I talk about how my father’s drinking affected me, but I must remember that my mother grew up with an alcoholic father too. Growing up with addiction is often traumatizing and can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If PTSD related issues remain unresolved, as hers did, they can become a hot button in parenting. Even though she herself did not become an alcoholic, the thinking, feeling and behavior remained.
People don’t realize the extent to which addiction impacts family members, especially the kids. Childhood development is seriously impacted by growing up around the confusion and pain that surrounds addiction. And that trauma stays with them and affects their parenting. My mom’s fight or flight responses were activated over and over again by the disturbing dynamics of growing up in an alcoholic induced environment and she became traumatized by that experience.
That trauma surfaced years later in a post-traumatic stress reaction when she married my father, also an alcoholic. And her unresolved pain showed up as she became an ACoA mother. It showed up in the same way that a car backfiring triggers soldiers because it reminds them of gunfire. The dependency and vulnerability of intimacy also act as triggers for ACoA moms. When children of alcoholics grow up and attempt to create families of their own, the emotional dynamics of close, dependent partner and parent relationships act as primers for what is stored in their memory systems on the subject of “familying.”
ACoAs are oftentimes high achievers; they have been managing on their own for years, so on the surface they can be quite functional and successful. However, their hypervigilance and woundedness can remain hidden underneath defenses that have been in place since childhood.
Understanding my mother as an ACoA mom helps me understand myself as an ACoA. Her old pains have been passed down to my brothers and me but I have a chance to make changes in my life and not continue to be affected by the wounds of my mother’s past.
Hi, I’m Liz Hawkins, and I’m a recovering Adult Child of an Alcoholic.
Source: Dr. Tian Dayton (2015)
For those of you who lived with an alcoholic parent during your childhood and teen years, your life may have been chaotic, emotionally turbulent, and sometimes frightening. But the feelings of anxiety, grief, and instability may not have ended when you left home. These feelings can last well into adult years and manifest in many different ways.
Some common characteristics include:
- We are chronic people pleasers who constantly seek out approval and affirmation from others.
- We have problems regulating and achieving balance with our emotions. We are either overly emotional or we shut down our emotions because of the overload.
- Our fight or flight instincts are amped up. We are hypervigilant about looking for threats or danger in our environment. We tend to over react to any sign of what we feel to be impending danger whether that threat is real or not.
- We can easily become involved with people who we feel need “saving” as this mimics our relationship with our parent figure. We may choose to live with another alcoholic or someone with an addiction and replay that history out all over again.
- We are terrified of abandonment. We will cling onto unstable relationships even when they are unhealthy for us because we can’t stand the thought of being left alone.
- We have great problems with trust. We either trust too much where it is not warranted or we trust too little. We lack the emotional history of understanding how trust works.
- We may feel guilt and shame as though our parent’s problem was our fault. We may have learned as children to keep secrets and not discuss what was really happening in our family.
- We may be overly responsible in some circumstances but in other situations we may be deemed as very irresponsible.
- We may be addicted to drama and excitement in our lives leading to high risk behaviors.
- We may self-medicate through food, sex, work, spending money, drinking alcohol or doing drugs as a way to deal with our emotional pain.
The key to moving on is not to blame but to be conscious of the role our parents had in shaping our current life choices. It is possible to break the family patterns by coping in healthy ways such as reaching out and gaining support.