The frying pan had a huge slab of frozen bacon in it. It wasn't going to cook for our midnight meal. Dad was too drunk to realize it.
Passed out in the front yard on a beautiful spring afternoon day. I felt confused, embarrassed and helpless. My mom contacted my uncle who eventually got him up long enough to get him into the house.
Richard Pryor blared from downstairs as I tried to sleep before my next day of 7th grade. N words and F words and vulgarities that would make Betty White blush invaded my ears. The downstairs crowd yelled along with Richard.
I had a friend from the basketball team over to spend the night. My uncle and brother get into a fight in the hall. The cursing and yelling stopped when they plunged through the white dust of the drywall. But nothing was wrong in our home.
So it goes in alcoholic homes. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA's) catch some basic rules early on. Don't talk, don't trust and don't feel. It also comes with another mainstay, there's nothing wrong here and don't you dare tell anyone about it. ACOA's disconnect from their hearts early on. Is it any wonder that they have problems with intimacy later on in life?
In a great little book, A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics, Herbert Gravitz and Julie Bowden create a path to help each ACOA understand a little more of what is going on inside and avenues for healing.
Out of the rules mentioned above the authors say that children develop their own rules in response to the parents' rules. "If I don't talk, nobody will know how I feel, and I won't get hurt. If I don't ask, I can't get rejected. If I'm invisible, I'll be okay. If I'm careful, no one will get upset. If I stop feeling, I won't have any pain." These foundational rules make it difficult for a kid to be a kid and when this kid becomes an adult to have significant, lasting emotional connection.
ACOA's live with varying degrees of 'unpredictability, inconsistency, arbitrariness, and chaos' in their childhood homes. A child can't put words to it but begins to believe something like, 'This is crazy so I must be crazy. Somethings wrong here so there must be something wrong with me. I haven't got love so I must be unloveable.'
Here is how Gravitz and Bowden say it progresses,
"I must be unlovable becomes I don't need love. I don't need love becomes I don't want love. I don't want love becomes I will reject love when it comes because there is no such thing; I cannot trust it, it's not safe!"
I will reject love when it comes...it's not safe is a steal vault barrier. Love can't get in and can't get out though passable facsimiles often masquerade undetected as the real thing.
So how does an ACOA heal, change and grow into intimate relationships. Get open and honest. Find a safe friend or two and/or a safe group who will allow you to be a real, open, authentic person, mess and all. Truth, acceptance and grace are values that promote healing and change. The mess occurs through feelings of guilt, anger and grief in the light of the truth, acceptance and grace. Take your time, don't try to fix your whole family, focus on your own journey and experience. Remember, 'the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.'
Be aware of issues of control. 'Denial, suppression and repression are used in attempts to control the outward expression as well as the inner awareness of thoughts, feelings and behavior. The fear of being out of control is almost universal, and strong feelings are experienced as being out of control.'
Another area to look for is distrust. That is distrust of others and self. 'Repeatedly told to ignore the obvious, children of alcoholics learn to distrust the wisdom of their own organism, to distrust what their own senses tell them. Father is asleep on the garage floor in this 3-piece suit, or mother's head falls into a plate of spaghetti, and everyone who is important is saying nothing is wrong. This leaves the child misinformed, puzzled and bewildered.'
Another issue is: 'the avoidance of feelings and the fundamental belief that feelings are wrong, bad, and scary.' Feelings for the ACOA are too dangerous. Parents probably told them not to feel them or express them or 'don't even think about it.' 'They learn to repress, deny, or minimize them.'
Over-responsibility is another common characteristic of ACOA's. Kids see themselves as the center of the universe. So it's their fault the alcoholic is drinking and their job is to keep tension out of the home. Better always be good. In adulthood this leads to guilt that floats around leading the ACOA to believe he or she is at fault for any wrongdoing within a 10 mile radius. Even at 50 I feel a little guilty for just writing this piece.
ACOA's tend to ignore their own needs. One man expressed it this way, "My feelings were not important. When a kid on the street said something mean to me and I felt lousy, all I really wanted was to crawl up on my mom's lap, put my head on her shoulder, and ask her to hold me for a while. But if mom was sitting at the dining room table with a drink in her hand, I new I'd better find another way to be consoled. She couldn't hold a drink in one hand and me in the other. I felt so bad, so disappointed, that I decided I didn't really need to be held at all. When I came to believe that I couldn't trust anybody to be there to hold me, I decided I wouldn't let anybody hold me!"
Having needs is too vulnerable. It's 'safer' to 'avoid, ignore or deny' them. ACOA's are great pretenders.
The bad news we've discussed really is that bad. Childhoods are lost and the pain is really real. But there is good news. Most homes have positive aspects to them even with the huge negatives. It's important to own both the good and bad. And there is even better news.
God doesn't promise to take away our pain but he does promise to put meaning to it. Your suffering through reality will be difficult. There aren't any shortcuts but the messy, slow process will be worth it. An ACOA really can heal and experience real intimacy in significant relationships. Safety, security and trust will come in time and a great marriage becomes a real possibility. An ACOA can learn to experience the real thing, real intimacy.