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Addiction, adult children of alcoholics, etc

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I recently had occasion to stop by Addiction is..., a collection of about fifteen nonfiction pieces that, individually and together, comprise some of the best writing about addiction I've ever encountered. (It was taken offline by its author a while back, but it's still available on archive.org. The list of links to the various pieces appears at the bottom of the main page.)

Part of why I was thinking about that site was that I was thinking about the Adult Children of Alcoholics personality type, and the ways that I fit neatly into that. And the ways that I don't.

I used to describe my father as having been a borderline alcoholic, but these days I'm more likely to say he was a high-functioning alcoholic. Regardless of terminology, he certainly regularly drank too much, and my perception was that he had an addictive personality; but he could mostly function pretty well under the influence. He would drive while a little drunk (even with us kids in the car), but remained a skillful (though sometimes scary) driver. There was never any abuse; the only times I remember him ever hitting us was a few spankings for “talking back to your mother.” I have one difficult memory of him standing outside my closed bedroom door screaming insults and imprecations at me (for something relatively trivial that I had done)—but to his credit, that was the only time that he ever did anything like that, and he did not open that door.

And yet, when a college friend told me about Adult Children of Alcoholics (I used to think of the organization as ACOA, but apparently they go by the abbreviation ACA now), a lot of the standard traits felt very familiar. (Link is to archived version of a site that appears to have gone offline.) Some items from that linked-to page that feel like they apply to me:

  • Fear of losing control.
  • Difficulty with expressing emotions.
  • Fear of conflict.
  • Overdeveloped sense of responsibility.
  • Guilt about standing up for oneself.
  • Inability to let loose spontaneously.
  • Harsh self-criticism.

And yet, there are several ways in which I don't fit the ACA model. For example, my version of self-criticism is most often because I have very high standards for myself, not due to any sort of low self-esteem. (I have rather high self-esteem; that sometimes surprises people when they encounter it, because I don't often talk about it.) And another example from that page that doesn't fit me: I don't see myself as a victim (I don't intend that as criticism of people who are victims of parental abuse; just looking at myself descriptively here). In fact, I think I can trace my self-confidence (about some things, anyway) back to my parents; they always made clear to me that I could do pretty much anything I set my mind to.

Really, most of the second half of that linked-to list doesn't describe me at all; for example, I'm not generally physically ill, and I don't have much fear of abandonment, and I'm definitely not more comfortable with chaos than with peace.

And I have not become an alcoholic myself. But it's possible that that's partly the control-freak thing. Some reasons I don't drink alcohol are:

  1. Fear of losing control.
  2. Strong negative associations with the effects I've observed of alcohol on other people. Which I've gradually learned is really about the effects of too much alcohol, but I still have a hard time being entirely comfortable around people who are drinking. And once they get to the stage where they're slurring their words, I get very tense and uncomfortable, and generally try to extricate myself from interacting with them.
  3. The fact that there are only about three alcoholic beverages that I've ever liked the flavor of, and those are all so sweet that I can't drink more than about half a glass of them. This reason is what I cite when people I'm not close to ask me why I don't drink, but the truth is that loss of control is the main issue for me.

Anyway, so there are ways in which I do fit the standard ACA type and ways in which I don't, and ways in which I might if I didn't avoid situations where various things could manifest.

And yet, I didn't grow up in the kind of household that I think a lot of ACAs did. It occurred to me recently that some aspects of the typical ACA personality can derive not just from alcoholism but from any context in which one or more parents don't behave like adults, in which the kid comes to feel that it's their (the kid's) responsibility or job to make things better and to take care of the parent(s). And yep, the abovelinked ACA website does say "alcoholic or dysfunctional homes."

So I'm not sure where some of this stuff came from for me. Especially the fear of conflict; I'm one of the most conflict-averse people I know (and in addition to the irrational fear and dislike of other people's anger, I have (at a gut level) some of the common irrational belief that my anger is so powerful and awful and would cause so much devastation that I must keep it tightly controlled), but I've never been able to remember anything from my childhood that would have led to that. My parents were kind and loving and permissive, and encouraged exploration and growth, and I don't remember conflict ever being a serious problem—but I've been afraid of it for as long as I can remember.

(It's possible that some of the other stuff, especially the feelings of responsibility and control issues, derive partly from my mother's long illness. She was diagnosed with leukemia when I was about seven, and lived until I was twelve; I don't remember much about those years, but I have a vague sense that especially in the last couple of years, she didn't have much energy to do much of anything. My father and brother, I think, did most of the cooking. I felt helpless in the face of this implacable overwhelming force that was taking my mother away from me.)

The main thing I remember about my father's drinking came after college. Every couple of months, I would get a phone call from him. He almost never called when sober; by the time he called, he was slurring words, having a hard time putting coherent sentences together. And he was maudlin and overemotional. He would try to tell me things, and all I could think was “How can I end this phone call and escape?” I didn't want anything to do with him at those times. And it made me reluctant to try to contact him at other times; I never knew whether I'd get sober funny smart Peter or drunk sloppy expansive maudlin Peter. So we didn't have much contact for years.

At one point, I decided that the mature thing to do would be to talk to him about all this. I wrote him a letter in which I said, among other things, that I would no longer talk to him when he was drunk. But I couldn't bring myself to mail that letter.

At my brother's wedding dinner, my father—having had a fair bit to drink, I think—informed me that I was too Apollonian and not Dionysian enough. I was furious. What I told him was that that wasn't true (and I still feel that it's not); but at the same time, I was also thinking “and to the extent that it is true, how do you think I got this way?” But I never said that to him; that would have initiated conflict.

I came up with a bon mot a few years ago:

The reason our parents are so good at pushing our buttons is that they installed most of them.

I'm pretty proud of that one; it's funny, but I'm also regularly reminded of the truth of it. Things that my father said and did that I would find largely unobjectionable from other people sometimes took on a Vast Significance that left me sulking and resentful for literally years, because his words and behaviors had so much baggage behind them.

I am trying, and have been for a long time now, to learn to let go of the stuff that isn't really important. To care more about results than about Being Right. To forgive slights and perceived slights even when the other person doesn't apologize. To recognize others' humanity and fallibility; to be aware that my father was a person, a person with flaws, and that holding him to higher standards than everyone else just because he was my father is unfair.

But it's a long slow road, and a hard one.

The ACA people have a solution: give yourself over to your Higher Power, follow the twelve steps, begin to heal. I cannot bring myself to really believe in a Higher Power in the twelve-step sense, and I'm unlikely to ever attend an ACA meeting, but I do like some of the bits on that page. Perhaps I can adapt them to my own purposes. (I don't know if this'll be useful to anyone else; I know that some of you had really awful parents, and this stuff may not be at all helpful in your circumstances.) So I'll close with some quotes from that page:

[Y]ou will find freedom to express all the hurts and fears you have kept inside and to free yourself from the shame and blame that are carryovers from the past. You will become an adult who is imprisoned no longer by childhood reactions. [...]

The healing begins when we risk moving out of isolation. [...] By gradually releasing the burden of unexpressed grief, we slowly move out of the past. We learn to re-parent ourselves with gentleness, humor, love and respect.

[...]

We share our experience, strength, and hope with each other. [...] [W]e become free to make healthful decisions as actors, not reactors. We progress from hurting, to healing, to helping.

(Wrote most of this entry in April 2011, didn't post it 'til now.)

(See also Facebook thread for this post.)

2 Comments

I'm grateful to you for writing and sharing this. I am glad to learn more about you, about what has shaped you and about how you are working to shape yourself.

Neither of my parents is or was alcoholic, but my dad got mad a lot, and it would be worthwhile for me to reflect more on how I react to conflict, anger, and raised voices.

As you explore and reflect on your anger, I'm curious to know whether and how your experience of anger relates to your anxiety.


I would like to take the time to think more about how ACA applies to me. Not, I think, very much, although my father was an atypical alcoholic, which I didn't know until I was nearly an adult.

For the moment, however, I just stopped in to recommend Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, which is one of the best books I know about addiction. It's a personal memoir, and an extremely human one.


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