West Great Lakes ACA Intergroup

Chicagoland, SE Wisconsin, NW Indiana

Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families

What it was like

I was the oldest girl in a large family with a lot of responsibility from an early age. My alcoholic father was the son of an alcoholic. My co-dependent mother lost her own mother at an early age and helped raise her own siblings.

My father drank daily/nightly and was usually drunk when he came home from work. If he was home for dinner, it was incredibly stressful because my mother was more on edge; a spilled glass of milk was a disaster. If we were lucky, he passed out in this chair afterwards. If he missed dinner, we waited, hoping he would stay out late enough so we’d already be in bed. But if we were in bed, it usually meant an argument with my mom with a lot of yelling and threats. She packed his bags many times, which always felt so hopeful to see, but in the morning he’d still be there.

If he came home drunk before bedtime, he always seemed to be looking for someone to punish for something. I remember the incredible fear I felt while we waited, even though It was rarely me that he picked on. I was the good, responsible one who did everything possible to stay out of trouble and not make waves. So later, as an adult, I thought that gave me fewer emotional scars, but I learned in counseling that I had survivor guilt for not being able to do anything to stop it. But this guilt was misplaced because as children we’re powerless against an irrational, drunken parent.

My father had a favorite target, one of my brothers who often got into trouble, but never anything really serious. At a certain point, one of my sisters started to challenge him. I don’t remember what he did to her, just like I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. But I do remember thinking “STOP” – that it wasn’t making any difference and she was just making it harder for everyone. I used to wonder if she was better off for having challenged him. There’s no way of telling because we all came away with deep scars .

Living through everything that went on, I remember frequently crying myself to sleep. In high school I thought constantly about who I could tell; maybe one of the teachers could help. But I always abandoned the idea in the light of day – I just knew they couldn’t do anything.

What Happened

Not surprisingly, my first serious relationship was with a guy who also had an alcoholic father (we’re attracted to dysfunction – it’s normal for us.) Neither of us knew how to communicate, especially if we disagreed on something. We never argued – we’d just sit there in his car not talking, often for up to an hour, waiting for the other one to give in and say something. By then it was usually time for me to go in. Then we’d Never talk about it again. It was as if it never happened, just like so much of what went on at home.

We eventually broke up and true to my roots, I met and married an alcoholic. I didn’t think he was one because he was a binge drinker, not a daily drinker like my Dad. But it didn’t take long for it to get out of control. Like my mother, I argued and yelled and threatened, but it didn’t change anything. There were periods of time when things were better, which made it easier to stay, but I may have stayed anyway because that’s what my mother did.

Through the years I became depressed, although I didn’t recognize it as such. By the time our children were in school, I felt like an emotional mess. I didn’t know how to make real friends, because that required a level of honesty that I was always afraid of. I had acquaintances – the people in the neighborhood and parents of the kid’s friends. At social gatherings, I was the one helping the hostess because then I could avoid conversations with others.

I began to go to the doctor a lot; I figured there must be a physical reason why I felt so bad. But my emotional health was the issue. I was finally referred to a therapist who immediately helped me understand that, among other things, I was living with an alcoholic and we both needed help.

I guess you could say we were the lucky ones where so many others aren’t. My husband agreed to get help and go to AA. I joined Alanon and found an amazing sponsor. After a couple of years of working on my marriage co-dependency issues, she helped me find ACoA (ACA). It immediately felt like I was where I was supposed to be. They knew who I was and where I came from – because we all came from the same place, even though our specific situations might have been different. I actually learned to make long-lasting friendships that were based on honesty. I continue to go to meetings with many of these people years later. They are my extended family.

What it’s like in recovery

As I peeled away the layers and gradually got rid of some of my baggage, I was able to replace it with constructive solutions. I learned to be present with my children in ways I never experienced as a child. I didn’t deal with their problems like the spilled glass of milk of my childhood. I learned to be calm and deal with facts and emotions. A huge example of this was when my daughter started dating someone in high school that I instinctively knew was wrong for her. I also knew that if I threw a fit and forbade her to see him, as my mother would have, she would have dug her heals in and who knows what would have happened. Instead, I welcomed him, as hard as it was, and treated him with respect. And no, my behavior didn’t make him magically change or disappear. But it’s funny how things can work out over time. At some point I realized that I truly accepted him because he was who she chose for herself. As soon as this happened, I noticed that she had begun to realize there was no real future with him. And the next thing I knew, she broke up with him. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I was for the program. There were no arguments, no histrionics. She figured it out for herself.

I’m pleased to be able to say that my children have turned out to be amazing adults, but certainly with problems of their own. However, those problems are far different than anything I dealt with. We enjoy each other’s company, and they can come to me with their problems. When they do, any words of wisdom I have are a result of what I’ve learned in ACA.

The bottom line for me is that when problems arise, I’ve learned to face them. Living in the real world means there are always challenges, often daily ones. But I can handle them when I use the tools ACA has given me – the Steps and Traditions, the serenity prayer, my weekly meetings, and my Fellow Traveler (co-sponsor). I now know that when I feel down, it won’t last; and if I’m having a hard time and lose my cool, I can get it back. Life is Good!

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