Science fiction saved my husband.
When he was younger, he consumed sci-fi books. Walking along a busy road at way too young an age, he’d trek to the local library to checkout stack after stack of books. The librarian knew his name, what he liked, and recommended books to him.
It sounds like an idyllic childhood, but it was really one of survival and escape. Home was unsafe, unreliable, dangerous for a quiet kid who didn’t want to draw attention to himself. So he read books, hours and hours in his room, at the library, away from his unpredictable dad and his checked-out mom.
I’m an English teacher obsessed with reading who wants so badly to tell you when her husband–no longer a little boy–consumes himself with books, it’s because he has a love for the English language or prose. But the truth is, he uses it as an escape, as a way to avoid the things in front of him. (He does this with television too.)
A skill he learned in childhood that might have saved him, now working against him. Avoiding his wife and kids and responsibilities and conversations now means he will lose those things.
Adult children of alcoholics often grow up steeped in fantasy. It might not be so literal with science fiction novels, but they soothe themselves and the chaos around them by creating worlds in their heads that aren’t as bad. Imagining what it would be like if Dad was sober, if Mom paid attention. They fantasize about what their family would look like it there wasn’t so much fighting or violence or instability.
ACOAs don’t always know how to turn the fantasies off. That became clear for us when Chris’ drinking finally came out of hiding. It completely confused him that I was miserable in my marriage. It was unfathomable to him that our kids were suffering or scared of him. Everything was still fine in his head, what did reality have to do with it?
Denial, rationalization, and manipulation are daily visitors in the home of an alcoholic. It seeps into the kids, into the spouse, into the fiber of their beings. And when kids leave, they can’t shake it off; it tags along as they date and marry, have kids and try to build new lives.
Reality hurts so there’s no need to look too closely at it.
Part of the zoning out children do is a result of the adult things they’ve been made to do far sooner than they should have been. When we give adult problems to children (worries about bills, too much information about intimate relationships between parents, job stress, excess responsibilities at home or in the care of siblings), they grow up too fast. Giving them these jobs doesn’t make them automatically capable of handling them though.
Child development follows a stair step model, gradually increasing once certain skills are mastered. You learn this and this and now you can do this. It is a continuous cycle of practicing and learning, growing and adapting. But ACOAs get too much too fast. They learn skills to survive instead of to safely mature. So they begin checking out of childhood as a coping skill. For many, it’s the major coping skill they bring into adulthood: avoid and ignore.
One struggle ACOAs have as they try to parent their own kids is they have no frame of reference. If an ACOA didn’t have any normal fourteen year old responsibilities, they don’t know what is an appropriate level of responsibility for their own child. They don’t know what is normal teenage behavior and what should raise red flags. There is no healthy past experience able to help them navigate their own child’s emotions, feelings, or questions.
Adult children of alcoholics don’t know how to parent because they weren’t parented.
This is hard for me to admit because the reality for our house is I am, more often than not, parenting two daughters and a husband. As I talk through problems or worries with my pre-teen daughter, I’m also modeling it for my husband. We spent a lot of time this summer dealing with the results of Chris’ lack of impulse control, his lack of ability to see the long term effects of choices he is making.
ACOAs are impulsive. They grew up around selfish people who thought of themselves first. Sure, alcoholics can manipulate you into believing they have your best interest at heart, but no one who truly does will continue on the path of alcoholism (this would be a good time to talk about the disease of alcoholism and how the disease doesn’t really allow for that logic, but that’s not the point today).
If you grow up seeing someone only think of themselves when they make choices, you do the exact same thing. I can hear the alcoholic’s arguments now: I’m not a selfish parent! But your disease makes you selfish. Even if you wish you weren’t. Alcoholism functions on a love of alcohol above all else.
Chris and I have been married for almost thirteen years. It has been just very, very recently that he has started asking himself how a choice he’s making will affect anyone but himself.
As a result, I have spent a lot of our marriage cleaning up messes I didn’t create. Learning about what enabling looks like for me has altered the last few years, but we are still actively living in the results of bad choices Chris doesn’t have the self-control to stop making. This is wearing and heavy. It is one of the reasons I still see a counselor regularly, to make sure my responses to his choices aren’t enabling. (This is a characteristic of an adult child of an alcoholic, but also a characteristic of an alcoholic. Remember yesterday when I said the rates are high that ACOAs will grow up to have their own addictions? That’s where it gets extra messy for us, it’s all intertwined so closely now.)
Impulse control comes with maturity. ACOAs do not mature at the rate of normal kids so they often lag behind in maturity and the better choice-making that comes with maturity. Developing his own addictions in his late teens further slowed the maturity process in Chris; active addicts and alcoholics stunt their maturity. We mature by learning lesson from mistakes and doing better next time. We mature by succeeding and failing, growing in confidence, getting wiser and not just older. Addicts don’t do those things. Alcoholics don’t do those things. Addiction freezes emotional development.
In an alcoholic household, instant gratification is all there is. If a parent promises something and it doesn’t happen right away, there is a low probability it will actually happen. Promises get broken all the time. The child learns that it’s now or never. And they bring that attitude into adulthood with them.
It never crossed Chris’ mind to think it might hurt me or our family as he drank at work. As long as he didn’t do it at home, it was fine. The disconnect between wants and the consequences of those wants is huge. I grew up in a house where we were taught how to be thorough and conscientious. Chris grew up in a house were no one cared for possessions or took care of things. I learned to clean up after myself, leave things the way I found them, and to be aware of who would hurt or be put out by the way I did things if I did them wrong. Chris learned how to survive without drawing attention, to not engage in a family, and to be gone as much as possible. He learned to take care of himself and no one else. No one else was going to take care of him; why should he have to take care of others?
I remember years ago having a cookout with Chris’ family at our house. I stood in line for food behind his sister. As she squirted mustard on her hot dog, it exploded all over the top of the bottle and ran down the side. Globs of mustard went everywhere. Instead of cleaning up the mess she made, she just shut the lid making a bigger mess, put the bottle down, and moved on down the food line.
“Are you going to leave the mustard like that?” I asked.
“I didn’t know if anyone else needed some,” she said.
“And you thought we’d want the stuff all over the lid if we did want some?” I asked confused.
I know it’s just mustard but it wasn’t. That was the Graham motto. Leave a giant mess and let someone else handle it. I was so confused by the mess she made and how she was just able to walk away from. Someone else could clean up the mustard explosion, she got what she needed.
Alcoholic families leave overwhelming mess behind. They often don’t address it themselves, instead shoving it off for someone else to clean up, someone else to fix, someone else to manage.
Our families of origin determine so much of our futures that it is sometimes overwhelming to think about.
But it also lights a fire in my soul to make sure we are not replicating that story, that trauma, that environment for our own children. For a million reasons, Chris has to be sober and actively working on healing and recovery to live in our house. A huge part of that is he is not allowed to pass this legacy onto our daughters. They don’t deserve that just like he didn’t.
You can do that too. If you’re an adult child of an alcoholic. If you’re currently raising kids in a home with an alcoholic. You can stop this cycle if you want to.
It has to stop somewhere. Even if I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into all those years ago, it has become my life’s work to make sure we don’t give this mess to our daughters.
We are not passing on the Graham legacy of hiding, of immaturity, of ignoring, of lying, of manipulation, of co-dependency. It is a curse I will not allow them to accept.
*The information I’m sharing didn’t originate with me. I’m a constant consumer of information, never satisfied with one or two books on a subject. But a lot of the research I’m sharing comes from Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D. Don’t let the ugly cover throw you off, this book is a wealth of information. ((I’ve also read parts of Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome: A Step By Step Guide to Discovery and Recovery by Wayne Kritsberg and it has good stuff in it too.))
*If you’re just joining us, I started this series on adult children of alcoholics yesterday. You can see that first post here.