Perspective: Breaking Out of Denial

by Christopher C.

speak-the-truth-240x180Growing up with an alcoholic in my formative years, I lived on high alert. I describe it as “walking on eggshells.” I had to be ready for anything because life in the family of an alcoholic was so unpredictable. This heightened state became second nature to me. It was just the way things were.

Tian Dayton and others are calling the effect of living this way “Post Traumatic Stress Reaction.” The symptoms of this PTSR resemble those of PTSD – “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

People really are injured by growing up with an alcoholic and often do not know the extent of the damage done until much later. This condition, whatever we name it, was created out of adjustments the individual made in order to survive the shell shock of living with an alcoholic in their formative years. With no real tools, we adjust in whatever way we can to survive. I know that until I looked at the behaviours I learned in order to survive my father’s alcoholism, and then my own, I could not heal completely.

Growing up with active alcoholism is devastating. The family can become a war zone. Denying facts and burying feelings is what we did to survive. Call it denial for survival. When long buried “trauma” comes out years later, it gets messy. No wonder we call it ‘breaking out of denial.” It can feel like you are breaking apart, coming undone, as you recover and uncover long-lost feelings and memories.

Some people disassociate. If the alcoholic who inflicted the pain is still around it can scare them, upset them and make them angry. Remembering can be painful. They would just as soon not be reminded. They may want to move on without doing the work. But we need to see what happened to us as clearly as possible. This takes patience, gentleness and time. Working through the steps helps.

As a human being recovering from my own and another’s alcoholism, I’ve learned that “compartmentalizing” or “separating” my addiction from my ACoA behaviours will not work. They are two sides of the same coin. One affected the other. For a long time it was a double-edged sword. When looking at my ACoA issues or symptoms, I would either self-medicate or have a strong desire to do so.

I wanted to run and hide, because I was never taught how to face my emotions. Many of us received the message not to feel, not to think, not to tell the truth. We were taught to ignore and deny – just like the person suffering from alcoholism does. It really is a family disease.

Not until I could get and stay sober did I make deeper progress. I have seen time and time again alcoholic/addicts go back to their poison due to not looking deeply enough and not completely understanding their AcoA issues and triggers. To be active in our addiction is to do what we were taught: to deny.

But denial only works for so long. The trauma will come out. We will feel “restless, irritable and discontent” whether we’re alcoholic or co-alcoholic.

This simple AA phrase is a reminder of the “laundry list” of symptoms written years ago by Adult Children of Alcoholics and still used today. The ACoA “laundry list” is pretty much the same list of symptoms in Dr. Dayton’s article. They are just worded in a different way by people who have lived through these experiences. I will now touch on a few of them. Italics are Dr. Dayton’s symptoms. After the = sign is an ACoA “laundry list” item.

Hypervigilance/Anxiety/Easily Triggered = “We are frightened of angry people and any personal criticism.”

Tendency To Isolate = “We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.”

Emotional Constriction = “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.”

Traumatic Bonding = “We confuse love and pity and tend to ‘love’ people we can ‘pity’ and ‘rescue’.” “We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.”

The more I heal, the healthier I get and the healthier my relationships become. In recovery we start to behave differently and those we already know will either support us in this change or will leave us. Sometimes their leaving can trigger the old abandonment feelings. However, if we are healthier we realize the choice is theirs to make. We must continue to heal. When we start making better choices, we can begin to love in a healthier way. We also start to attract healthier people and become less interested in rescuing others.

As awareness grows by working the 12 steps of recovery in conjunction with other modalities of healing, the cycle of reenacting troubled interpersonal scenes of dysfunction weakens in intensity and frequency, until it falls away altogether and stays away. IF we keep working a program of recovery, we can be assured we will heal from these past traumas and live a better life free from co-dependence and dysfunction.

About the Authors

Renascent Alumni
Members of Renascent's alumni community carry the message by sharing their experiences and perspectives on addiction and recovery. To contribute your alumni perspective, please email