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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Adult Survivors of Child Abuse

Child abuse can be physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional. The range of experiences can include neglect, humiliation, routine physical assaults, or molestation. As an adult, survivors of childhood abuse may feel frustrated with themselves for still carrying the wounds of past experiences. It is important to be compassionate with yourself and recognize the truly deep ways we are affected by our early experiences. As children and adolescents we are figuring out who we are and our identity is largely shaped by how people treat us. Even if the abuse or neglect happened decades ago it may affect you in a number of ways.

Sometimes adult survivors have challenges with trust issues. You may have difficult trusting others or even trusting yourself. You may also find it difficult to relax and as a result you feel on edge most of the time. Being guarded or distrustful can make relationships difficult. Some survivors carry the trauma in their bodies which means you may for as long as you can remember suffer from migraines, nausea, or muscle ache. Childhood sexual abuse may affect your ability to be intimate, to feel good about your body, or your ability to sleep. Whether you suffer with depression, post traumatic stress, or dependence on substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs, it is important to know that help is available.

Given the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, you are very likely surrounded by other survivors who simply have not shared their stories. It is critical to know that you are not alone and that is normal for you to be affected by the way you were treated. Recognizing that your past affects you but doesn’t have to define you is also a key to your recovery. You will not be able to erase the past but you can take ownership over your present and work to live a healthier life. Feeling better about yourself and your abilities are important priorities. There are a few strategies for life after abuse that I want to share with you:

1. Continue to remind yourself that you are not and were not to blame for how you were treated as a child. As an adult you may better understand what your parents or others were thinking or dealing with but the challenges they were facing does not make what happened to you OK.
2. Seriously consider going for counseling. Seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness. People often invest in their physical health and should also invest in their mental health.
3. Challenge negative thoughts instead of holding on to them. Start to change the way you think about yourself and others by interrupting negative thinking patters.
4. Use positive coping strategies instead of negative strategies. Reading, exercise in moderation, artistic expression, talking to a friend, and journaling are all good options.
5. Commit to breaking the cycle. You do not have to become like those who hurt you. Commit to building healthy relationships. You can interrupt the negative patterns and create healthy ones in their place.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Compassion: Considering Haiti

Yesterday an earthquake hit Haiti leaving countless dead, injured, and missing. This crisis can lead us to a place of growth or can result in us cutting ourselves off. The key here is compassion or the capacity to feel the connection, strong empathy, and concern for those who are suffering. This disaster presents an opportunity for us to realize the fullness of our humanity as sisters and brothers around the world. Unfortunately, some of us have difficulty with compassion. An inability to experience sincere care for others is often rooted in either an over-focus on the self or fear and avoidance. On the other hand, some people’s compassion becomes so overwhelming that they are immobilized by grief for the all of the suffering in the world. Healthy compassion that is from a balance and grounded place is important. Here are a few keys to keep in mind.

First it is important to know that emotions are a good and healthy part of our experience. Some of us have lived with the myth that emotions are pointless or only make us weak. Actually being able to tap into and express your feelings is a true sign of emotional strength. Seeing large-scale suffering may result in a mixture of feelings including but not limited to sadness, anger, frustration, survival guilt, and fear. Often when we don’t connect with our feelings we end up letting them out in unhealthy ways such as being quick-tempered or destructive. We may even experience signs of depression but are not aware of the cause of our deep sadness. It is important for us to remind ourselves that feeling emotions, even the painful ones, are a part of living full lives.

Secondly some of us dehumanize or blame those who are suffering as a strategy for relieving our guilt for not helping. We have seen this throughout human history from slavery and the holocaust to rape and child abuse. We even see people blaming victims by using religion. Some people have said the earthquake hit Haiti because Haitians made a pact with the devil. This response to human suffering is damaging, immoral, and psychologically stunted. The truth is bad things do happen to good people. Instead of trying to create a rationale to justify a person’s suffering, the humane response is to determine how we can help.

This leads to the third point. Some of us avoid the news and world events because we feel overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness. In actuality we can make a difference, even if it seems small in our eyes. Small action is ten times better than no action. So what can we do in the face of suffering? We can bear witness by listening and making ourselves aware of the situation. We can raise awareness in others by sharing what we know. Then we can give. We can give through prayer, donations, contributions, and advocacy for those in need of care.

The final point I want to make about compassion is the importance of seeing a person, community, or country completely not merely as victims or lacking. We should aim to see others the way we want to be seen. In other words the suffering is a part of the person’s experience but it is not all that they are. Haiti has faced many challenges including poverty, oppression, political corruption, and natural disasters. These things however do not come close to capturing the strength, beauty, culture, and rich history that is Haiti. I heard someone say today, “Well I was so sad about what happened in Haiti but then someone told me it wasn’t a good country anyway.” Wow! Let us all be careful that we never view people as either deserving of suffering or undeserving of our compassion. A person who does not care about others is in need of intense care themselves. Compassion is a key aspect of emotional well-being.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


There are seasons we can be overwhelmed with stress. It may be that you have many things to do or everything seems to fall apart at once. There are different areas of stress such as financial, relationship, or work. There are also different degrees of stress. You may experience the low stress of simply having to juggle multiple responsibilities or you may encounter the severe stress of a major life event. Stress can eat away at your physical and mental health. When we don’t deal with our stress, it often balloons into larger issues with incredible consequences. There are a number of good strategies to help you to de-stress.

The first thing is perspective taking. You want to get an accurate sense of the situation. Are you letting everything stress you out, small and large or are you truly facing a difficult circumstance? When you are not in a good place emotionally, you can find yourself irritable and easily distressed. You need to take some time to really look at the circumstance to decide is this a mountain or a molehill.

Along with perspective taking, emotion-focused coping is helpful to many people in addressing feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and anger. You want to find people and activities that help you relieve your feelings of distress. This may mean talking to a supportive friend, therapist, or minister. It may also mean reading a self-help book for inspiration. For some of you, emotional relief may be found in working out, writing, cooking, singing, listening to an encouraging speaker, or meditating.

In addition to emotion-focused coping, you will also need some problem-solving coping skills. You need to brainstorm about potential ways to address the issues. Weigh the pros and cons of each option. Begin to take action steps to improve your situation. The problem solving may involve a range of things including but not limited to: ending a relationship, seeking couples counseling, taking on an additional job, going back to school, creating a new budget, filing a complaint, setting boundaries, seeking professional help, or attempting to resolve a conflict by talking it over with the person involved.

Here are a few more strategies to help you de-stress:
• Set realistic goals.
• Reduce time with stressful people and stressful situations.
• Get rest.
• Set priorities by knowing what is really important to you.
• Deep breathing, visualizing, meditating, and/or prayer.
• Don’t turn to things that will make your situation worse: drugs, alcohol,
over-eating, casual high-risk sex, smoking, and caffeine.
• Learn to release and let go. Accept the fact that some circumstances
are outside of your realm of influence
• Practice better time management and money management.
• Change your attitude. Learn to shift your thinking and your focus to obtain greater peace of mind and clarity.

All of us face challenges. Take care of yourself before, during, and after the various storms of life, so you can maximize your mental and physical well-being.