Sunday, June 29, 2014

Being an adult child of an alcoholic

I have met quite a few adult children of alcoholics.  Some of them also became alcoholics themselves. And many of them find themselves in Al-Anon trying to figure out why they have felt different, left out, and emotionally abandoned for most of their life. My own story illustrates the characteristics that so many children of alcoholics/addicts feel.

I don't know whether my father was an alcoholic, but I definitely was troubled by his drinking.  One of my earliest memories was of the sheriff bringing him to the house after he broke his shoulder in a single car accident. He was drunk. I was afraid and instantly knew that I did not like what was happening. The town doctor came to the house to set his shoulder, but it was never properly set and had an offset to it from then on.  My father suffered no other consequences--no arrest, no mention by my mother or any one else in the family that I can recall. All just went on as if nothing happened

But I believe that I was also offset from that accident too. Low self-esteem that channels itself into perfectionism, anxiety, and abandonment issues were what I experienced.  My mother did not acknowledge that my father drank. She chose to live in denial. The message that I got was "Everything is fine".  Except to me, it wasn't.

It took me a number of years to get the courage in 7th grade to ask my mother to tell my father to stop drinking. I was embarrassed, angry at him, fearful of him and totally conflicted by the fact that nothing in our house seemed to be okay, even though I was told that we were elite and better than others. I didn't feel elite or better at all.

In order to cope, I learned to play by myself.  I had a little farm set that had a barn, horses, cows, chickens, etc. And I would set that up and play for hours, pretending to live on that happy farm that I invented in my head. I also would visit other families occasionally and wonder if they were "normal".  If I thought something looked "normal", I would try to mimic it.  In so doing, I learned at an early age to invent the ideal family and the ideal self, but I kept running up against the reality of my unhappiness at home. The mask would crack when I realized that the fantasy I was creating of my home life didn't really exist. I kept trying to be perfect and began to blame myself harshly when I wasn't.

My father was a harsh critic of me.  Both parents expected a lot from me in terms of academic achievements. But my father would remind me of all the things that I didn't do right.  I began to think of myself as being better off not having been born. After all, I was born 16 years after my parents were married. I was a "surprise" because they had decided not to have children. And then, here I was--a big disappointment.

In spite of my self-criticism, I learned to be mischievous away from home. I had fun with my friends at school.  I had fun in the summer when my father was at work.  I dreaded the days when he was off work because I knew that he would be drinking. When he was home, I generally went right to my room where I listened to rock and roll on a tiny radio or read books. I remember being on edge when he was around. And when he was gone, I would cut loose with wild abandon.

I tend to be reckless to this day. At certain times in my life I was so responsible it was frightening. At other times I behaved so recklessly that it was amazing I survived.  Often, I was impulsive and didn't give much thought to consequences of my actions.  I try for balance in my life today--not being so rigid with responsibility and enjoying adventures that are not life threatening.

I don't think that I really understood what a healthy adult relationship was like. I didn't see my parents kiss--ever. I didn't see them hug each other.  I didn't hear them tell each other "I love you".  So what I applied in my relationships later in life was not healthy. I was attracted to women who were unpredictable, wild, and who drank alcoholically. I wanted to make someone who was erratic and rejecting fall in love with me.

So in order to get through life and relationships, I learned to be controlling.  I believed that if I were in charge, then somehow things would go my way. And the exact opposite happened.  The love that I wanted, the approval I longed for wasn't given because I was controlling and manipulative. I was often rejected and when I wasn't or when I was successful at something, I didn't believe I deserved it.

It was hard for me to believe that I deserved good things. And even today, I don't like to talk about my successes.  I prefer to hear other people talk about theirs. I feel comfortable isolating and work at putting myself out there to be a part of groups.  It is still hard for me to believe that I can be accepted and actually liked at times. I have gotten much better though at being comfortable around others.

An adult child of an alcoholic is loyal to a fault.  I have often thought that the devil you know is better than the one that you don't.  My mother stayed married to my father.  People in my family didn't get divorced, except for one female cousin who was married three times and was talked about because of it.  And so I learned not to walk away--from anything--when the going got tough.  But alcoholism also pushed me to the point that I was ready to leave my wife. It took me so many years and a lot of sad times to even get to that point though. I learned from my parents that I had a duty to stay with a person, no matter how I was treated.  I thought that it was better to stay with someone no matter what they did because my fear of being abandoned was so strong.

I have long thought that a lot of my behavior is like that of an alcoholic--the "isms" are present--but the drinking is not. Some of us who have been affected by drinking feel most alive when things are in crisis mode. Wanting things to be done right now, instead of deferring decisions is a definite character defect of mine.  I like instant results and have had to learn to disengage from that type of behavior over the years. Being a scientist helped me to temper the sense of immediate gratification. I could look toward the end result but had to make sure that all the steps were done along the way in order to get there.

So for those who have grown up with alcoholism or have children who are in the midst of active alcoholic/addictive behavior in the family, the effects of the disease are likely manifesting themselves right now.  The confusion, denial, and too often chaos of an alcoholic home lead to so many of the things I wrote about above. Don't kid yourself by saying "Everything is fine". The people affected are FINE--*ucked, insecure, neurotic and emotional. And that's not a good way to go through life.  Don't let the drama surrounding the alcoholic/addict be the most important thing in the family.  I hope that you will decide to get help--a 12 step program, therapy, or speaking to a trusted friend will help in letting go of the shame and burdens of alcoholism and addiction.


  1. wow. thanks for further insight into your story...i know my dad drank, though it was never in excess...i do remember being in the car with him, a pabst in the cup holder...we never had a great relationship growing up...we had no connection...i know he put holes in the wall when he got mad...never touched mom was the one that did the whippings...and the correcting...he worked in a wood shop...and it was later that i expressed anger at the separation between us...i did not care at a young age, it gave me the freedom i needed to do the stupid things...there are edges i walked that i wonder how i survived as well...

  2. Thank you for this post Syd. I am so grateful for Alanon and the honesty that I witness it helps set me free. Knowing I am not alone there are others out there is comforting.In the past everyone else had the combination I was left out of the instructions..
    But today things have shifted I can also laugh at myself which is one great tool! One steppin it

  3. I have spent a lifetime on the path to healing, and at times wonder if there's any there there. I can't tell you how much I resonated with what you wrote--a good deal of it like a mirror image of my own family history and years of being F.I.N.E. I am so much further ahead than I ever thought I'd be, but there are days...Thank you so much for your eloquence. I keep returning to this blog because of writing like this. Thank you, Syd.

  4. Your life sounds like a mirror image of mine growing up. Except I secluded myself, never became part of a group. That is to say, I was part of a group, but I never felt a part of it. It is hell living in such circumstance, and yet, I chose that route too for a few years. Sober now, but the dents and scratches are there, and deal with them I do/have, as and when even more hidden memories appear... and they just seem to keep on coming. I seem to have suppressed a lot more than I realised.

  5. Such wisdom and insight, Syd. I can identify with so much in your story.

  6. Yep, throw in a molesting stepfather, an incredibly depressed mother, and oh, a bunch of other stuff and you've got my childhood!
    Sometimes I wonder how I made it.
    Miracles and blessings.

  7. Yep, I'm just FINE. I did not know your acronym meaning until now. I like it. It fits me and my siblings.

  8. Your post was a great synopsis of growing up in al alcoholic family. I just sent a link to this post to three of my nieces and one sister in law. I printing it and taking it to the jail where I volunteer. Thank you!

  9. This is a wonderful post, Syd, although it made me terribly sad for the young boy you were. I suppose I related to much of you wrote about your youth, although it was my mother who was difficult and alcoholism was not her issue.

    It's amazing to read how you've become so self-aware and reflective and it gives me a lot of continuing hope. Thank you for sharing your story.

  10. Your post was an incredible summation of experiencing childhood in al alcoholic crew. I simply sent a connection to this post to three of my nieces and one sister in law. I printing it and taking it to the penitentiary where I volunteer.

  11. :) great post syd.. was a pleasure to read.. can identify with much. i am loyal to a fault as well.. can be too good to people who do not always deserve it.. tricky to get the balance right.. irish


Let me know what you think. I like reading what you have to say.