The Scars that Don’t Show: Growing Up in an Alcoholic Family:

The most pervasive and damaging of beliefs, perceptions, and practices are internalized with neither awareness nor consent. Children raised in unhealthy environments learn painful, unspoken lessons that dictate the rules they are to live by and roles they are to play. Growing up in the midst of addiction taught millions of us how to compensate for family dysfunction.

We learned:

The rules:
– Don’t trust
– Don’t feel
– Don’t talk

We took on roles within the family:

– Caretaker
– Hero
– Clown
– Scapegoat
– Lost Child

What we did as children was necessary and adaptive. Upon entering adulthood, many of our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors no longer serve us and yet insidiously they remain integral to our way of being. Being an Adult Child of An Alcoholic/Addict (ACOA) is not a diagnosis, yet our individual struggles have a great deal in common.

I got to speak with BDN blogger Ally Sorenson recently about how being an ACOA continues to be part of her life: “My parents were divorced when I was very small and very few, if any people in our family knew what I went through. I’m sharing my story in hopes that it will help others to know that they’re not alone.”

“At 46 I am still muddling through the mire that is our mother’s legacy of alcohol and drug dependency. We lost her to an overdose in 2003. I still struggle with guilt…guilt I feel because I’m relieved that it’s over, that she’s gone. Anger, because she’s gone and shouldn’t be. Grief because I miss her, and my children are growing up without their grandmother, and then back to guilt because I’m relieved that they didn’t have to witness their grandmother killing herself day by day.”

Guilt is a default setting for ACOAs. It’s a reflex. If something’s wrong, we assume it’s us. Even when we know we’re above reproach, we feel bad anyway. We tend to believe that we are responsible for other’s happiness and so when there is conflict or hurt feelings, we feel we have failed. “As an adult I’m a peace-keeper, smoother of ruffled feathers, serious helicopter parent. I hate confrontation and will go a mile to avoid an uncomfortable situation.”

We may be very successful in our external lives, but we tend to be emotionally immature. ” I’m a well educated, seemingly well functioning adult, in a healthy, loving, long-term relationship. But the reality is that in my darker moments, I wonder how I made it out alive. The scars that people can’t see are sometimes the ones that do the most damage.”

“(At times), I still feel like the little lost kid I was. The little girl who had to be walked home by the school secretary/crossing guard/milk man/mail man because my mother was passed out on the living room floor by 3pm.

Our most common continued struggles are self doubt and anxiety. “I’ve had endless counseling and feel that I’ve made it as far as I can in regards to my childhood and Mom’s passing. To look at me, you’d never know the damaged past I had to climb up and out of. I’m attractive, financially comfortable, Volvo driving middle-aged woman with a wonderful partner and children that mean everything to me. But the reality is inside I’m still a 5 year old girl who is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop…because it always, always did.”

It’s hard to experience feelings that never was instilled or nurtured. We struggle to feel safe, secure, good enough, loveable and acceptable. This is the residual of past rejections. We fear that anything good in our lives will be lost or taken from us if we don’t endlessly strive. We find it impossible to be at peace. Most of us are very busy people who view relaxing as a terrifying thing to do.

We’re eternal people. We intuitively sense and attend to the needs, wants, and feelings of others. This allows us to ignore ourselves. The recovery adage that best describes us:, “Were not really human beings because we don’t know how to just be. We’re human doers because we derive all of our self worth from doing.” Yet what we truly want is to be appreciated for who we are.

In order to achieve self acceptance, we must be willing to receive and retain the truth healthy people have of us. As we integrate their perceptions, we replace the untruths we internalized as children. It’s not enough for us to know that the people in our past were wrong. We must become free to feel it.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.