“There is a growing and increasingly powerful recovery movement in our country, supported and often driven by the stories of people in “long-term” recovery, but its focus is almost 100% on the addicted family member and supporting that person’s recovery. Yet, when addiction slips in and takes over a family, all are hurt by this maddening disease, and a persistent and debilitating silence overwhelms, trapping each family member in it, thus creating a fertile field for chaos. This September’s celebration of Recovery Month offers clinicians and advocates alike a public platform to remind clients and collaborating professionals that it is no longer acceptable to help only the addicted person to find recovery. The family members who have suffered in silence and sadness for too long deserve to recover as well!”
Sis Wenger President of the National Association for Children of Addicts ( )
Recovery should be for everyone, not just the addict. Every one addict affects the lives of at least seven more people.
I am the child of an alcoholic. So is my husband. After 40 years of marriage I honestly think it would be hard to be an ACoA and not marry another ACoA. There is this very unique and weird sort of darkness that kids experience when they grow up with an addict, and if you marry another ACoA, they get it, they understand this place inside of you because they have one, too. And they also understand, which was especially important to my husband and I in our early twenties, that although you look fine on the outside you feel sort of black and blue on the inside; emotionally worn out, like you have lived more of life than others.
Being a child in a home where one parent is slowly slipping into addiction means watching that parent we love, the one we have sat at the breakfast lunch and dinner table with all of our lives, climbed into the back seat to do errands with, gone to see Grandma, taken family vacations with…we watch that very parent turn, in the blink of an eye, into someone who terrifies us, someone who shakes us to our core to be around. Addicts get a look of madness in their eyes when they are using, each of our parents did anyway. Their faces become twisted, they say mean, mean things, they move in strange ways, they act like they hate us and in their shame, they shame us. Their attempts at love become hard to believe and hard to receive. Unless you have lived with the rollercoaster of addiction, you will likely not know what I am talking about. You will likely not understand how twisted your emotional experience becomes.
And that, right there, is the dilemma of the child who grows up with a parent who is addicted. They carry a feeling that something is terribly wrong that they are helpless to fix.
My husband and I had wonderful parents, fine people, brilliant and warm, parents who loved us. But the problem is that they were also addicts, which meant that gradually their drug of choice became a total preoccupation for them to the exclusion of us. In my own case, Dad’s alcoholism slowly eroded his personality. Being with him could be wonderful or scary. His moods swung all over the place and because he was so central to the family, so did ours.
Pretty soon, so much is falling through the cracks that the cracks come to have a life of their own. They become an actual place. One person blames another in an alcoholic family for the little things that increasingly go wrong, there are fingers pointed in every direction and it gets very personal. And life gets different and unpredictable. You can no longer take a trip without booze being in the car or the plane or the train. You can no longer make it through cocktails and dinner and the evening without some level of inebriation. Family outings are subject to sudden, last minute change. You make excuses. Dad is sick, working so hard, too busy to be able to take time off. Mom has the flu. But none of these things are true so you are basically learning to lie to other people about what is going on in your home and for that matter what is going on inside of you. This creates distance, a feeling of being different. There are things going on at your house that aren’t going on at your friend’s house. Things you’d rather other people not find out about. Drunkenness, abuse of varying kinds….because these things travel in packs, along with inebriation goes a lack of inhibition, normal barriers get crashed through. So there might be physical abuse, bouts of rageful fighting, sexual abuse or acting out of some sort. The family you knew is no longer the one you know. The person you love is lost behind layers and layers of denial, obfuscation, secrecy and recrimination. They are lost in their disease. And so are you.
And then come the missed hours of togetherness replaced by a painful sort of solitude, disconnection and fear. Some in the family huddle together while others are tossed to the sidelines. The center of the family isn’t holding, even if one parent is sober, by now, after the years of dealing with craziness and primary mental illness, they’re often lost themselves, they are not emotionally sober. Their moods swing right along with the addict’s, or they cut off, they work, they get busy and preoccupied leaving an empty hole where the family used to be.
And this silent gulf, which is not silent at all but filled with emotion of the most intense kind, looks for an outlet. So the pain or disease pattern or whatever you want to call it, that is not acknowledged within the parent’s partnership, gets projected onto some unsuspecting third party. Usually one of the kids. This means that there is a scapegoat created for the family pain a “symptom bearer” a kid who wears the pain the family can’t deal with. No kid can live in this pressure cooker and remain unaffected. How they are affected varies. Some kids get into trouble, they act out the family dysfunction and then boom, the parents buy themselves more time. They pull together and “worry” about their kid. The kid gets weirder, the parent’s problems go even more underground and the family dynamics get stranger. Others work like crazy to maintain the family honor, they are captains of teams, cheerleading squads, in choirs and getting good grades.
This pretty much describes the family that I grew up in and my husband grew up in and many of my friends grew up in and clients as well.
So Why Don’t We Get the Help We Need?
1. The focus of attention in media and even recovery circles has been on the addict and the belief till recently has been that if the addict gets sober, the rest of the family will magically get better. The trauma of family members has not been adequately understood.
2. ACoAs may have trouble accepting or even resent the idea that although they did nothing, after all they didn’t drink and act out, they have been none the less damaged by the experience of living with addiction and they need help.
3. Because we grew up feeling different we’re already worried about ourselves and fear being told there is something really wrong with us, we don’t want to be told we’re sick, too. And we’ve developed a distorted relational habit or family dynamic which is pin to all of the dysfunction on the addict and miss the other problematic dynamics in the family.
4. We feel disloyal complaining about our past. In some cases parents have gotten sober and become different people so we don’t want to dredge up the past; or we fear alienating family members by talking about “forbidden” or disturbing subjects.
5. We learn that asking for help can be a bad idea. ACoAs learn as kids not to rely on other people, not to expect too much, not to share their pain and not to ask for help. Remember that the people that we’d normally go to for comfort and support are the ones hurting us, ACoAs learn that asking for help can lead nowhere or even worse can lead to more disappointment.
6. We don’t know that we don’t know. The nature of trauma is that it is unconscious, something frightened or disturbed us enough so that we did not want to experience it. We shut down, we froze, we acted out, we ran. We did not make sense of the experience and file it away, we threw it out of consciousness. While the unprocessed experience still influences us from within, we’re unaware of what we carry inside of ourselves.
What are Some of the Ways Untreated ACoAs Might Play Out Their Part of the Family Illness?
One of the resulting hallmarks of trauma is problems with self regulation; we have trouble regulating or “right sizing” our emotions, moods, behaviors and so forth. This can contribute to…
• Food addiction
• Sex Addiction
• Anger management
• Drug and alcohol abuse
• Obsessive behaviors
• Depression and anxiety.
Although I have painted a rather grim picture for ACoAs, the truth is that growing up with childhood trauma is just one more of life’s challenges that needs to be faced and tackled. Experiences that challenge us can deepen and strengthen us as well. Children of alcoholics widen their container of human experience beyond the norm, which is not a bad thing. We learn lessons of self reliance, ingenuity and creativity as we struggle to respond to situations that overwhelm us and we learn it as kids which means we learn it well. The skills that we develop in attempting to manage the unmanageable can translate themselves into success in many areas of life. Positive psychology is full of stories of the gains of overcoming painful life experiences describing “aha” moments and the feeling of one door closing while another flies open. If we can deal with the residue of pain so that it doesn’t undermine our ability to have nourishing relationships, the rest will fall into place. The thing not to do is to pretend that nothing happened, something did and it can and needs to be addressed if we truly want to turn the tide of the legacy of addiction.
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