Excerpt from Chapter 4 – The Recovery Process in The Laundry List by Tony A. and Dan F.
Trait 01 – Authority Figures
We Became Isolated And Afraid Of People And Authority Figures.
For many ACoAs isolation and fear were the most natural, almost spontaneous response to living with angry, abusive, hypercritical parents. Our parents were our first authority figures, and they loomed large over us in an almost God-like manner.
Alcoholism distorts human relationships, and the effects of alcoholism are particularly devastating to young children who naturally seek love, acceptance, respect and consistency. To be verbally or physically abused during the most vulnerable and innocent years can create either a fear of, or hostility toward authority, and a hypersensitivity toward angry, oppressive individuals. Many ACoAs continue to retreat into isolation, avoidance and distrust of people and relationships in order to ensure survival. As adults many ACoAs found that their reactions to authority figures either put them at the feet or at the throat of those they viewed in this way. As one member said, “I either wanted to kiss them or kill them.”
Acquiring a more balanced approach toward those seen as authority figures is sometimes a difficult task. Until we learn to separate out and see that we are reacting in the present in much the same way as we did in our abusive family, we are bound to have troubled relationships. Just watching one’s typical reactions – be it withdrawal, fright or hostility – and modifying this response takes real effort; but it’s an essential step toward recovery. Don’t expect that knowledge alone will miraculously produce a new set of healthy responses. For many it takes painful trial over many months or even years.
Trait 2 – Angry People
We Are Frightened By Angry People And Personal Criticism.
One of the most corrosive and damaging aspects of an alcoholic household is the use of rage and incessant criticism to control the family’s behavior. For many ACoAs, abuse often accompanied anger. As a child, violent, angry movements and gestures absolutely terrified me. Our parents were unpredictable and out of control. We, the helpless victims, had few defenses. We were completely at their mercy and full of fear for our survival.
As very young children we were also painfully susceptible to the daily litany of verbal abuse. We were being ‘defined’ by our parents and we had no choice but to believe what they were telling us about ourselves. This ugly pattern of verbal harassment caused many of us to feel great shame and an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. Spontaneity, trust and confidence fled before these repeated verbal assaults. As adults we may sometimes be revisited by these feelings of helplessness when criticized or become very distressed by angry outbursts. Continuous badgering of a child over many years can, unfortunately, lead to resistance in recovery. As adults our reactions to critical or even mild suggestions can be alienating or inappropriate.
Trait 3 – Lost Identity
We Became Approval-Seekers And Lost Our Identity In The Process.
Very early in my childhood I began to watch the expressions on my father’s face very carefully. By doing so I could quickly determine what kind of mood he was in and adjust my behavior accordingly. My responses to my father were always efforts to keep him “happy”. Whenever possible I used humor to keep him from escalating a sour mood.
Approval-seeking became a powerful defense mechanism that I used whenever I was faced with people who were potentially threatening or violent – and my father was at the head of that list. I believed at a deep level that if I could get people’s approval, they wouldn’t hurt me.
Today I know that when I fall into an approval-seeking stance – and sometimes I find it difficult not to – I lose my identity. I abandon my natural self. The real me slides under the door because I’m concentrating on responses and behavior that will please another — not me. So I have said no to the authentic me and yes to someone else’s wants.
Trait 4 – Addiction
We Either Become Alcoholics, Marry Them Or Both – Or Find Another Compulsive Personality, Such As A Workaholic, To Fulfill Our Sick Abandonment Needs.
If we make a careful survey of those close to us, family and non-family, it probably won’t take too much effort to notice that sometimes we are drawn to, befriend or become attracted to alcoholics or other addictive people. Emotionally healthy individuals with a solid sense of self-esteem do not usually link up with alcoholic, compulsive or emotionally ill individuals. Sometimes the fixers and rescuers, who have very cleverly concealed their own personality problems, marry or couple with an alcoholic in a vain effort to gain control or self-esteem through the process of rescue.
Conversely many depend and addictive people have been known to reach out for rescuing by turning to those who closely resemble their most abusive parent. While the rational world would expect a mistreated child to stay well clear of an abusive romantic partnership, experience says otherwise. Pain and abuse are familiar to most ACoAs and often they feel almost comfortable in an abusive environment or relationship that resembles what they experienced in childhood.
Alcoholics and workaholics are seldom capable of being supportive to another person because their compulsive/addictive behavior acts to block their feelings. For many the addiction is the way of not feeling the feelings. Thus a parent or partner who purposely gets drunk is making a statement: “I am now emotionally abandoning myself, my mate and /or my children.” When we become involved with an addictive person, we are at some level seeking that familiar abandonment we experienced as children.
Trait 5 – Victim
We Live Life From The Viewpoint Of Victims And Are Attracted By That Weakness In Our Love And Friendship Relationships.
All ACoAs are truly victims. We view and approach life from that posture. We are readily attuned to and empathetic with kindred sufferers. Indeed there is almost a sixth sense that guides our affiliation and socializing process.
It is quite natural for victims to be attracted to other victims. Identification is often almost instantaneous; and those of us who are fixers and rescuers leap at the opportunity to become involved in attempting to strengthen and nourish another unfortunate. We fail to understand that we often do so as a means of escaping our own pain and turmoil, in the belief that by putting the focus on another we will somehow solve the many ACoA issues that confront us.
Often we act out the role of victim over and over again. Being victimized has a bittersweet familiarity and provides a consistent identity. The challenge for ACoAs is to recognize the many ways in which we perpetuate the behavior of a victim, sell ourselves short or discount our personal value.
Once we are aware of our sabotage efforts we can slowly begin the task of making healthy decisions that move us steadily away from the distress of low self-esteem. It’s not an easy task but it does become less difficult with daily practice. Victims usually feel helpless about their lives. Healthy, esteem-building actions bring a more positive outlook and usually a more sensible selection of partners and friends.
Trait 6 – Responsibility
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.
When I take responsibility for others, I take the focus off myself. When I feel a compelling sense of responsibility for another, I’m no longer concentrating on feeling my own feelings. This behavior enables me to feel needed, wanted, essential and important. I now have a special worth or value. And when I feel needed or wanted, I feel full. As someone once remarked at a meeting, “Somehow I managed to serve everyone well except myself.”
Since many ACoAs are driven by external approval, taking responsibility for another is an attractive way to gain approval and respect. The problem with this is one of energy depletion. Each of us has just so much energy to tackle life’s problems and resolve them. When we use much of our energy to assist others, we are consistently robbing ourselves of opportunities to further our own well-being and self-esteem.
Most likely no one will be particularly attentive and praise each of our little but important personal victories; helping another, however, can generate lots of attention, praise and gratitude.
This is not to say we shouldn’t be of assistance and support on occasion. But we should keep clearly in mind that growth and change can only come from working on our own issues. This needs to become a primary task. To continually rush off to help others is to rob ourselves of a measured and perhaps accelerated recovery.
Trait 7 – Guilty
We Have Guilty Feelings When We Stand Up For Ourselves Instead Of Giving In To Others.
When I say “yes” to another person and “no” to myself, I feel at ease. But when I say “no” to another and “yes” to me, I may become troubled by extreme feelings of guilt. This is not uncommon among ACoAs.
As a child I learned that my acceptance was conditional and based upon my willingness to do what my parents desired. To refuse them would bring harsh disapproval. My efforts to assert myself were always met with great resistance; and I learned that my personal agenda – my needs, my desires – did not matter. My parents did not respect my individuality, only my compliance.
Very early in my life I found that I could be overwhelmed by guilt when I tried to assert myself. To hold hast in my own best interests involved risking the anger, dissatisfaction and possible alienation of others. I was never taught that independence and sovereignty were healthy. In my alcoholic household the focus was always on the needs and desires of my alcoholic parents. In order to reduce the possibility of anger or some kind of confrontation, I chose to suppress my needs and always be available to them. Even now, after many years of ACoA, I must sometimes contend with old guilt feelings when I elect to do something I consider important to me rather than doing something my wife or children want. The more central the person is to my life, the more apt I am to have some feelings of guilt.
Trait 8 – Excitement
Trait 8 – We Became Addicted To Excitement
As a child growing up in an alcoholic household I often found myself in the middle of a turbulent family soap opera. It was a household filled with tension, hostility, rebellion, guilt and shame. In some strange way it was both exciting and fearful, primarily because my parents’ actions were so unpredictable when they were drunk. As a result I have a tendency to link fear with excitement.
My usual reactions to the insanity in my household were vigilance followed by a rush of excitement and fear. The fear became part of my identity. I became addicted to the rush of adrenalin, the hypervigilance, the dread of a family scene going bad.
This combination of circumstances made me feel very alive and allowed me not to feel abandoned. I felt that I was in the middle of, or part of, something very tense and vital. Unfortunately as a child I didn’t understand that I was really engulfed in an alcoholic induced emotional windstorm that was making me sick.
Taken from the Big Red Book of ACA, Page xxxiv:
Tony A. sat down and wrote the original list of 13 characteristics of an Adult Child of Alcoholism in about two hours. He added one more trait when he sat down with Chris, another group member who offered to type up the list. Tony had forgotten to say anything about fear. But he didn’t think that they would admit to fear, so he called it “excitement”. We became addicted to excitement. This completed the list of 14 common behaviors of Adult Children. It was early spring of 1978.
Taken from the Big Red Book of ACA, Page 16:
Adult children use both excitement and fear to mimic the feeling of being alive when in reality they are recreating a scene from their family of origin. Gossip, dramatic scenes, pending financial failure, or failing health are often the turmoil that adult children create in their adult lives to feel connected to reality. These behaviors are examples of our “addiction” to excitement or fear.
The inner world of an adult child can be described as an “inside drug store”. The shelves are stocked with bottles of excitement, toxic shame, self-hate, self-doubt, and stress. Other shelves include canisters of lust, fear, and worry. As odd as it sounds, we can seek out situations so we can experience a “hit” of one of these inner drugs. We can create chaos to feel excitement. Or we can procrastinate on the job to feel stress. In the past we have picked relationships that triggered our childhood unrest because it felt normal to be upset, persecuted, or shamed. It made us feel alive. It represented our addiction to excitement and a variety of inner drugs created to survive childhood. Because our homes were never consistently safe or settled, we have no true reference point for these states of being. Therefore, we tend to viewed emotionally healthy people as boring or confusing.
Trait 9 – Love/Pity
We Confuse Love And Pity And Tend To “Love” People We Can Pity And Rescue.
Over the years I’ve noticed that some ACoA members have a certain way of looking and carrying themselves that reminds me of my own “wounded and lost” look. For me it was a manifestation of my state of internal confusion. The sick, abandoned child in me was crying out through my countenance and my posture. As an adult I tend to be attracted to the same woundedness, the soul sadness, the deep confused sorrow in others that I felt about myself as a child. I wanted to rescue these people.
As a child pity was the closest thing to affection that I was able to experience, so now I have to watch that I don’t confuse the two. In ACoA I forced myself to confront and work through some overwhelming feelings of self-pity. Eventually I had to wallow in them and re-experience much of my childhood sorrow. I had to surrender to the realization that if I felt great pity or sorrow for a person it didn’t mean that I had to rescue them. My love couldn’t make them whole – that was their task.
My effort to rescue people was an attempt to make them feel whole and complete. If I succeeded in “making” them feel good about themselves, then I could feel good about what I had done.
Trait 10 – Stuffed Feelings
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)
Fairly early in my childhood my feelings became so raw, so painful, so intense that I began to discount them and stuff them. In ACoA I discovered that my deepest reactions to abuse and abandonment, rejection and scorching ridicule, were carefully stuffed away in my subconscious. As events in my home became more and more unbearable I just buried the feelings that went with the incidents. In doing so I managed to construct an almost impenetrable shell around my early torment. I was unable to let all that early pain surface and be processed. It took a number of years of ACoA recovery to break open that protective shell.
Most of my childhood feelings came to light through experiencing similar confrontations and incidents during my early recovery days. As unsettling and awful to feel as these events were, they were just what I needed to open myself up to long hidden feelings.
Even more damaging was my inability to recognize and know just what it was that I was feeling at any given moment. Long ago I had ceased being a sensitive, aware and spontaneous human being. I was a sort of mechanical individual with a very limited range of responses and reactions that might almost pass as feelings – not a very healthy portrait. From what I understand about human nature, a person who has lost the ability to identify and express his or her feelings is pretty much buried alive in rigid inflexible behavior and incapable of experiencing life in a full and meaningful way.
ACoA meetings provide a safe and understanding environment where members can explore, identify and express their innermost feelings without the judgment of others. Meetings also provide a sense of belonging in which the vulnerable ACoA is accepted unconditionally.
Trait 11 – Judgemental
We Judge Ourselves Harshly And Have A Very Low Sense Of Self-Esteem.
Children who are subjected to constant criticism and told repeatedly that they are “less than” are not able to develop healthy feelings about themselves. Our parents provide us with much of the framework and structure of our early identity. On a daily basis they define us as good, bad, lovable, worthless, helpless or inadequate. Out of this daily litany children develop a sense of who they are and the stuff they are made of.
In an alcoholic household the daily input is generally harsh, punishing and critical. Alcoholic parents verbally abuse their children in a variety of ways; but the result is almost always a child with a painfully low sense of self-esteem. Even the over achieving hero children of an alcoholic household harbor troublesome feelings of not being good enough. Indeed their compliant achievements and heroic efforts are usually an attempt to compensate for the harsh inner voice that constantly challenges their adequacy and capability.
Trait 12 – Abandonment
We Are Dependent Personalities Who Are Terrified Of Abandonment And Will Do Anything To Hold Onto A Relationship In Order Not To Experience The Painful Abandonment Feelings We Received From Living With Sick People Who Were Never There Emotionally For Us.
Parents who drink until they are intoxicated are emotionally abandoning not only themselves but also those close to them. Drunken parents are not rationally present for their own lives and cannot be emotionally present for their children.
Many ACoAs have shared that they would go to great lengths to avoid the terrible feelings of emptiness, loss and rejection that they experienced as children. This gnawing dread and uncertainty usually got converted into self-doubt: “What’s wrong with me?” They felt that there must have been something tragically wrong with them that caused their parents to abandon them.
I think that a child sees abandonment in many forms. I was two years old when my mother died. I clearly felt that as abandonment. Every time my father got into a drunken rage and berated me I sense that he was abandoning me. All were “little murders” of my spirit.
For many years I had trouble being alone. If I was by myself with no excitement around me and no people close by, I felt empty, abandoned and worthless. I needed constant attention and praise. I could not validate myself. I lived for the acceptance and attention of others because I felt that only they could reward me and fill the hollow, empty yearning. I did everything imaginable to shut out the feelings of emptiness. I constantly used people, places and things to distract me. My public behavior was mostly a desperate effort to conceal my inner poverty.
I was terrified of being rejected in romance. At the slightest hint of rejection, I would run. I was blind to my dependency. I desperately tried to control people and situations so that I
Wouldn’t feel abandoned. Even now, when someone close leaves me for a perfectly innocent reason that has nothing to do with me, I still feel tremors of the old terror.
Of all the issues that ACoAs must contend with in their recovery, the terror of abandonment and the awful feelings of emptiness are the greatest challenges. For some, it’s almost pure torture to have to endure, alone, the painful feelings of rejection, loss or isolation. Unfortunately, there is no simple remedy. Sometimes we have to accept the solitude, the apparent void, and slowly come to understand that we are not empty or unlovable. We will survive and we can have a happy and joyous life without being overly dependent or clinging
Trait 13 – Para-Alcoholic
Alcoholism Is A Family Disease. We Became Para-Alcoholics And Took On The Characteristics Of That Disease Even Though We Did Not Pick Up The Drink.
When any member of a family is suffering with alcohol addiction, all who live in the household are affected and become ill. In some families the desperation and emotional turmoil is ever-present, while in other homes the entire family may go to incredible lengths to put on a show of normalcy.
Regardless of the family posture, however, the disease of alcoholism affects everyone. The children suffer stress in countless ways. Eventually the overwhelming pressures in the alcoholic family lead to emotional disturbances, many of which have been described in this chapter. Appearances aside, all of the children in an alcoholic household become wounded and most of them carry those unhealed wounds into adulthood, home and social environment. No child escapes unscathed, though many are under the false impression that they have. It is most sad that so many ACoAs truly feel that they survived their childhood with only minor scratches and bruises.
Para-alcoholism is the transmission of emotional aspects of the disease from parents to children. Children who are exposed to the illness eventually take on many of the characteristics of the illness. It’s a fact of life that many ACoAs resist before recovery.
Trait 14 – Reactor
Para-alcoholics Are Reactors Rather Than Actors.
On the stage of life the para-alcoholic waits for the signals and directions of others. The para-alcoholic is generally an other-directed individual who tries to determine an acceptable course of action based upon his or her perception of what will please and satisfy others.
The ACoA is often described as an adaptive individual with a very vague central self. All through childhood the ACoA was forced to adapt, adjust and respond to the needs and demands of drunken and often abusive parents. This child learns to react almost automatically, usually out of fear or need. And it is this response pattern, often driven by dependency and low self-esteem, that ACoAs carry into their adult world.
In the recovery process ACoAs need to learn to process uncomfortable feelings and demands without reacting automatically. What helped me with this issue was the technique of not responding immediately – no quick reply, no jumping into action. I forced myself to stop and think, which also gave me time to process the disturbing feelings that were bouncing around inside me. Instead of reacting I learned to temporize, to tell people that I wanted to think about it first.
Initially I was amazed at how people respected my request for time or my inaction. I learned that as an ACoA I had been programmed to respond in an unhealthy way to both sick and healthy situations. Now I usually take charge of my responses, and they are almost always guided by a healthy respect for what is appropriate and in “my” best interest. Most of the time I have stopped looking for validation and approval from others.
Excerpt from Chapter 4 – The Recovery Process in The Laundry List by Tony A. and Dan F.