The first time I heard the term “adult child of alcoholics,” was back in college. A classmate told me that she was going to a support group because she was an adult child. She said something about how having a parent who is an alcoholic affected her, so she goes to meetings. All I could think of was a bunch of really depressed looking people sitting around a table rehashing how crappy their lives were and how badly their parents had screwed them up. It didn’t sound like something I’d ever be interested in. After all, my parents weren’t alcoholics. They drank a lot, but they held down jobs (well, for the most part) and they always paid their bills. And what’s the value of focusing on the past anyway? It’s done and over with. Move on! That pretty much summed up the opinion I held on to for the next couple decades.
So, I went on to start my successful career and live my life…completely unaware that I was an adult child.
But what is an adult child?
Adult children are most obviously adults who were raised by (or among) people with alcoholism or addiction; but the term Adult Child also includes adults from homes where alcohol or drugs were not present. In these homes, there may have been abuse, neglect or other unhealthy behavior like codependency.
Many of the clients I coach are adult children of alcoholics, and some of the issues that commonly arise for them are described in a few entries found on the ACOA Laundry List:
Adult children “became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.”
I worked for a very large recruiting firm. It was a great fit for me, because the harder I worked, the more approval I received. From my clients, my candidates, my boss, and my peers. I got to stand up in front of hundreds of people and receive trophies that “proved” how good I was.
Adult children “have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for (them) to be concerned with others rather than (themselves).”
Being responsible is a good thing, but when overused, it is a liability. I ‘helped’ the people I loved by doing things like, paying for their therapy, paying their bills, and even paying off their debt! At the peak of my recruiting career, I worked a 4-day work week, so I could work 2 days/week assuming the bookkeeping responsibility for my then husband’s failing company. I was a responsibility machine that operated on the drive to control everything within my reach. (I can’t help but wonder if I was attracted to the field of Human Resources because I wanted to help fix people problems!)
Adult children “have stuffed (their) feelings from (their) traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express (their) feelings because it hurts so much (denial).”
I prided myself on the fact that I never cried, never crumbled, and never needed help. Looking back, when a feeling would begin to emerge, I’d get busy. Some people work out to blow off steam. I worked! If a sad commercial about neglected kids or abandoned dogs came on, I quickly changed the channel. Feelings were counter-productive and for the weak – I had things to do! One of the toughest things executive clients who are in recovery deal with is learning how to express their feelings in a healthy way. This is not a skill they ever learned.
Adult Children “judge (themselves) harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.”
No one would ever have known that I judged myself harshly. This perfectionism or self-judgment motivated me to try harder. And the harder I tried, the more accomplishments & accolades I racked up. These ‘outer fixes’ temporarily treated my low self-esteem – I looked confident because of what I was doing, but doing and being are two entirely different things. No matter how successful I looked on the outside, I never felt good enough on the inside.
Recently, I heard a speaker raise the question, “why do I need to address the stuff from my past, from my family of origin?” The speaker was a well-educated high-level executive in the banking industry who happened to have grown up with the disease of alcoholism in a relative. She drew an analogy between the life of a person who had grown up in an alcoholic (or otherwise dysfunctional) home and a car that had been involved in a collision. Let’s say after this car was in a wreck, you decided the right thing to do was to not repair it, but store the car in a garage until some later date. Maybe you didn’t have the money to fix it, maybe you didn’t have the time, or maybe you had a second car to use and an empty garage in which to store it. Whatever the reason, you decided to just let the dented and damaged vehicle sit in storage and placed locks on the garage so no further damage will occur.
Now, fast forward 15, 20, 30, 40 years. Something happens, and you find yourself wanting to drive that stored vehicle. Maybe your other car has gotten old and isn’t quite as comfortable as it once was, or maybe you just want a change of pace. You unlock the garage, open the door, and what do you find? The car looks a lot like it did the day of the wreck – still damaged, still dented – but now, the battery is dead, rust appears around the wrinkles and dents, and a family of rodents has taken up residence under the hood.
Are you surprised to find the car in this state? Did you really think it would fix itself? Or is it possible for you to admit that for the car to be fully operational, the dents and damage from the past will need to be addressed?
Doesn’t the same principle apply to the life of someone who grew up in an alcoholic home? According to the experts, alcoholism (or family dysfunction) is a disease. It infects you as a child; you get dented, and you get damaged. Each time a collision occurs, you store a piece of us. Not in the garage where you’ve parked the car, but in a safe place inside you that is surrounded by a protective shield of denial. It’s called coping…survival.
At some point, though, surviving isn’t enough. At some point, it becomes more important to thrive and grow vs. simply coping. That was the case for me around age 40. I wanted the second half of my life to be consistent, content and joyful.
Today, many adult children have important careers and hold positions of authority with all the accompanying responsibility. They enjoy generous compensation packages, and their kids attend great schools. But if they haven’t addressed their yesterdays, like storing the dented and damaged car, aren’t they pretending things will fix themselves?
Many meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, a support group for people who grew up in dysfunctional homes, begin by someone reading “The Problem,” three paragraphs that describe the adult child. The reading ends with the statement, “This is a description, not an indictment.” Being an adult child is a reality for many of successful professionals, and it impacts careers. Unfortunately, because of the shame and stigma associated with the topic of alcoholism and addiction that currently prevails, many adult children do not address its impact on them.
Are you an adult child? If you can identify with any of what I’ve just shared, you may be. But being aware of something is just the beginning of any growth process. What can you do if you believe your yesterday may be affecting you today?
What help? Begin by opening up to someone, a confidential guide, a coach, someone who can help you sort out who you are, where you are, where you’d like to be so you can move forward toward being the best version of yourself.