As a child growing up in a home life beset with mental illness, substance abuse, trauma and suicide, I long ago figured out I had all the characteristics of an adult child of an alcoholic. ACA, as defined by the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, is when children share the experience of “growing up in an environment where abuse, neglect and trauma infected us,” according to the organization’s website. “This [continues] to affect us today and influences how we deal with all aspects of our lives.”
Because of my experience of growing up in an alcoholic home, I was a fixer, a hero and a martyr, a young girl dancing down a rabbit hole of denial, an angry teenager wrapped up in cellophane and an adult who experienced both tragedy and triumph. For many years, even though I excelled in the outside world I never thought I was good enough, pretty enough or smart enough. I learned to talk over people and end each other’s sentences, to be a people pleaser, and clueless about where I started and another person began and constantly worried that my greatest fear would be discovered by someone: that I am an imposter.
Secrets abound in households and families where one or both parents develop an “ism” – an addiction to alcohol, other drugs, work, religion, perfectionism, shopping, etc. or other mental illness or family dysfunction crops up. Just as I did, children who experience living in a world where what is is not and they feel like they are constantly walking on eggshells not knowing expectations or who will show up that day. Could today be the day the good or bad mother or father turn to coping mechanisms to dance around the elephant in the room, the dark secrets that plague the parents?
Wondering if you or a loved one may identify as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic? Here are some signs adopted from The Laundry List, or 14 Characteristics of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic:
- Isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
- Approval seekers, thereby losing one’s identity in the process.
- Frightened by angry people and personal criticism.
- Either develop into alcoholics, get into a relationship with them or both, or may find a compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill one’s abandonment needs.
- Live life from the viewpoint of victimhood. People may be attracted to this weakness in our love life and friendships.
- Acquire an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. It becomes easier to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. This allows us to overlook our own faults.
- Experience guilt when one stands up for themselves instead of giving in to others.
- Addicted to excitement.
- May confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people that one can “pity” and “rescue.”
- May have blocked out feelings from traumatic childhoods (i.e. denial) and have lost the ability to feel or express complicated feelings because it hurts too much.
- Judge ourselves harshly and have a low sense of self-esteem.
- May be a dependent or codependent personality who is terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order to avoid painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
- As alcoholism is a family disease, one became para-alcoholic, or experienced ‘secondhand drinking,’ which means to take on the characteristics and consequences of the disease even though one never picked up a drink.
- Para-alcoholics react to situations rather than act.
Although you may feel alone as if you are the only one, the truth is you are not alone. Like you, there are other good, wholesome folks who have similar traits and attachment styles. In fact, “one fifth of adults – or an estimated 53 million people in the United States – suffer from other people’s boozing annually,” according to a new study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drugs.
The exciting news is hope and healing is available. Through the grace of therapy (experiential, talk, grief work, etc.), exploring ourselves and our stories as well as the 12-Step programs, I have come to know I am enough. In turn, I share my passion for helping others so that they may learn, live and thrive.
As a professional clinician and interventionist with years of experience, I work with families and their loved ones across the spectrum of ages, backgrounds and credes. I’m here to tell you that in most cases families and loved ones did the best they could given the tribulations they faced.
I honor strength, resiliency and teach folks new strategies so they may welcome and wear new and novel ways of living, grieve what they may have lost or never had and dress themselves in the opportunities they have today. In my work, I have discovered that everyone can live their best life.
If you or a family member experienced ACA, check out my 10-hour reclaiming a healthy life coaching program. It’s a family-centric coaching program that could benefit you and your loved ones with tools and resources for working through trauma related to ACA.