Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Adult Children of Alcoholics
Growing up with a parent who suffers from alcoholism can have long lasting effects. Even as an adult, those early experiences remain with you and can have an impact on how you see yourself, your relationships, and the world in general. Three common rules learned by children who have an alcoholic parent are: Don’t speak, Don’t trust, and Don’t feel. You are told directly or indirectly not to talk to others about the pressure and issues in your home. You are taught that confronting a person on their issues is not an option. You are also taught not to trust. If you cannot trust those who are supposed to care for you, it becomes difficult to trust anyone else later in life. You also have to learn to control your feelings. Given the level of stress and chaos in the home, you learn early to suppress your feelings, needs, and fears. They are still present but hidden beneath the surface. As a child you make these adjustments in order to survive a difficult environment. As an adult you want to do more than survive, you want to figure out how to thrive.
The first key is recognizing the ways in which your childhood years have affected you today. For some this means coming to terms with the fact that denial is not the best coping strategy. For so long, the alcohol or other substance abuse problems may have been denied so you learned to pretend things were OK when they are not. You have to come to terms with the reality. The things you were exposed to were not OK and were not healthy.
Another issue is the need to release perfectionism. When you live with an alcoholic parent, you often end up walking on egg shells, trying to figure out how you can be good enough to either change your parent or good enough to not end up like them. The reality is you are a good person and all of us have faults, short-comings, and growth areas. While it is good to strive to become a better person, you don’t want to hold yourself to impossible standards and fail to appreciate the great steps you have taken. You especially don’t want to pass down perfectionism to your children, leaving them with the feeling that nothing is ever good enough. You can break this cycle.
One challenge to work on in yourself is either/or thinking which some people call viewing the world in black or white terms. Sometimes because of the pain you saw growing up, you can be quick to cut people off. You may do this to protect yourself but you want to be able to live with balance and not automatic assumptions and extremes.
Some adult children of alcohols who couldn't acknowledge their emotional pain ended up expressing their distress in their bodies. This is called somatic complaints – or physical complaints for which there is not a medical explanation. You may experience muscle ache, back pain, migraines, and nausea. By acknowledging your feelings and expressing them to people you trust, you can often experience a decrease in some of these physical symptoms of distress.
One final issue to address is difficulty letting go. When you grow up in a highly stressed household you always have to be on guard. Now however, you have to begin to separate the past from the present so you can actually learn to relax. Give yourself permission to have fun, to build trusting, comfortable relationships, and be at home with yourself.
This is not an easy journey as you are trying to turn around messages you received for many years. However awareness is a large step toward wholeness. To continue on your journey read about adult survivors of alcoholics on-line or at the local library, consider counseling, talk with supportive people, and take ownership for your present life. Take a deep breath as you consider how far you have come.