Adult Children of Alcoholics
Adverse Childhood Experiences and Dysfunctional Families
this article is excerpted from Adult Children of Alcoholics Workbook: For Children of Addiction, Dysfunction and Adverse Childhood Experiences
It is impossible to explain to someone who has not been through it, how many little things go awry in a home where addiction has taken hold. Sure, I can say routines were thrown off; there was constant crisis that wasn’t there before, but that doesn’t fully describe it. What really hurts is that you can no longer count on anyone the way that you once did. You watch the parent you love turn the face that once smiled at you toward a bottle of alcohol or sink into a lying and degrading behavior. And then, just as mysteriously, he returns, clean-shaven, loving you once again, and remembering all the things you worried he had forgotten — that you’re in a school play, what you like for breakfast, that you are still there (even though he comes and goes). You have him back. You’re torn between letting it feel wonderful (which it does) and not letting it feel too good, because you know from experience that if it feels too good it will only hurt more when he slips away again. Then sure enough, you sense tension creeping in, you observe moments throughout the day fraying around the edges, situations devolving and unraveling before your eyes, and you know that it’s coming. You can read all the signs. The gap between the worlds that had temporarily closed up begins to widen, and your addict disappears into some crevice, some wormhole in the universe, and he is gone as mysteriously as he came. He returns to his private nowhere where you can’t find him. He hides in plain sight. And you have to lose him once again. And wait to see what happens. And go back into the family that is still there. Somewhat there. You see the disappointment on the faces around you; you see the confusion, the humiliation and the hurt. And simultaneously you see those family members shake their heads, square their shoulders, and mush on because the world is still chugging along even though the alcoholic has stepped off. You both appreciate and hate their efforts. You appreciate the ones who are able to plow through, even with blinders, because someone has to, because there are school buses to make, homework to be done, and appointments to get to. You hate it because you sense the sham underneath it. The pain inside you, inside everyone grows. But no one talks about it; because what would they say? It is too sad to look at, too much to sort out.
And changing one person might mean everyone has to change. And what would that mean — what would it look like and who would everyone be then?
The Family Illness
So what happens to the family members of the addict in the long term? At least the alcoholic can put on those proverbial rose-colored glasses when the going gets rough. When something in their lives feels too painful to sit with, they don’t have to, they can get rid of their pain by numbing it out with alcohol or drugs. But the people who love and rely on them can’t. The spouse, son or daughter who see them at the breakfast table, plan crisscrossing days, who want to count on them for a ride to school, a talk about their day or a steady pay check … are going through this rollercoaster family experience cold sober. The pain they feel at watching the person they once thought they knew morph slowly into some confusing, unreachable version of their old self, these people are not using a substance to numb out their pain. And all too often, they feel like they are going slowly mad, like someone has turned the volume up on the noise in their heads and left them with a bunch of free-floating anxiety, free floating because when they try to talk about it, there is so much denial. Which is why children who grow up with parental addiction also learn to deny, minimize, intellectualize, dissociate and at times act crazier than even the alcoholic. So their disease of co-addiction, codependency or trauma related stress mushrooms right alongside the addict’s disease of addiction.
Think of the addicted family system as a sort of water balloon in which the balloon itself contains the disease of addiction or adverse childhood experiences (it’s in the water system, the family blood stream) but how and where that disease manifests can vary. Families like this tend to create scapegoats of one person who acts out the pain that the whole family is denying. Then parents pull together to help the kid who’s in trouble and that family has a place to pin it’s unconscious pain. Sharon Wegscheider Cruse talked about family roles. They are the addict, enabler, hero, lost child, mascot and the scapegoat. In families where there is a lot of denied or unconscious pain those roles may become stratified and rigid, but rest assured, someone with have the hot potato or the pink elephant sitting in their laps, it’s an endless game of “not it”. Who gets “scapegoated” can change, but pathology has a way of popping out somewhere. Picture it, if you press down on one corner of a water balloon, all of the rest of it pops up and a big, obvious bulge gets created. That there is a bulge is consistent, where it appears can vary according to where there is pressure. Until the family “disease” is brought out into the open and the dynamics are understood, the amount of water inside the balloon will be consistent, where the bulge is can vary.
Let’s look at some of the lessons you learn when someone you love becomes an addict. You learn that you cannot count on someone’s mood any more, they may over react to simple frustrations that they once could manage. They launch into negative monologues at the drop of a hat, create conflict where there needn’t be any. And let’s face it this behavior can be adopted by other, stressed out family members as well. So you learn to avoid the people you love. This is a big and confusing lesson to learn and one that doesn’t exactly set you up for uncomplicated relationships in the future. You feel anxious being around the addict or even others in the family, you worry about saying something that will make them mad, about asking them questions or getting into conversations that can quickly go south. And these behaviors are catchy too, soon many family members may adopt versions of hyperviglance and anxiety, until many family interactions feel a little “off”. In this climate, you learn to be on guard, you fuse together in your head that love, mistrust and a chronic low level of anxiety are part of a “normal,” intimate relationship, part of being close. You feel like a failure because you can never seem to get it right and even if you can get it right for them, the pain loose in the family will make sure you can’t get it right for someone. It’s so confusing.
Then comes that magic window when things return almost to normal. If the addict is now sober for a while, you see in front of you the smile you remember, the easy laugh, the person you once felt so comfortable with. And this makes the whole thing even more disturbing, because nothing you can do interpersonally is going to access that person when you want to see them. It gets harder to focus on your own life because managing or working around someone else’s takes priority. You lose that sense of ease and lightness in your day, in yourself. You start to develop a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness because you increasingly do not know the person you love, you lose them by barely perceptible inches. And you lose comfortable relations with other family members as well, to say nothing of the comfortable connection with your self that is getting daily eroded and you drag these feelings into other relationships around you and if you don’t get help, into relationships down the line; the feelings become intergenerational even if the alcohol doesn’t. Pain gets passed down to the next generation through this kind of projecting it onto others. Then presto, the unresolved pain in the child of an alcoholic emerges in the next generation. Although their parents who were the children of alcoholics (CoAs) are sober, they are lugging along all of this unresolved baggage into their parenting. The next generation feels their parents’ silent pain, anger and unlooked at criticism, low self-esteem and resentment and they pick up alcohol, drugs or food to numb it. So the disease of addiction reemerges in the grandchildren of alcoholics. Addiction appears to have “skipped a generation” but did it? Weren’t its affects alive and well, just without the alcohol? Wasn’t the post-traumatic stress of growing up with active addiction, simply continuing its predictable disease path?
How Trauma Affects Our Mind and Body
When we’re traumatized, our thinking mind shuts down but our limbic world goes into high gear. Much like a circuit breaker on overload, parts of our intellectual processing equipment just flip to the off position until the heat lessens. Nature didn’t want us wondering if we should get out of the way of a charging wooly mammoth so she made it so that we wouldn’t think, so that our fight/flight instinct would just take over and we’d run for safety. Our fight/flight/freeze apparatus in governed by our limbic system. This means that our limbic brain/body which is ALSO responsible for processing our emotions and sense impressions, continues to gather data like sights, sounds, smells and even some feelings but there are big, huge gaps in our recollection of events during those high stress moments. But because the part of our brain that would have made sense of the, namely the prefrontal cortex, the part of us that thinks and reasons and creates meaning was shut down, we’re simply left with fragments of experiences, bits and pieces of the story and flashes of feelings that we can’t quite attach to anything specific. Because we weren’t thinking about what was happening as it happened, we have no storyline that pulls together these disparate pieces and makes relevant sense and meaning of them. Consequently, we may be unaware of certain emotional memories that we carry and their implications to our lives. But we carry them nonetheless. We carry them as “body memories” lodged in our limbic system but never elevated to a conscious level through translating the sense impressions and feelings into words and elevating them to a conscious level.
But those memories, though mostly unconscious, can still get triggered to the surface when we encounter something that is reminiscent, in some way, of a previous experience of unresolved pain……..
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