by Tian Dayton Ph.D
I am an adult child of an alcoholic, an ACoA.
Until 1980, I had no idea that this was a category or that I was not alone in this strange feeling that I lugged along a past that was somehow burdening my present. I was perfectly functional, happily married, had kids I adored and work I loved. But there was a door in my psyche that was somehow jammed shut.
My father was one of my favorite people in my world. He died of alcoholism. It says cancer on his death certificate, but it was the kind, when I pinned the doctors down, that they had never seen in someone who wasn’t a “heavy drinker.”
My father had two very distinct personalities. The same father who tenderly gave me café au lait on a spoon and fresh-squeezed orange juice in a baby glass, who listened to my childish sentences with such pride and pleasure, who dreamed impossible dreams for my future, who worked all of his life to give me the best of everything … that same beloved father had a monster living inside him. And that monster was as frightening to me as the other side of him was beautiful. And that monster grew stronger with each drink he took.
At different times of the month, the week, and eventually the day, the monster would take over my father, and I would have no idea where my “real” dad had gone. And the monster roared its terrible roar and sat in my father’s chair in the living room. And I was, somehow, this monster’s child. Now and then, the monster in him would break loose and dance with the monster in all of us. We all, at one time or another, shared his private hell with him until all of us lost our grip on normal.
But still, this was my family, my dad, my monster, and I had to do something to make emotional and psychological sense of living with a parent who made me feel both safe and terrified – a parent whom I loved and hated all at once. All children are faced with integrating parts of their parents that they both love and hate, but for the child in the alcoholic home, this becomes a uniquely challenging and daily experience.
Living with addiction required us to grow up in the midst of constantly shifting, morphing, overlapping worlds. Just maneuvering in and through these worlds and trying to make sense of them required creative, complex, occasionally quite zany, and sometimes rather dysfunctional strategies.
When Dad went to (and left) treatment, there was no such thing as family healing. The wisdom of the day was essentially “get the alcoholic sober and the rest of the family will get better automatically.” But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the de-selfing experience of living on an emotional roller coaster had left us not knowing what normal life felt like. Just as we had a drunken father and a sober one, we had a drunken family and a sober one. It was as if we repeatedly passed behind some invisible curtain, re-emerging each time into an alternate universe but still on the same stage, still in our same, familiar living room. The scenes looked somewhat the same, but they felt different.
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, that 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 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? And the family loses track of what’s wrong.
Adult children of alcoholics (ACoAs) can and often do suffer from some features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that are the direct result of living with the traumatizing effects of addiction. Years after we leave behind our alcoholic homes, we carry the impact of living with addiction with us. We import past, unresolved pain into present-day relationships, but without much awareness as to how or why. The ACoA Trauma Syndrome is the book I have wanted to write all my life, because it has been my life’s work to heal myself from this strange condition that until 1980 had no name. And no one even thought it existed.
We used to think that if you left home in body, your mind left home, too. But we are much more psychologically savvy today. We know that we each of us carry the voices of those who we grew up with in our heads and hearts. When those voices are soothing we can call on them for consolation and confidence; when they are abusive, we defend ourselves from the admonitions of ghosts.
The literature in trauma and neuropsychology has deepened our understanding of how pain from childhood actually gets recorded in the mind/body and becomes part of our psyche well into adulthood. That’s the scary news. The good news, however, is that our neurological systems are “plastic” – they can change, adapt and grow throughout our lives.
If unresolved pain is left unattended, if it stays buried and denied, it develops a sort of psychic half life, it seeps and leaches into our emotional and psychological underground and gives root to new complexes and conditions. If, however, we’re willing to simply face, feel and share it, miraculous things happen. We learn to think about what we feel rather than run from it. And in thinking, we make sense of what was senseless. We become whole again.