Growing up in an alcoholic family can cause trauma
Growing up in an alcoholic family caused wounds that still stalk me, but they can be healed. I’ve identified the five most painful issues I’m currently facing. and I’m using the following tools to heal.
1 – Secrecy (Don’t Tell Anyone I’m From An Alcoholic Family)
The Effect: I was 38 years old before I ever told anyone my dad is an alcoholic. My dad’s problem with drinking is a heavily guarded secret. He says he quit drinking years ago, and we never speak of it. I continue to honor this unspoken code of secrecy because:
- When I was a child, my parents used force and intimidation to keep me quiet. Today, I am still afraid of being punished by them. (They don’t know I write here, so please don’t tell them!)
- I’m afraid that if anyone finds out about our family secret, they’ll say my childhood wounds are normal. I can’t live in a world where what happened to me is”normal.”
- I’m equally afraid that if anyone finds out about our family secret, they’ll confront my parents or coerce me into confronting them. Unsafe people usually have no boundaries and are huge fans of confrontation. Confronting my parents won’t work for me because:
- I don’t want them to know or feel bad about how much they hurt me
- I don’t want to reconcile with them because I’m afraid they’ll reject me again
- I’m still afraid I’ll be punished by them for telling – I’m still that scared little girl
The Tools: By accident, I told my new friend Katie about my dad’s drinking one night on the phone. Katie is also an adult child of an alcoholic, but she wasn’t afraid to tell the truth about her family. Having someone else understand what I lived through was a healing salve for my broken heart. As cliché as it sounds, when Katie told me, “Having an alcoholic parent really messes with you,” a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Telling a safe person validated my pain and freed me from isolation. Today, my safe person is my sponsor.
2 – Denial (I Wasn’t The One With The Problem)
The Effect: Even though Katie’s kind words were life-giving to me, I kept hurting because I refused to admit the root of my problem. The simple answer to “What’s wrong with Grace?” was all of the “isms” that came with my family’s alcohol use disorder, but I rationalized it with a hundred other minor excuses. Why? Because denial protected me from making tough changes like:
- Standing up for myself
- Speaking my truth
- Saying no
These tough choices came with a risk I didn’t want to take. The risk of losing the little love I get from my parents didn’t outweigh the chance of getting healing.
The Tool: Ironically, the same 12-steps my dad never took offer me the healing he never got. AA’s Step One says, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Admitting the problem is the first step towards acceptance and acceptance leads to serenity. I regularly go to meetings to learn more about these 12 Steps.
3 – Abuse (It Could Have Been Worse)
The Effect: When I was small, my crying was met with slaps, switches, or wooden spoons. I learned to be quiet. If my parents responded like this, wouldn’t strangers do far worse? No grown-up could be trusted. According to Livestrong.com, two out of five abusive parents are alcoholics. Alcohol is a major factor in 9 out of 10 child abuse cases.
The Tool: Abuse cannot survive in secrecy, but challenging my abusers is beyond terrifying. Instead, I attend anonymous support groups like Al-Anon, ACofA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), or CoDA (Co-dependents Anonymous). I’m building a support network that builds me up. Because these support groups teach about boundaries, I’m learning how to stay out of dangerous situations. Someday, I’ll be strong enough to stand up for myself if I need to.
4 – Perfectionism (What’s Wrong With Being Perfect?)
The Effect: As a child, the closer I could be to perfect, the less I would get punished, and at school, perfectionism gave me lots of positive attention. I excelled academically and even earned a full-tuition college scholarship. Unfortunately, my fear of not being perfect grew into an unhealthy obsession. When I started a new job, my perfectionism came to work with me. I’m terrified to make a mistake, but my need for perfection often comes off as defensive or arrogant.
The Tool: It’s OK to be wrong. I feel like the “Fonz”, who could never admit he was wrong. My fingers even struggle to type the word wrong. Is it really OK to be wrong? Today my sponsor tells me I am equal to everyone else, mistakes and all. Meditating on this principle has brought a lot of healing.
5 – Over-Responsibilty (I’m Really Just Helping)
The Effect: Being responsible gave me positive attention from my parents, so I naturally wanted more of that. I began babysitting my brother Ricky when I was eight. By my early teens, I was fixing dinner for my dad and brother Ricky while my mom worked nights. I also did laundry, cleaned the house, and still got straight As. Without boundaries, the roles in our family were unclear and I became overly an responsible teen.
The Tool: To heal the relationships in my family of origin, I detach. I detach so I can be an independent person and allow them to do the same. I’m working on seeing them separate from their illnesses. I’m also detaching me from my story. I like to pretend I’m a famous actress and the wounded child of an alcoholic was just a part I played. Playing that part was tragic and toxic, but it didn’t change my core likes, dislikes, hopes, or dreams. Today, I remind myself I am not responsible for anyone else’s feelings. I also remember to play: I ride my bike, go to the pool, and to the beach.
My tools aren’t flashy or expensive, but they work. They just work slowly even though I want an overnight fix. Sadly, the wounds from being a child of an alcoholic weren’t inflicted on one single day, so it might take one good day to heal every bad day. Thus, my recovery is a long journey.
Need support with a family member or friend who is drinking or using? This is a link to Al-Anon. A 12-step program for the family members of alcoholics and addicts.