For ten years I lived in a cute one-bedroom railroad flat. It was a great apartment by New York standards. A railroad flat is a series of rooms that open into one another. From the desk in the furthest room I could see clear to the other end. I sublet my place in 2003 and moved into an enormous apartment in Los Angeles. The rug, which had been wall to wall in my largest room in New York, was now an area rug in the living room. There was a dining room, a large kitchen, 2 huge bedrooms, a balcony and a backyard. I arranged the furniture and put my desk in my bedroom. It took several months before I noticed that I only left my bedroom to go to the kitchen. With all this glorious space, I continued to live inside the square footage of my NYC apartment. I was going to have to make a conscious effort to spend time in different rooms until it felt natural. I’m sure people who’ve spent extended time in prisons share this experience when returning to the outside world.
Children adapt to their environment in similar unconscious ways. Children growing up in a household impacted by addiction or alcoholism will turn their fear and pain inward and adopt negative belief systems about themselves and the way the world works without question.
If you grew up in an alcoholic family and are now in recovery, you’re probably doing things and feeling things that don’t make sense to you. You watch friends who got clean around the same time as you did move forward in their life and you start thinking that maybe you’re just too broken – even for recovery. You suspect that the happiness you see in others isn’t in the cards for you so you try to practice acceptance and find gratitude for what you do have. You slogan yourself to death and jump into step work – but progress is slow and most days you are a breath away from losing whatever good mood you are having. When you’re happy you feel anxious because you know something will fuck it up, when you fall in love you brace yourself for heartbreak. You can’t understand why you can’t even really enjoy the good times without anticipating disappointment. You question whether you aren’t working a good program or think maybe you need to have more faith, do better step work, find a new sponsor, or take more commitments. (For anyone sober outside of a 12-step fellowship, you may often feel hopeless because you are out of ideas how to think your way into feeling better). You know something isn’t right but you can’t put your finger on it. You do a lot of comparing of yourself to others.
Growing up in a dysfunctional or alcoholic family, feelings from childhood have shaped your relationship to yourself and to the world and these don’t miraculously heal without being addressed. Children of alcoholics adapt the same way I adapted to a small living space. Even when there was room to move around, I didn’t. If you feel like something is keeping you boxed in – even in recovery, it is time to uncover how being a Child of an Alcoholic affected you.
The damage done in alcoholic households vary but one thing is common – children don’t feel safe. For some children of alcoholics, violence and emotional abuse is the norm and for others it’s the internalized disappointment from years of broken promises. Safety and security can be threatened by the fear of drunk driving accidents, threats of divorce, or the ongoing silent treatment between parents. Whatever forgiveness or acceptance you have gained by saying “They did the best they could with the tools they had” these words do not heal the child who was frightened, wounded or abused. Until a recovering addict addresses their ACoA issues, they continue to live inside a box constricting their freedom to grow in recovery, to find peace, self esteem, love, and to enjoy their life without waiting for the other shoe to drop. For some addicts and alcoholics, staying sober is impossible unless their ACoA issues are excavated and healed.
There are a number of books written about ACoA and trauma, there are therapists who specialize in Adult Children of Alcoholics, and of course there is the ACoA 12-step fellowship. I think 12-step fellowships are especially healing for recovering addict/alcoholics because the empathy, compassion and camaraderie provide a lovingly safe place that many ACoAs have never experienced. This safety will give you the strength and courage to work on ACoA issues (with outside help) so that you can truly experience freedom from the past. ACoA work will take you out of the one room (of your sobriety) and teach you how to move around the entire house.
This is the Laundry List (taken from www.adultchildren.org) :
The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
1. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
2. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
3. We are frightened of angry people and any personal criticism.
4. We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
5. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
6. 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, etc.
7. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
8. We became addicted to excitement.
9. We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
10. 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).
11. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
12. 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.
13. Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
14. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.