The 10 things listed below are accumulated by compiling all of the most common issues that Adult Children of Alcoholics and Addicts (ACAs) want you to know.
There are many adults among us, many of whom you might not recognise with intimate knowledge of what it’s like to grow up with an addicted parent.
Sadly, there are also many people who love those adults and don’t know what it is like to have become an adult who was once a child raised amongst chaos, instability, fear, shame, embarrassment, frustration and even anger.
Unfortunately for many of us, our entire childhood was swathed in dysfunction. As development goes, the severe dysfunction of our childhood probably resulted in severely delayed or stunted emotional, mental, educational, financial and even physical growth in certain cases.
There are many adults among us, many of whom you might not recognise, with intimate knowledge of what it’s like to grow up with an addicted parent, or more commonly, both parents.
Sadly, there are also many people who love those adults and don’t know what it is like to have become an adult who was once a baby, infant, child and teenager raised amongst rapidly changing chaos, insecurity and instability.
For many of us who’ve experienced this ourselves, our entire childhood was swathed in dysfunction. As development goes, the severe dysfunction of our childhood probably resulted in severely delayed or stunted emotional, mental, educational, financial and even physical growth in certain cases.
Being the child of an addict is complicated, and we can’t always verbalise how so as so many areas change so frequently, sometimes in minute and subtle ways where the lines between normal parenting and dysfunctional parenting collide and intertwine to cause a permanent blurring of right and wrong, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy and so on.
Even if we’ve had enough therapy to buy our psychiatrist a boat, we still may not even know we are dysfunctional. Bear with us as we continue the work of figuring it all out below.
Here are the 10 things They’d like you to know
1. We don’t know what “normal” is
Yes we appreciate that the term “normal” is a relative term and what normal is will be different for everyone, but our normal is not on the relativity scale. Normal for us can and does regularly include instability, fear, isolation, hardships of various types and even abuse (verbal, physical, mental, financial, sexual ect).
Normal for us might be a parent passed out in their own vomit inside the front door, children being used as a leaning post on their way home from the pub, used needles left uncovered in risky places or even threats and fights when our parents get credit for their drugs and cannot afford to pay it back when they were supposed to.
Normal can also include taking care of your household, bills, food, household chores, your siblings, your parent(s) and very rarely yourself! This profound lack of understanding leads us to the conclusion that normal = perfect, and less than perfect is unacceptable. Perfect is a non-negotiable term – there are no blurred lines. It’s all or nothing.
It’s often not until you visit a neighbour, friend or colleague that we catch a glimpse of their day to day life and we become sharply aware that our life is nowhere near “normal”.
I remember when I was about 10-11 years old and I would go to the pub with my dad, play a few games of darts or pool while I drank my pint of Diet Coke and my dad drunk his pint of beer and tumblr of whiskey.
After about 6-7 drinks of both, I would go from being his son to becoming a leaning post to ensure that he didn’t fall over as he wobbled and drifted from side to side.
On one occasion when I was his post, a car drove past with 3 young men inside who shouted profanities and mocking loudly out of the window as they drove by.
From then on until we arrived back at home, I remember having sore eyes for two days after where I cried so hard on the way home whilst I was in my capacity as his leaning post.
I really wish I hadn’t experienced this truly upsetting and embarrassing experience. Still to this day, that incident (which is only one of many, many others) creeps into my thoughts more often than I’d like…J. Tamner – 31 Bristol
2. We are afraid
A lot of the time the fear is hidden, sometimes very deeply. We are afraid of the future, specifically the unknown. The unknown was our reality for many years. We may not have known where our parents were, what they were doing, if they were ok, when they’d be back or even if they’d return at all.
We might not have known if there would be dinner or drunkenness, heating or injecting, lighting or smoking. While we may know now that those things did occur and did end when the parent entered treatment, that didn’t make life any less terrifying. This fear may express itself in a number of ways, everything from anger, sadness to frustration and tears. We probably won’t recognise it as a fear based response from within.
3. We are afraid (part 2 – children)
We are afraid to have children and when we do, we are afraid to wreck them, like we felt wrecked and damaged at times. If we can identify and acknowledge our own damage, we definitely don’t want to inflict it on anyone else, especially our precious offspring. We don’t really know how to be a parent and that worry that we may inadvertently repeat our past experiences directly or indirectly can actually be panic inducing. We will second-guess everything we do and may over-parent for fear of under-parenting as we found ourselves in at earlier periods of our life.
4. We feel guilty
We feel guilty bout everything. We don’t understand what proper self-care is. We don’t have clear-cut boundaries. If we stand up for ourselves, we feel guilty. If we take care of ourselves, we feel guilty. Our life is built on a foundation of “I give to you and receive nothing”. We don’t know how to receive even some of these basic things that other people of our age at the time had already grasped, which they learnt from valuable time spent with parents, showing them how to do these things. We often didn’t get much of that ourselves as we either had to figure it out alone, ignore it or attempt it and fail.
5. We are controlling
Because we don’t know what “normal” is and because we are afraid, we may often seek to exert control over anything and everything around us. This can manifest itself in our homes, our work, or our relationships, finances, friends, hobbies and interests, exercise and others.
We may also often be inflexible. We don’t usually see this as a dysfunction. We will likely frame this as a strength that we’ve mastered when realistically, we haven’t.
6. We are perfectionists
We are terribly critical of ourselves, of every detail. Because of this personal internal dialogue of self-loathing and self judgement, we are often sensitive to criticism from others. This is deeply-seated fear of rejection caused by not having parental attention and support.
7. We had no peace in our childhood
We don’t know peace. This is ironic, because we believe only in perfection and yet we create chaos. Chaos, stress and unrest: these are comfortable for us. We feel at home in these circumstances, not because they are healthy, but because they feel normal to us based on our the time and attention we received or didn’t receive when we were younger.
This constantly slanted view of the world warps our view of the world and those around us.
8. We are in charge of everything -even if we don’t want to be (but we always want to be)
This manifests itself mostly in female daughters and especially the oldest female daughters of an addict mother because these women are often forced to take on the responsibilities of the incapable parent(s). This however isn’t always the case as it is slowly changing as more men adopt the “homemaker lifestyle”.
They will be the first person to take on everything, often to their own detriment. Responsibility is the name of the game. And we will take responsibility for everyone; their emotions, their needs, their lives. In fact, it’s easier to take responsibility for everyone else than even ourselves.
9. We seek approval from others
Constantly. Our self-esteem is exceptionally low. Our addicted parents were unable to provide the level of love and nurturing we required to form secure attachment. As such, we will seek that in all our relationships going forward. All of them. This need for approval manifests itself in generally self-sacrificing behaviour. We will give to our own detriment.
10. We live in conflict
We want to be perfect, but we can’t because we are paralysed by fear. We want to control our surroundings, but we desperately want to be taken care of. We desperately want to be self-assured, because we know that’s the key to the control we seek, but we can’t be self-assured because we grew up believing we had no worth.
If we have chosen you as a partner or even a dear friend, we may see either a situation that requires our keen ability to pick up the mess, or we may see someone who can love us back to health. Neither of these is a particularly sound choice. We don’t know. We don’t care.
While intellectually we may know that it is our responsibility to manage our own feelings, our intellect doesn’t always align itself with our emotions. We may be frail, frightened, scared, lonely, angry or clingy. We may be all of those things at once.
We don’t mean to be, we probably don’t even know we are.
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