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Adult children of alcoholics – unhooking from the past

Two years ago I wrote an article for the Counselling Directory on the problems experienced in adulthood by those brought up in alcoholic or similarly dysfunctional homes. (See: adult children of alcoholics and the problems that persist). I’d like to elaborate in this second article and focus as well on solutions.

I described some of the characteristics and defence mechanisms that ACOAs developed in order to survive the chaos and inconsistency while growing up. These worked brilliantly when we were children. But as adults - with the requirement to act and behave as adults – the failure to trust, the burying of feelings and emotions, and the need to always be in control became handicaps, particularly where relationships were concerned.

Most insidious in some children may have been the belief that it was not our parents who were at fault but ourselves. A strange survival technique took over as illustrated by writer Anne Lamott: accepting that we must be bad, wrong, defective at least gave us the hope that our parents were in fact (underneath it all) good, capable carers. This was important for us to know or at least believe as it gave us a glimmer of security and at the same time, a degree of control in the knowledge that if we were able to be good (or perhaps even perfect?) our parents wouldn’t need to drink and all would be well again. We were the cause of their drinking, depression, or whatever and thus had the power to do something about the situation. However erroneous this thought process may seem it at least enabled us to survive. Unfortunately, the belief that we are still ‘defective’ and undeserving may have survived as well; and perhaps that’s where the work is.

Other ACOAs may have felt the opposite seeing parental alcoholism for what it was: a destructive, chaotic force taking away any consistency, trust, love, and happiness from what might have been an idyllic childhood. The concept that their alcoholic parent was indeed sick but playing the best they could with the cards they’d been dealt has been helpful to some.

There is value in ‘going back in’ and recognising what happened in the past and its continuing effect on our lives today. Our needs and rights became lost in the chaos of looking after those of our alcoholic parent and we need to stand up and demand them back. Now!

The adult children of alcoholics solution is to become your own loving parent and by doing so recognise:

  • That you have a right to your feelings - all of them – and that you can learn to trust them, your judgement and your intuition. As children, we may not have been allowed to articulate how we really felt – to ourselves or others - so we may have to learn how.
  • That you can give yourself permission to say ‘no’ if something doesn’t feel right to you.
  • That you have the right to make mistakes and not berate yourself for making them.
  • You have a right to remove yourself from the company of people who put you down.
  • You have a right to live your life the way you want to without having to wait for the alcoholic parent to get better or change.

If you can allow yourself to move out of isolation then this is the first step to revisiting the past, unhooking from it, and moving on. Whether that is by attending ACOA meetings (There are over fifty meetings a week now in the UK) or by starting personal counselling, it is taking action that starts the process. Closing the door on the past and trying to bury the pain doesn’t seem to work.

If nothing changes, nothing changes.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Hugh Trethowan

Hugh is a counsellor specialising in helping individuals and their families - especially those brought up in an alcoholic home. He has many years experience working with different methods of recovery. His counsellor accreditation is with The Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals (FDAP).… Read more

Written by Hugh Trethowan

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