For a long time I had myself convinced I’d had an idyllic childhood, but by the time I was twenty, the psychological fallout that comes from growing up with two alcoholic parents hit the fan and I was compelled to see a psychiatrist (even though it was the last thing I wanted to do). My despair coupled with epic Technicolor nightmares about drowning and being chased drove me the therapist’s couch. On my way to that first appointment, I said to myself, if I don’t have a big “Aha!” moment by the end of this fifty-minute-hour, I’m outta here.
Well. At the end of that first session the psychiatrist quietly said something so life-changing that in just one sentence, he ripped off the cape of denial I’d hid under for twenty years:
“Did it ever occur to you that the reason you are depressed is because both your parents are alcoholics?”
It sounds stupid but I had never once made any sort of connection between my own feelings of despair and the fact that my parents were basically committing slow suicide for much of my life, drinking themselves to death (drowning, really – which is why I had nightmares about drowning). I always pictured them as being ‘over there,’ with little if any connection with me or my psychic state. Boy, was I wrong. Their illness had everything to do with my unhappiness.
The minute he said that one, quiet sentence, of course, I got it: although I was an unhappy twenty-year-old with a cornucopia of issues the average twenty-year-old did not have to deal with, it was not my own unhappiness I was carrying – it didn’t belong to me. It was an inherited sadness, a hopelessness that belonged to my alcoholic parents.
Fast-forward to now, a lifetime later. I can trace all of my spiritual growth, all of my learning, self-discovery and the seeds of all my joy, back to that one question.
That moment started the long journey of piecing my ACOA self back together, of separating out the unspoken beliefs I had inherited from from my alcoholic parents from the real me, the one that contained a budding hopefulness, joy, dreams, and a garden-variety sanity that most people take for granted but I don’t. Some of the unspoken messages that I carried from my parents were that life is painful and sad – something to be endured until you can exit; that no one is there to help – you are on your own; there is no God; to not to tell the truth or you will hurt someone; to not talk about the past; to drown your sorrows and get up and do it all again the next day, and a million other hand-me-down beliefs that I had to examine and discard (and I did).
After that first visit, I couldn’t wait to get back to his office because I knew that if I followed the thin thread of hope he offered me, it would lead me out of the proverbial forest of darkness, Hansel and Gretle style. Through the process of intensive therapy over several years, and by becoming an active member of Alanon and reading a ton of self-help books, I was able to reset the life that was waiting for me, the one I had inherited from my alcoholic family (and I’m sure if you are an ACOA you already know that statistically, a huge percentage of ACOA’s either marry an alcoholic, become one, or both). I’m happy to say that so far I have been able to lead a happy, normal life – and so far I’ve halted the legacy of alcoholic behavior in my immediate family.
So instead of kvetching about how crappy it can be to grow up in an alcoholic family, I’m going to list some of the good things that came from growing up with alcoholic parents, for me. Because there are good things.
- Huge sense of compassion. For alcoholics, addicts, homeless people, underdogs, children who are abused or who have alcoholic parents. The well of empathy that has been jack-hammered into my soul by my first-person experience of watching people I love suffer with the dis-ease of alcoholism only gets deeper. I’m a really good person for people to call when they are feeling depressed or sad and they need someone to talk to. My hard-earned empathy is a huge part of my character, and to tell you the truth, I’m proud of it. It makes me a better mother, too.
- Sober Living. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I know what addiction and ism is and I do not want any part of it. From the time I was a teen I have known what awaits me if I were to do these things. Beyond that, watching my mother die of cirrhosis, an unbelievably horrible, demeaning, and painful way to die – was a big reminder of what not to do for me. Watching my father journey precariously close to the gates of insanity and then death, tormented by alcoholism – thanks, but no thanks. Not for me.
- Easy-Going. When my mom couldn’t cook for us my dad would scrape every old vegetable and edible tidbit out of the bottom of the fridge, throw them together and make “surprise stew” – which oddly enough, we loved. It always tasted good. We were not picky eaters as children, we just ate what we were given. Our house was not terribly clean, and over the years it really deteriorated, but living in an alcoholic family I learned to value and covet the chance to have a conversation with someone, over and above how clean our house was or how we looked compared to the neighbors – because I had to. If I didn’t accept this, I would be perpetually ashamed and embarrassed when people dropped by. As an adult, I have no OCD or neurotic need to clean and sanitize things, or to have my house project a picture perfect facade for people who drop by. And I’m genuinely happy to eat whatever anyone offers me – if it’s brought to me and cooked by someone else, I’m genuinely appreciative. Because I grew up the way I did, I know what matters.
- Tolerance for other people’s flaws and addictions. I innately understand all levels of addiction, addiction is my language. When I meet an addict or alcoholic or someone who struggles with mental illness, I recognize it immediately (even if they think they are hiding it well) – ACOA’s have a sixth sense for seeing and recognizing addicts and alcoholics. I’ve seen many friends and acquaintances struggle with their own addictions, or with their spouse, friend, or family member – and in every case, addiction destroys. In every case, the people on the sidelines have to witness their loved one sacrificing all they ever loved to that proverbial altar of alcoholism – their careers, their health, their self-respect, their personalities, their morals, jobs, dreams, their finances, relationships, freedom, health, and their lives. I have friends who have active addictions, and I don’t know why but I am able to empathize with them but with boundaries.
- Terrible memory. A by-product of growing up in an alcoholic family is you can instantly forget about the bad things. As a child, if I had to drag my mother by her feet to her bed because she was passed out, or if some stranger pissed in our fireplace or destroyed our furniture or my dad had another car accident with me in the car – I developed a shocking ability to just wake up the next morning and go to school as if nothing had happened. To this day I have one of the worst memories of anyone I know – but I know it was a coping tool that saved my sanity as a child.
- A ‘follow-your-dreams’ template for living. There’s a lively, contagious kind of recklessness that comes with alcoholics – because one thing they are in pursuit of is fun. They also tend to chase pipe-dreams. I inherited a fun kind of recklessness, an understanding that life is short, happiness fleeting, so I grab life by its throat and follow my heart – even when it’s inconvenient.
- An attitude of gratitude. If things get rough, I can just remember my mom and all that she went through. Or my dad. Or how it used to be for me living with them. And instantly, I feel gratitude for the life I lead.
- Unusual, almost psychic ability. Children of alcoholics are great communicators, to an almost psychic degree. I used to know even before my mom stepped in the door after work if she had been drinking on her way home, or not. I have an uncanny ability to pinpoint who is an alcoholic or addict in a room. Children of alcoholics become so perceptive (in the interest of their own survival) that as adults they can literally size up a person – their fears, hopes, flaws, their character – within the first few minutes of meeting them – in a way that’s nearly psychic.
- Truthfulness. I was always the child who raised her hand and pointed out that “the Emperor has no clothes,” even though nobody ever listened. There is a huge amount of denial in families of alcoholics – and this includes extended family members, neighbors, friends, teachers. From the time I could speak I was trying to explain to my parents the truth as I clearly saw it – that they were alcoholics and needed to stop drinking or they would die. I was always shot down or even ridiculed for speaking the truth, because the truth scares the alcoholic – it threatens their denial. As an adult this ability to pinpoint the truth of a matter in any situation served me well, especially in the corporate world where I was valued for my piercing honesty. I would speak up when others needed to but wouldn’t. This quality is due directly to being the stifled child of secrecy and alcoholism.
- I throw great parties. I may not know how to cook a great weeknight dinner or mop the floor, but every cell in my body knows how to throw a fantastic party, and this I owe to my alcoholic parents.
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