Thursday, February 11, 2010

For the (Adult) Children

When I spoke at the rehab center recently, the substance abuse counselor in training told me she wasn’t sure she belonged in Al-Anon because she was an adult child of alcoholics, but she didn’t hear anyone talking about parents.

Instead, they talked about spouses or children. I assured her that Al-Anon was also for adult children. I’d wager that a majority of people I’ve encountered in the rooms grew up in this disease. It may have been their children or significant other who got them there, but in many, many cases the disease started much earlier.

Maybe we don’t talk about our childhoods as much because we’re usually grappling with how our disease is affecting us today. I don’t know. I was surprised the other day when a man in a group I attend regularly approached me after a meeting in which I had shared and said, “I didn’t know your parents were alcoholics.”

I thought you could look at me and know that.

I shared that with the counselor and mentioned that there we even two books that were written with adult children in mind. They are two of my favorites. “Hope for Today” is Al-Anon’s third book of daily meditations, and it’s written from the perspectives of adult children. The other is “From Survival to Recovery.”

I have been reading "From Survival to Recovery." I've related to and enjoyed the whole book but one section, in particular, got my attention. It says that the prescription for the alcoholic is difficult but obvious. But "for those affected by someone else's drinking, the prescriptions and triggers are less obvious. Unlike drinking, behaviors of excessive responsibility or caretaking are not necessarily characteristics e want to wipe out entirely.... Often we suffer from an excess of a good thing."

I’m generally not a big list person, but this book offers a list of questions to help recognize the need for recovery work that I found helpful.

1. When difficulties occur, do you need someone to blame, even if it is yourself?

2. Do you feel uncomfortable or draw a blank when asked what it is you really want?

3. Does a dark cloud of despair or a creeping depression sometimes seem to appear from nowhere to weigh you down?

4. Do you feel guilty or selfish whenever you say "no"?

5. Are you lonely and isolated? Do you feel like an outsider in the midst of a crowd?

6. Can you identify only one or two extreme feelings, such as anger or fear?

7. Do you think in all-or-nothing terms? Is life either wonderful or miserable, with little in between?

8. Are you numb or flat, with no extremes in your feelings whatsoever?

9. Does you memory fog out or have giant holes where you remember nothing?

10. Do you feel suicidal or have a need to hurt yourself or others?

11. Do you tolerate unacceptable behavior even after you have said you won't?

12. Do you have difficulty relaxing and having fun? Would you not recognize fun, even if it were right in front of your nose?

13. Are you frequently impatient with yourself or others?

14. Do you think you are the only person in the world you can depend on?

15. Do you feel compelled to do things for other people that they could do for themselves?

16. Do you do things you don't want to do, rather than risk disappointing other people?

17. Do you have difficulty trusting your own perceptions? Do you need to prove you are right and others are wrong in order to convince yourself?

18. Do you feel embarrassed or ashamed because of someone else's behavior?

19. Do you startle easily?

20. Do you think the best way to take care of your needs is not to have any?

I was surprised by how many questions I could answer yes to, either now or in the past. That surprised me. Years ago, a friend decided I was an adult child in need of help. He had a book that had a checklist on the back. He sat me down and made me read it.

“Do you see yourself there?” he wanted to know.

“No,” I answered truthfully.

“What about this part about having trouble finishing things?” he said, as if he had just uncovered proof positive.

“I don’t have trouble finishing things,” I said.

“What about it taking you until you were 30 to finish your degree?” He looked smug.

“I finished my degree,” I said, feeling equally smug.

My friend and I had this discussion shortly before I moved. Moving frequently wasn't on his list, but it might have been. We saw each other a few times after I moved, then lost contact. I heard from him not long ago. I told him I was in Al-Anon. That he was right all along.

My sponsor told me that we recognize truths only when we are ready. That’s been true for me. It took me most of my life to accept that I had been affected by the disease of alcoholism. I take it as a measure of my progress how many of these questions I can answer “yes” to. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before I answer “yes” to them all.


  1. That is a wonderful list. I wrote down the name of the book because, having just done my fifth step yesterday, I am not in a place to start looking for more issues right now. I have a lot to process.

    I think the reason I chose CoDA over the other possible programs is because it is "All-inclusive". There is no such thing as a closed or open coda meeting because (as they say at every meeting I attend) "The only requirement for membership is a desire for better and more fulfilling relationships."

    Nearly all of the people who attend CoDA meetings have an alcoholic somewhere in their lives. For some it is a spouse or child, for others it is parents, for many it is both... and for a few, like me, it is none of the above. There are some people in my life, now and in the past, that might qualify as alcoholics, but mostly it was the disfunction of thier own families of origin that gave them the qualities of a codependent - which are, incidentally, exactly the same as any other addicted person, including alcoholics, with the one difference being there is no specific substance or behavior they can blame it all on.

    I have looked into al-anon and acoa meetings, but there aren't any at times or places that would be beneficial to me. I go to at least two CoDA meetings a week, and I am very glad to have found a twelve-step program that I feel comfortable in. Feeling like you belong is a big piece of the recovery, for me.

  2. Man oh man, so many yes answers. Mostly affirmative in the past. My father was an alcoholic and my mother was an emotional basket case and full of anger. To this day she says there was never any alcohol in our house. My brother and I have stopped trying to reach her. If that is how she needs to see it, we just let it go. We don't want to blame or hurt anyone. We are each on a wondrous road of health and recovery in our own lives. What a blessing.

  3. I could answer yes to many in the past.. but now i can answer more of them NO now.

    But wow.. I've been AFFECTED.. very affected.

    I'm not going to play victim anymore.. but sometimes my thinking gets distorted.. or I keep wanting to fix others and I get controlling..

    I especially have the trouble of thinking in ALL OR NOTHING TERMS. What does that mean.. ??

  4. Wow. That's a good list. There's less YES for me than there used to be.
    I was going to ask you 'But doesn't everyone feel these things? Aren't these normal human behavior?' But the more I read it, the more I realized that no, these things aren't normal. They just feel like normal to me.

  5. My dad grew up with a raging alcoholic mother. She left him with other people and took off all the time. He had a really bad childhood. He grew up to hate alcohol, but he overate, and died of obesity related disease. It wasn't until a sponsor pointed out to me how "alcoholic" his behavior was, even though he didn't drink. He was uber controlling, I think because of the chaos of his youth.

    Kathy, thanks for your comment. I see you did everything, all the "right" doctors, etc. and it did not help. That made me feel better (sadly). It is what it is...we both gave it all we had.

  6. this is a great post b/c it's we are affected by our parents who drank or abused us. It shaped who we are and to break the cycle it's so important to become aware. Have a great weekened. Sarah

  7. another great post. i have the survival to recovery book, but haven't ever read it all. when i tried to read it when i was younger, it just felt too painful. i feel like i always knew i was affected by my family alcoholism, no problem admitting that. and i've gotten help over the years. but it's now more than ever that the program is appealing to me as an additional resource. thanks again for sharing all these resources.