Adult Children of Alcoholics: My Experience

Author Dan L. Hays speaks of his experiences growing up in an alcoholic family, providing insights into his healing process and valuable information for others who may be in a similar situation. Dan also offers inspirational seed thoughts and  hope in his series, Minute To Freedom.

For many years, I denied that there was any effect from growing up in a household where alcoholism was present, telling friends “I got out OK, it didn’t bother me.” Yet by my early ‘30s, I constantly struggled to cope with life. I finally admitted to myself that, when I was growing up, my parent’s drinking had affected me. I couldn’t develop intimate relationships or even let people get close. I needed everyone to approve of everything I did. I was really frightened by anger – especially my own! Authority figures – and that was almost anyone but me – frightened me terribly! If I received personal criticism, it was devastating. I was overly responsible, couldn’t stand up for myself, felt like I was stuffing my feelings, had a low sense of self esteem. I was terribly dependent – if I got focused on someone, I would cling to them to avoid feeling abandoned – and I felt abandoned all the time anyway. Things were spinning out of control, and only getting worse.

Finally in 1983, at age 33, I did something about it. I went to a 12 step meeting for people who were living with an alcoholic, because that seemed like the closest fit to what I would have experienced. After the meeting, a woman – who I had never seen before and haven’t seen since, but who was an angel for me, said:

“You know, there’s this new group for people who grew up with alcoholism.
It’s called Adult Children of Alcoholics.”

As soon as I heard that, just the name of the group resonated with me for some reason. I explored the resource, and started reading the “characteristics we have in common as a result of being brought up in an alcoholic household.” I was blown away – it was describing my world!

“We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.”

And the Laundry List continued. Then I heard the childhood lesson I’d learned all too well  …

“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.”

It was one of the most astonishing moments of my life – someone understood! Someone knew what I had been through. Someone knew what I was going through! That moment began a healing journey for me which continues today, and those characteristics are the reactive childhood traits I have worked to put to rest.

Of all the resources I’ve found in my recovery, the concept of adult children of alcoholics still explains my struggle – and how to move past it – in ways that few other things have. I am forever grateful to the people who put together that concise Laundry List of characteristics which illuminate my struggle, and started that group which helped heal my world.

Here’s how I characterized my healing process:

Goodbye the Child

To honor the child,
Is always my aim.
But to live as a man,
My goal to attain.

I parent myself,
Learn how to talk,
To trust and to feel,
Is part of my walk.

As I become free,
To do as I must,
My child comes along,
To follow in trust.

I let him run happy,
Safe and secure,
Nevermore terror,
His to endure.

But part of my child,
Has passed away.
Becoming the man,
That I am today.

His fantasy world,
I lay now to rest.
We no longer need it,
I’ll give him the best.

I honor the passing,
Saying goodbye.
To the terrified child
With a tear in his eye.

~

 

Here are some great resources:

Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service site
The Laundry List Of Characteristics
The Solution
The Twelve Steps

Here are some books that I found helpful:

There are now a lot of books and other resources for adult children of alcoholics, and they are easy to find on the internet with a search engine.

Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz
Struggle For Intimacy by Janet Woititz
It Will Never Happen to Me by Dr. Claudia Black
Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner
The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller

Some people have really liked the John Bradshaw books – Healing The Shame That Binds You, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child. I never read them, but heard they were really good. The irony is that John Bradshaw was lecturing at The Palmer House in Houston while I was living there, and I never got by to hear him. :-)

 

Photo Credit

Photo is © Dan L. Hays – All Rights Reserved

Dan L. Hays offers encouragement for adult children of alcoholics with inspirational “seed thoughts” in Life As A Human magazine. The podcasts of these episodes are found at: Minute to Freedom


Recent Dan L. Hays Articles:

Comments

  1. avatarRacquel says

    Thank you for sharing this; I can totally relate. I kept nodding, “Me, too!” as I read it. I was also blown away at the accuracy of the Laundry List in describing my own experience.

    • avatar says

      Thanks Racquel, for stopping by and commenting. Interesting to hear how you were struck so similarly to what I experienced by hearing that list of characteristics! It’s was a pretty stunningly accurate picture of my world! If it helps you to discover that, then I’m glad to have participated in that experience! Not that it’s a fun thing to become aware of, but it sure helped my world make more sense! :)

      Warmly,
      Dan

      • avatargina oleary says

        Hi dan,

        I just found your webste and I do not know what to say on here. I am in depsreat need of some advice and maybe you can guide me in the right direction. I do not want to provide any more information until I know that this email is going tot he right person.

        Thanks so much
        Gina o

  2. avatar says

    I clicked on the “Laundry List” link in your article, which goes to a page on the Adult Children of Alcoholics website, enititled “The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic.” I certainly see myself in every one of those 14 traits.

    Alcoholism is a form of insanity, and any kind of insanity in one or both parents will affect their children’s development in adverse ways. When I was a child, my occasionally abusive dad was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and Multiple Personality Disorder, and my mother was — and in fact she still is — even more abusive and unstable than my admittedly mentally ill father, although she refused to acknowledge the need for psychiatric help, thus avoiding a diagnosis. Both of my parents also drank alcoholically. They were binge drinkers, not everyday drinkers, so there was that unpredictable insanity added to the mix, along with everything else.

    Alcoholism and various mental illnesses run on both sides of my family. Both of my grandfathers were admitted alcoholics. My paternal grandfather, who had run away from his abusive family at the age of 13 and was on his own ever since, drank alcoholically through several marriages. His death, in his 50s, was alcohol-related. My maternal grandfather, a World War 2 Army Veteran whom I have no doubt had some degree of PTSD, controlled his drinking through his career in the Federal Prison system, working his way up from a lowly prison guard, to the Associate Warden of Leavenworth. It wasn’t until after his early retirement, when he turned down a wardenship offer, that my maternal grandfather’s drinking became obvious, although, according to both my mother and my aunt, his only children, granddad’s secret drinking had caused problems in the family ever since his return from the war.

    The familial alcoholism continues to be handed down through the generations of both sides of my family, in several of my siblings and their children, in my two sons, and, I fear that one of my teen grandchildren is already heading in that direction. Last June, my dear young cousin, the only daughter of my mother’s sister, drowned in the shallow water of a hot spring. Her death was caused, at least in part, to alcoholism. She died the way Whitney Houston died, although my cousin’s drug of choice was alcohol, not cocaine. My cousin drowned exactly one week to the day after she had been sent home on administrative leave for showing up intoxicated to her hospital nursing job. She was going to an alcohol rehab, to save her job and her RN’s license; my cousin’s day trip to the hot springs was, apparently, her “last fling” before going to get dried out.

    I miss her so much.

    I also went through a period of heavy binge drinking, during my 30s. I didn’t drink for long, because it didn’t take long for my drinking to get me into big trouble. I went to AA, and by the grace of God I haven’t had an alcoholic drink for over 22 years. I wouldn’t say that I have been SOBER that long, however… not EMOTIONALLY sober.

    Alcoholism is cunning, baffling, and powerful. It wrecks lives and demolishes entire families. In my case, and in my own family, I see alcohol as being related more to trauma, than to a physical disease… this is just my opinion. The traumas caused by mental illness and generations of abuse, which in turn caused generations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, again on both sides of the family, so often leads to self-medicating the wounded psyche and out-of-control painful emotions with alchohol, and sometimes with other drugs. But the “cure” of alcoholism and drug addiction is always worse than the “disease” of PTSD.

    Thank you for this enlightening article, Dan.

    Elaina

  3. avatar says

    Hi Elaina!
    I thought you’d find this article interesting, and yes, the Laundry List is especially convincing. Sounds like you related to all the items like I did!

    It sounds like you really got hammered with mental issues and alcoholism in your family. I have had problems wit a crazy grandmother, but nothing like you experienced with your parents – that must have been devastating. The thing I thought as I read your comments was what incredible loss of safety there must have been in your world, at an early age.

    I’ve had alcoholism runnning on both sides of my family as well. It is astonishing how that works, and how the propensity just keeps running down the generations.

    Great that you’ve stayed away from the drink. I do understand the distinction between physical and emotional sobriety. So hard to maintain the emotional part when there are other issues like PTSD compounding the situation.

    I’m glad you found this article helpful – I thought you’d relate – and stopped by to share your very compelling and well thought out comments!

    Warmly,
    Dan

  4. avatar says

    Dear Dan,
    I, too, am a fellow author and adult child of an alcoholic. Check out my website with YouTubes and book trailer from the first scene of Supreme Sacrifice, a semi-autobiographical story of a woman who must overcome the debilitating loss of her father, first to alcoholism and finally to his death. Also, check out my separate website, ritamalie.authorsxpress.com which includes a variety of blogs relating to the story’s messages. I would like to keep in touch with you and read your writings.
    Love and Peace,
    Rita

    • avatar says

      Hi Rita,
      Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I just watched the YouTube video trailer from Supreme Sacrifice! It sounds like a compelling read, and you present it very professionally and with great poise.

      It does sound like we have a lot in common. I didn’t lose my father mysteriously, but he did disappear for a while, leading to my journey to find out what had happened to him. I wrote about it in http://lifeasahuman.com/2010/relationships/the-ghosts-of-the-wheat-harvest/

      That article will be a chapter in an upcoming memoir about reclaiming my writing gift after a long healing journey. I’d love to keep in touch, and I’ll be reading from your blog! :)

      Warmly,
      Dan

  5. avatarNick Earl says

    Very helpful, thank you so much Dan.

    I’m a young-ish guy, almost 29. After years of being semi-depressed a lot of the time, always having issues with finding mutually respectful and loving relationships, and developing what’s known as social anxiety disorder (which I only realized was what was happening to me in late 2011) I now realize similarly to what you did, that my alcoholic father with his verbal abuse and inconsistency between either drunk and toxic, or incredibly depressed (due to his own childhood traumas) AND my emotionally unstable mother, who you might class as having “borderline personality disorder” really might have something to do with why I find it so hard to be happy, enjoy my life, be in control, have stable and mutually beneficial relationships, and a good social life. The list goes on.

    Point is, I’m finally ready to admit that maybe those 15+ years of living in toxic environment had more of an affect on me than I was previously willing to think. I think I’ve always been very pragmatic with my problems, and wanted to “take responsibility” and believed that I was in control of my own life. I’ve realized now though, that I really am not in control of my own life right now (and possibly have never been)

    The programming that I received by all this dysfunctional-ism growing up is some powerful stuff, and I now realize that I definitely need to be in a structured supportive environment, and that I’m not going to be able to heal this on my own.

    So, It’s a mix of relief and resistance (there’s still a lof of the “why me??!” stuff there for me). I feel I’m on the right path though, to healing and love, and that’s certainly something to be patient for.

    Just out of curiousity Dan, do you think (at least from your experience) the healing process for ACA’s is usually something that takes years and years? I mean did it take you a long time to heal, even after you were actively part of the ACA community?

    Please feel free to email me directly at newplacetostay (at) gmail.com

    Thanks so much for the article.

    Regards,

    Nick

    • avatar says

      Nick –
      Thanks for stopping by to share! What you describe is very similar to what I experienced, and it sounds like you’re “connecting the dots” on origin very clearly. Yes, “15+ years of living in a toxic environment can have a huge impact. Sure, there will be some “why me” involved – my friends were getting married and starting families and I was in deep water with the effects of family alcoholism and barely treading water.

      Nick, great question about the long healing process for ACAs. I have been hearing a lot of that question recently, and yes, it has been that way for me. It has just taken a while to peel back the layers of abuse and address them. For me, I think it has been compounded because of having been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the family violence in my teens from my Dad. (And PTSD is an anxiety disorder, so I can relate to what you have discovered.”

      Anyway, it has just taken me a while, but the results and freedom has made it well worth the commitment to moving forward! Being able to verbalize the family environment and say “this is what it was like” is an enormously helpful part of the healing process. I made the comment one time “I came from a garden variety alcoholic household. Nothing much happened.” That was FAR from the truth, but the things that happened were “normal” in our house, and it was tough to get a handle on what the problem was exactly.

      I wanted to address your questions directly, Nick, but I’ll be glad to dialogue with you via email and explore all of this further. But one post from my blog came to mind, so I’ll pass it along here:

      http://danlhays.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/overcoming-the-fear-facing-the-past/

      Best wishes for your healing process, Nick – you’re doing a very courageous thing!

      Dan

    • avatar says

      Tracy – Wow! I’m honored. I am very touched that you found this resource so impactful. Please feel free to ask questions. One of the things we struggle with the most as ACAs is a tendency to isolate. I’d be honored to hear more from you, and glad to answer questions if you’d like.

      Dan

  6. avatarKit says

    Dan,
    Thank you so much for your post. I found the poem inspiring and hope to be there someday. I am a adult child of an alcoholic father and an very anxious mother. I play the role of the lost child and sometimes mascot. My life has never been easy as I experienced intense anxiety with mild depression all of my life and have been subject to many abuses/violations. I just learned to work around it, but after I turned 40 things went from bad to worse and i’m really started to numb out and disconnect with everything going on. I feel like I need to address the root cause because my physical health is really starting to suffer. Anyhow, I’ve read books and websites all about the characteristics, problems, etc, etc. of ACOA so i’m well versed in all that. But I still fail in finding healing and relief. A lot of people talk about going to Alanon and I’m willing try that, but I have some questions and I’m hoping you will answer them as you have been down the road of healing. How does a person (ACOA) heal with other dysfunctional people? It seems that group would just become another dysfunctional “family”, feeding of each others fears, insecurities, issues, codependency, etc. Should I seek out “healthy” people/groups to heal and if so where do I find them?

    • avatar says

      Kit,
      You’re welcome, and I’m glad that this post was beneficial for you. :)

      You’re asking excellent questions! First, when I looked at myself as an ACOA, it explained much of what I was dealing with, but when I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which many ACOAs suffer, it explained even more. That is an anxiety disorder, and it really helped me see why I was living life almost hyperventilating much of the time.

      You mention that after 40 was when things began surfacing and accelerating. I think we can only sit on those ACOA issues for so long, and then they start to bubble up and get more attenuated. I experienced it in a very similar way – I thought I was fine, and then it just seemed like things started jumping up in my face. My sponsor said he thought that was a big source of “midlife crisis” – issues that have festered since childhood boiling over into odd behaviors.

      Awareness is a huge component – learning about why I am the way I am has been enormously helpful. I went through a long discovery process, and read a lot of ACOA literature to find out what was going on. But that only got me so far – I had to find active ways to address my issues. Therapy has been very helpful, but the limitation of therapy that I found was that it stirred things up, but I still had to release the effects of the trauma I had suffered in the alcoholic home. I’ve found it a helpful tool, but also use other methods as well.

      You bring up a great point – how can I heal when being around other dysfunctional people? I answered an email this morning from a woman who found my blog, and one thing I told her was that it was really helpful to find people who really understood what I was struggling with. That’s what I find very helpful about 12 step programs. They may not be perfect or all healed, but they GET IT! That was healing in itself – someone understood what I was going through. Can a 12 step group end up as a dysfunctional family at times? Oh yes, for sure. But at least I am around people who are willing to admit they have things to deal with, and try to work on those issues. I found Al-Anon very helpful as well, especially in dealing with detachment from my dysfunctional involvements.

      Interestingly, a lot of my friends from church, my “normal” friends, tried to discourage me from going to ACOA. They thought I was “recycling.” I later started to realize that their discomfort was due to the fact that most of them had some of these issues, and they didn’t want me talking about them. So the concept of normal people is almost comical to me at this point. I think it was John Bradshaw who said that “96% of families are dysfunctional,” which means that normal people are hard to find. :)

      But how to deal with the issues? Honestly, Kit, I have needed a spiritual solution. I get a lot of benefit from church, but for specifically dealing with my issues, the most concise tool I’ve ever found was the 12 steps. First, it’s very focused. Second, it’s about a Higher Power doing for me what I can’t do for myself, and what the limitations of therapy and other tools can’t quite root out. I’ve said many times that if you made me choose one tool to work with, it would be the 12 steps. It is an amazing process, and very similar to things I had heard in church – but distilled into a working tool I could really use.

      Kit, it’s an ongoing process, and I’ll be willing to answer questions as they arise for you. That’s why I shared this post. In a radio interview one time, the interviewer asked me what message I would like to share with people. Without thinking, what fell out of my mouth was, “no matter what the abuse, there is the hope of healing.” That’s still my bottom line. I had given up hope of that by the time I began the recovery process, but I’ve seen that hope renewed, and my healing be far beyond anything I could have imagined.

      As for health issues – I had a buffet of health issues formulating when I began my recovery journey. The last time I went to see my doctor, all of those health issues were no longer present, and he commented, “so you’re one of those people who come in and we don’t have anything to talk about.” I consider that one of the most powerful signals that confronting my ACOA issues has led to an improved life.

      Best wishes to you, Kit!
      Dan

  7. avatarStacey says

    Dan,
    Thank you for your posting. I am an adult, 42, child of alcoholic parents. Alcohol, fights, instability and fear were the basic ingredients of our home. I never realized how much I was effected by it all. Maybe I should say, I never truly allowed myself to feel the full effects. I left home, joining the military as my escape after only 1 yr of college, never looking back, but always carrying ” it” in the depths of my mind. “IT” drove my oldest sister away to disown my parents and my youngest sister ran from “it” only to go back and be the adult.
    My father was a recovering alcoholic, passed in 2010. My mother, she to this day is a full blown, in strong denial alcoholic with a fierce defensive stance. So much now I see the damage it is doing to my little, 34 y/o sister.
    I struggle with her to help her through the day to day strife and emotional exhaustion she faces, she is so tormented.
    With all that being said, I really do just want to thank you and appreciate your guidance out there. I pray it can help me help my sister.
    Thank you again, Dan. Blessing.

    • avatar says

      Stacey,
      Thank you so much for stopping by to share your experience. I think we hated our experience growing up so much that we just don’t want to look back on it – many times like you and I did, for years. But like you say, the “it” was still a poison that was tearing up our lives. I do understand. I’ve lost 2 sisters to the disease – one directly died of liver failure, drank herself to death, and the other numerous complications because she kept running from “it.” I do hear what you are saying about the pain of watching the siblings go through the emotional turmoil.

      I discovered as I went through the recovery process that the best thing I could do to help family was help myself. As I got better and stronger, I was better able to engage – or detach – from their choices, and live a fulfilling life.

      Great news that your father was in recovery before he passed – that must have lent some stability to the situation. I’m sorry to hear that your mom is still practicing and in denial about it. That is a horrific thing to have to watch.

      I’m glad you found my resource and sharing of value. Stop by again, Stacey, and let me know how you’re doing.

      Cheers,
      Dan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.