Adult children of alcoholics can have a lot of baggage

Anyone else grow up in an alcoholic family system? Well, then you know how crazy and painful it can be. When you grow up with alcoholism and addiction, family members have only one objective: keep the addiction secret at all costs. This sworn duty to lie, deny, and protect has 14 long-term effects. Many children of alcoholics bring these childhood behaviors into their adult relationships with a strange paradox. It’s almost impossible to relate their present-day problems back to their past.

The Laundry List – 14 Traits of Adult Children Of Alcoholics

Written by Tony, A. in 1978, this timeless list best describes the issues many adult children of alcoholics face:

  1. We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
  2. We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
  3. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
  4. We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
  5. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
  6. 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, etc.
  7. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
  8. We became addicted to excitement.
  9. We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
  10. 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).
  11. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
  12. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
  13. Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
  14. Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.

How Do We Take Care Of The Dirty Laundry?

Denial runs deep. It’s almost always easier to minimize, rationalize, or excuse the root cause of our problems. But the truth behind most of our problems often lies somewhere in this list. Taking care of the dirty laundry involves three concise steps.

1. Drag The Entire Mess Out Into The Open

Addiction is a family disease that affects generations.  Working through the dirty laundry of addiction isn’t usually a healthy family activity because many of us are still sworn to secrecy.  Therefore, the best way to recover is to find a recovery program.  Many people find hope and healing in 12 Step programs like Al-Anon, ACA, Nar-Anon, CoDA and Celebrate Recovery. All of these programs are known for welcoming newcomers and showing them the ropes.

2. Sort The Mess Into Smaller Piles

Imagine collecting all of the clothes that a family of five has worn for the last 30 years and cramming them into one small washer? Wouldn’t it be lovely if all of those clothes would fit into one load?

Family dysfunction shapes every aspect of our lives. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication and decision making are all developed in the rickety scaffolding of a shaky foundation. Children’s emotional growth in some areas is often stunted while other areas develop too quickly.

Challenging these life-long habits takes small steps and lots of repetition. Which areas of your life is the most stressful right now? Finances, family life, work, health, relationships? Pick one or two key areas to start talking over with a trusted friend, sponsor, counselor, or accountability partner.

3. Soak, Spot Treat, and Salvage

Picture your favorite white shirt or dress. Now, let’s pretend your neighbor’s dog drug it out of your laundry basket through a pile of mud out in to the street. Then it got run over by a car. As you were reaching down to scoop it up, you accidentally spilled a sippy cup of grape juice and a chocolate mocha on the garment. Would all be lost? Would you love the item any less?

With enough time and special care, there’s an outside chance your favorite item might still be usable. It probably won’t be as perfect as it was in the store, but it can still be worth holding on to. Maybe you’ll be able to re-purpose at least part of the item and give it new life.

The same is true of complicated family relationships. Recovery isn’t a miracle cure, and sometimes it seems like reconciliation will NEVER happen, but don’t give up too soon.  By learning how to detach, set boundaries, and take care of themselves, many adult children can eventually forge a new relationship with their parents. The amount of time spent together might change drastically, as well as safe topics to discuss, but many can learn to salvage some small part of the relationship.

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Pam Carver

Pam is the author of two books: Co-dependent In The Kitchen, and Find Your True Colors In 12 Steps. She's also a contributing editor for Reach Out Recovery. She's a recovery advocate who likes long walks on the beach and chocolate.

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