By the time my father was 26 years old, he was the married father of two daughters, had been a tail gunner in World War II for 3 years, and was an alcoholic. His father, my grandfather, had died while smoking and drinking in bed. So I grew up in a family home that was controlled by alcoholism. I would discover alcohol at the age of 18 and go on to my own alcoholism. There is a pattern here.
I found addiction recovery in Nov. 24, 1976. I am the lucky one of a long line of poor souls who didn’t have a clue about addiction. Of all the reading I’ve done about this family disease, I like best how the ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) Red Book defines the problem:
“Many of us found that we had several characteristics in common as a result of being brought up in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional household. We had come to feel isolated, and uneasy with other people, especially authority figures. To protect ourselves, we became people-pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat. We either become alcoholics (or practiced other addictive behavior) ourselves, or married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.”
“We lived life from the standpoint of victims. Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, we preferred to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We got guilt feelings when we stood up for ourselves rather than giving in to others. Thus, we became reactors rather than actors, letting others take the initiative. We were dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment, willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. Yet, we kept choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.”
“These symptoms of the family disease of alcoholism or other dysfunction made us ‘co-victims’, those who take on the characteristics of the disease without necessarily ever taking a drink. We learned to keep our feelings down as children and kept them buried as adults. As a result of this conditioning, we confused love with pity, tending to love those we could rescue. Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable relationships.”
“This is a description, not an indictment.”
I was five years old in 1945 when my father returned from the war. We were strangers to each other. I didn’t know until 2009–sixty-four years later–that my primary addiction began then. Over time living in this home controlled by alcoholism, I became the 3rd parent. This need to rescue my family became my primary addiction. Sixty-four years later, I realized all my primary energy has been spent on trying to rescue others from addiction.
So my childhood energy was not spent on learning any self-soothing, self care, or self love. Most of my energy was focused outside myself. Some I used to cover the constant fear of someone finding out what a fraud I was.
Childhood is the time we learn how to respond to the world. Often times we must battle forces greater than our emotional growth can handle. So we learn maladaptive behavior patterns. The great news is that these patterns can be reversed. Healing childhood trauma can lead to overcoming addiction, depression, anxiety, or any debilitating condition which benefits from redefining who you are. According to US Dept of Health & Human Services: Child Welfare, childhood trauma effects are persistent fear response, hyperarousal, increased internalizing symptoms, diminished executive functioning, delayed developmental milestones, weakened response to positive feedback, and complicated social interactions.
“Under those conditions, chronic stress becomes so common that it seems normal. Individuals use denial and repression to protect the ego from disintegration. Living with both the constant unpredictability of the alcoholic parent and the detachment and/or anxiety of the codependent parent is difficult enough for an adult who has a fully developed defense system. For a child, surviving the regular assault of trauma requires massive amounts of energy. This puts the normal developmental process on hold; there is no energy left to invest in development. While other children are learning to play, to trust, to self-soothe, and to make decisions, children in addicted families are learning to survive. The end result is a child who often feels thirty years old at five and five years old at thirty.” Jane Middelton-Moz