
h. We become addicted to excitement.
i. We confuse love with pity and tend to “love” people who we can `pity” and “rescue”.
j. We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (denial).
k. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
l. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
m. Alcoholism is a family disease and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of the disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
n. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.
The Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization used his list as the basis of their six-item identification list, “The Problem,” adapted directly from Tony’s laundry list:
1. We had come to feel isolated and uneasy with other people, especially authority figures. To protect ourselves, we became people pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat.
2. We either became alcoholics ourselves, married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.
3. We lived life from the standpoint of victims. Having an over developed sense of responsibility; we preferred to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We got guilt feelings when we trusted ourselves, giving in to others. We became reactors rather than actors, letting others take the initiative.
4. We were dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment, willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. We keep choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.
5. These symptoms of the family disease of alcoholism or other dysfunction made us ‘co-victims’, those who take on the characteristics of the disease without necessarily ever taking a drink. We learned to keep our feelings down as children and keep them buried as adults. As a result of this conditioning, we often confused love with pity, tending to love those we could rescue.
6. Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable solutions.
THE CHARACTERISTICS OF ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS
Here are Janet Woititz’s Characteristics, published in her book Adult Children of Alcoholics.
- Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
- Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
- Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
- Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
- Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
- Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
- Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
- Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
- Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
- Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
- Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Two key distinctions between the lists exists: Tony A’s is an “us” list, while Janet’s is a “them” list. Both lists are illuminating; I admire the humility within Tony’s list.