Have You Ever Been Damaged By An Alcoholic Parent?

"OMG I'm useless, stupid, incompetent and I'll never be happy"... Does that sound familiar? How about - "I'm so weak, unworthy - a total embarrassment".

"OMG I'm useless, stupid, incompetent and I'll never be happy"... Does that sound familiar? How about - "I'm so weak, unworthy - a total embarrassment". Or "My so-called friends always use me, abandon me, judge me. Why do I keep ending up with people who turn out to be a*&holes?!"
These are the thoughts that bounce around many a weary Irish head. They roar at us when we're trying to be happy, or trying to sleep. You might have noticed them. You may be slightly aware of a pattern of things going wrong. Perhaps you are often afraid. Unable to trust people, unable to trust yourself. Maybe you're sometimes volatile, unsteady. You might find it hard to stop cutting, drinking, smoking, gambling, lying - even though you hate when other people do it.
Perhaps you feel like a victim. Powerless, and alone.
And there's probably a good reason:
Have you ever considered that all of these behaviours, thoughts and feelings may have been "learned" -taught by an invisible teacher that grew up in the house with you? That scary teacher's name is Addiction. And that teacher has been busy -
  • Up to 104,000 children are currently living in families adversely affected by alcohol alone (Ref: Alcohol Action)
  • Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics and 50% will end up marrying an alcoholic.
  • 33% of children of alcoholics go on to develop related problems in adulthood.
An addict harms him or herself but worse, their behaviour harms the children around them.
There is nothing fundamentally odd about the child of an alcoholic or addict. But their normal needs aren't met because the parent or both parents attend fully to their own needs first. And they do so in a dysfunctional way. As a result, children learn maladaptively (or 'abnormal, even though I hate that word) ways of meeting their adaptive (normal) needs. They will understandably suppress their normal feelings as a way to survive.
And sadly, this is often a wise move. It can be dangerous to express your normal needs and feelings to a parent who is volatile and more interested in their wine or vodka than you and what happened in school today.
In this way, children of addicts will inadvertently place themselves in danger as they seek to have their needs met elsewhere. Because these children aren't taught to deal with emotions in an adaptive way, they might internalise faulty messages like "I'm crap" and grow up to be adults who allow themselves to be treated poorly. This teaches the child to control, avoid or medicate - taking care of both avoidance and control. 
And by medicate I mean, they too may develop an addiction. You too might develop an addiction. 
What is an ACOA?
ACOA refers to Adult Child Of Alcoholic/Addict. What we know now is that just as when we are in active addiction, when we are the children of addicts, there are certain ways in which we behave that are astonishingly consistent. We call that ACOA syndrome.
Why isn't this more obvious?
Many Irish teens and adults don't realise that their parents' drinking is abnormal because alcoholic drinking and binging has become normalised to such an extent. It's not normal to drink every night, or to drink until you vomit - but it sure has become normalised, which is very different! And for a lot of people, they do know, but they are ashamed, and so don't access the right support.
This shame is utterly undeserved and imprisoning.
What does it mean?
This means that we have a lot of adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) who don't realise they are ACOAs - and that this will explain lots of things they haven't been able to explain. It also means that the dysfunction of an ACOA has a pattern and that there is an actual well documented consistently observed reason for their particular set of behaviours.
And it means there's a solution!
Identifying these traits is half the work done!
But it might be hard work. Hard to notice, but also hard to 'meet' and process because of the pain that will inevitably be triggered. That said, every client I've worked with around these issues had expressed relief that there is a name for this. That it's a 'thing' that's logical and frankly, that they're not crazy.
You're not crazy.
If you had an alcoholic parent - or indeed grandparents, get a pen, take a breath, and try this checklist here:
  • Is it difficult for you to identify, understand, or express your feelings?
  • Do you judge yourself more harshly than you do others?
  • Do you have an extremely strong sense of responsibility?
  • Do you feel guilty when you stand up for yourself?
  • Do you find yourself afraid of or intimidated by people, particularly authority figures?
  • Is the approval of others often more important to you than your own preferences or beliefs?
  • Are thrills and excitement a necessary part of your life?
  • Do you find it difficult to have fun?
  • Does personal criticism make you feel as though you're being attacked?
  • Are you often told you've misinterpreted someone's intentions?
  • Do you often find yourself feeling isolated and alone?
  • When things go badly, do you feel like a victim?
  • Can you answer 'yes' to a lot of questions found on an "are you an alcoholic" questionnaire although you never pick up a drink?
  • Are you more concerned for/ do more for others than for yourself?
  • Do you find yourself constantly trying to rescue others, whether it's a friend, relative or lover?
  • Are you uncomfortable with intimacy?
  • Do you find yourself hanging onto relationships that aren't healthy (and rejecting those that could be?)
  • Have you ever confused pity for love?
  • Are you currently involved with an alcoholic?
  • Are you or have you been closely involved with any kind of compulsive personality - such as a workaholic?
  • Do you feel different from other people?
  • Do you have a drink/drug problem?
Now - add up your score - 1 for every 'yes':
0 - 6 You're handling things very well. Just keep an eye on yourself to make sure you don't fall into potential trouble zones. Examine your answers and see if they have a theme. Look at the issues that create the most problems, whether it be in your relationships (questions 13 - 20), or struggling with your own identity (questions 1-12).
7 - 14 Things aren't terrible, but they could be better. No need to settle for "not terrible," however. Make the effort to raise your self-esteem and clear out the obstacles that are getting in the way of fulfilling your dreams.
15 - 21 The past is casting a heavy shadow over you. Sadness, fear, and frustration rear their heads all too often. Don't sweep your feelings under the rug. It's time to face what's going on so that you can turn it around. Get out from under by getting help. It is possible to change old patterns!
Yes to #21 You are following in your parent's footsteps. Don't let your parent's addiction overwhelm your life. Don't give up on yourself. To stop the cycle, seek help now.
(Questionnaire adapted from a piece by Mark Siechel drawing on work by Dr Jan Wiutitz)
The (very) good news:
This is all workable. If this piece resonates with you, you are certainly not alone. Talk to a professional, there is no shame. Read about it - there are LOTS written about this. Know that most psychotherapists will be aware of ACOA syndrome, if not all. You deserve a way out of this and to know that there is a way out this. You are not a pathology - you have been reacting normally to an abnormal situation all along. And you are resilient.
I know this because you are reading this, and you have survived.
Written by Sally O'Reilly - Counselling Psychologist and Psychotherapist at www.sallyoreilly.com.

Sally O'Reilly

Person, Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor with special interest in adolescence. Love all chocolate equally, hate all blue cheeses - equally.

Read more by Sally
{{ post.excerpt }}
{{ post.content.formatted }}

What is Family Friendly HQ?

Family Friendly HQ is Ireland’s trusted parenting community, dedicated to mums and dads, and families of all shapes and sizes.

Read more about us