The realities of growing up in an alcoholic home are devastating. It alters who God made you to be, what you think of yourself, and how you operate in the world.
But it is not a life sentence to repeat what you saw. Healing and health is available. Available because we have access to good therapy, wise medical professionals, Jesus, medication, and support networks.
(This would be a good time to note that most of the things needed to adequately address ACOAs needs or to recover from an addiction of your own are expensive. Good health insurance, time to attend meetings, being able to remove yourself from toxic family members are privileges many do not have. I don’t have a neat and tidy solution to this, but I am aware of the resources we have that some do not. Therapy is expensive. Even with insurance, medical help or in-patient/out-patient services are expensive. Support groups and meetings are free, but childcare is not. These are realities for a lot of people who need help. Telling someone there is help without admitting this help is easier for some to get than others is important to note.)
Healing and health is available, but it doesn’t just magically happen one day when you begin to see with new eyes how off track things got. That’s probably the first step in a thousand. Recovering from a childhood with an alcoholic takes a big dose of reality, painful honesty, and a ton of work.
((This would be another good time to remind those who are allowing children to live in a house with an alcoholic: you have more control over this than you are being led to believe. Do not let fear and doubt trick you into thinking this is still the best way. Your children deserve better. You have to be brave and strong. You can be brave and strong. If you don’t know where to start: go get a counselor familiar with addiction. Do nothing but find a therapist. Not for your spouse, for you. Starting with you–getting you healthy–will fundamentally change your family for the better. I promise you.))
Why so many asides, Mary? Seriously, calm down.
How do we fix this? Where do we even start as adult children of alcoholics? How do we move forward from this?
Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D in Adult Children of Alcoholics suggests you begin with acknowledging your upbringing was dysfunctional. We talked earlier about how abnormal your childhood was, but that’s probably not the best term to use. Really, what is normal? I tell my kids all the time we don’t want to be normal. Normal is overrated. The better way to describe it is you either had a functional childhood (one that makes you feel loved and safe while preparing you for relationships, adulthood, decision-making, etc.) or one that was dysfunctional (one that makes you feel unloved, unwanted, and unsafe while leaving you ill-equipped to be successful later in life).
Once you accept that things were dysfunctional, you go about learning what functional looks like. What should an intimate relationship look like? What should a home full of love and stability feel like? What value or lack of value have I given myself that doesn’t match up with truth or scripture? What skills did I learn as a child that are hurting me now? What is an appropriate way to handle conflict and confrontation? Am I able to see reality or do I often still choose fantasy?
You can answer these questions with Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholic groups. You can begin to peel back layers with ACOA books and podcasts. Learning how to reparent yourself through positive affirmations or a trained professional might be helpful.
One thing that has been helpful for Chris is a life coach. That might sound like something you’d hear from a business professional or at a self-help conference, but if you grew up learning the wrong way to live, you might need someone who can start addressing those lessons and giving you practice and ideas on how to begin new patterns. My husband (and all kids) needed his parents to parent him. He needed them to make him feel secure and safe, feel loved no matter what; he needed them to make choices in his best interest and to care for him.
Those things did not happen.
As a result, he has to figure out how to do them for himself and for others with no model. A life coach is helping him do that.
At this point, I’m sure people are tired of hearing me say this, but ACOAs could greatly benefit from therapy. Some very specific things broke you and you need help outside of yourself to fix them. There is a very high chance you learned co-dependency from your family of origin and addressing that will begin to right a lot of wrongs. If you haven’t begun the work of healing your childhood, there’s a good chance you suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety. Addressing those issues, giving you skills and steps to handle them correctly, and hearing from someone when your thinking isn’t healthy will transform every aspect of your life.
Learning and practicing healthy boundaries (things that people who are co-dependent, enablers, or who suffer from low self-esteem often do not do) is good, healthy work too.
What about ACOAs who are parenting children of their own? Geringer Woititz suggests these things as you navigate a season you have no healthy experience of:
-work on yourself and your own person growth (the things above are good starts!)
-listen to your children
-tell the truth; be honest with them
-educate them about the disease of alcoholism
-encourage your children to attend Alateen (or any support group for kids growing up impacted by alcohol or addiction)
-give up denial
-do not protect your children from knowing the ravages of alcoholism (I learned appropriate information to give my children based on their ages in therapy; the older they get, the more they need to know)
-don’t be afraid to show affection to your children (I gently nudge Chris often to hug and kiss and snuggle with our girls; they need it and so does he, but it does not come naturally to him)
-define clear limits for your children
-allow your children to take responsibility for their behavior
Chris turned 36 a few weeks ago.
In our family, when it’s your birthday, my mom makes you a cake from scratch. Whatever your favorite cake is, delivered to your door for your birthday.
One night leading up to his birthday, he mentioned my mom texted him to see what he wanted.
What did you say? Was it something gross? I asked.
My husband and I have very different ideas about what good cake it.
Carrot cake, he said.
GAG. BARF. NOOOOO, I replied in a normal, not-dramatic way.
It would be co-dependent of me to change my cake order because you don’t like it, he said.
It would! You’re right! I don’t want you to change it, it’s your birthday. I’m just teasing you.
Silence for a second.
Wait, have you changed it in the past because I don’t like carrot cake? I asked.
Sometimes. And I think about it. I want a cake that everyone likes. I want everyone to enjoy it.
WHAT IN THE WORLD, I yelled. DON’T DO THAT. It’s your birthday. You get to eat a whole cake by yourself if you want. Who cares what other people like?
I know, I’m learning that. But it’s hard.
Soon after, he headed off to the co-dependency class he’s taking at our church. I thought about that conversation all night. Even now as I type this, some of you will think Chris’ reasoning was sound. Well, he was doing what was best for everyone. He wants other people to eat his cake. It’s okay to not pick your favorite if others are around.
But the point of his birthday cake is to have a cake he loves. He’s important enough and valued enough that even if he has a cake no one else will eat, we will still celebrate him and his birthday. It is not rude to order a cake you like on your birthday. It is not selfish. It is not inconsiderate.
If going to a therapist or a support group isn’t in the cards right now, if it feels too scary or hard, just start with some books and podcasts. While I don’t recommend relying on them solely for healing and recovery, they are good baby steps to understanding hurts and patterns.
Here are some I suggest (if you have something that has helped you or someone you love, add it in the comments! This is in no way the best of the best, it’s just what I’m familiar with or have personal experience with):
The Christian Codependence Recovery Workbook: From Surviving to Significance by Robert and Stephanie Tucker (this is what Chris is doing through our church and it is really good)
Christian Families in Recovery: A Guide for Addiction, Recovery, & Intervention Using God’s Tools of Redemption workbook by Robert and Stephanie Tucker (this is by the same author of the codependency workbook above; I read through this study over the summer helping my church review some materials and if I could send this to every person who reaches out to me about addiction, I would.)
Go here for a list of Al-Anon and recovery-related podcasts (I’m sure this isn’t all of them.)
Adult Children of Alcoholics world service organization is full of resources and recommendations
And if you’re unlikely to read or listen to much right now, I assume you spend at least a little time on Facebook. Join a support group there to just listen for a while–see what you can learn. Here’s one I found after a quick search, but I’m not a part of it.
I’ve heard from lots of people this week who grew up in alcoholic (or drug addicted) homes who were unfamiliar with the “adult child of alcoholic” term. Or they knew the term but didn’t know the characteristics or weight of it. I’ve heard from brave people who are speaking up to their loved ones and saying this is me. I want to fix this. Dots are being connected, conversations are taking place, people are starting to search for help.
I’m praying for the challenging, good work you’re beginning. Please don’t quit when it gets uncomfortable. It will absolutely get uncomfortable. Please do not quit.
I’ve also heard from people this week who enable alcoholics. I’ve heard from co-dependent women who have lots of good excuses and reasons why this is not them, their house is different, their children will be different. How dare I group them with the other spouses of alcoholics.
I cannot convince people to get help. I’m not here to bully anyone into therapy or Al-Anon or to leave their drunk spouse. I know the least healthy people scream the loudest when someone points out their mess or responsibility in it. I also know your children will one day have to address this–your part and your spouse’s–and neither of you will come out of it unscathed.
What that looks like for our family is we are no longer in relationship with either of Chris’ parents: the alcoholic or the enabler. If we’re being really honest, more damage might have been done by his enabling mom than his alcoholic dad. There is no tally sheet to count up the damage Chris (and his siblings) experienced as a result of each individual, but the more work Chris does, the more he pays attention to his wounds, and the longer he is sober to remember and feel what he’s been avoiding for a very long time, it just adds more layers of guilt and responsibility on his mom.
He is just beginning to understand the level of manipulation she operated at to keep so many horrible things alive.
Chris and I were separated in September 2017. He had been caught drinking again and was not allowed to live in our home anymore. His mom and he were on their way to Ohio for a birthday celebration–his September birthday included.
Did you father ever touch you? she asked, eyes focused on the road ahead.
No, Chris responded.
I always wondered, she said as they sped down the highway. I always wondered.
The point of that story isn’t Chris’ answer. It might be true or it might not be. The point is my husband’s mom knew for years she was making choices that could possibly be hurting her children and she did not speak up. The point is the person made to protect her children did not want to know the answer to dangerous questions because it might not be what she wanted to hear, it might force her to make some changes.
So she never asked.
Accountability comes for all of us. It came for Chris. It came for his parents. It came for me. What you think you’re avoiding right now will not stay away forever.
Spouses of alcoholics: if you have a little whisper in the back of your head telling you that something is not right, that this isn’t a way to live, do not ignore that voice. It is not worth the consequences.
*Disclaimer: when I began this series, I mentioned that I was barely skimming the surface of what it looks like to be an adult child of an alcoholic. I wrote a couple essays this week to give you a glimpse of what it looks like for Chris and our marriage, but I am leave out a lot.
One night Chris was reviewing a post for the next day and he suggested something I should add. There are lots of things I could add, but I don’t have the time or the space. If your experience doesn’t match up exactly to ours, it doesn’t mean that yours isn’t right. It’s just the reality of trying to give a very complex idea some exposure to help others.
I am not the authority on ACOAs. I am not an ACOA. I’m sharing what it feels like to be married to an adult child of an alcoholic and how it impacts my life. These are my stories, my experiences. People with more experience, closer perspectives, and a lot more education have written about this a lot better than I have. I pray this week is just the beginning of your knowledge of ACOAs, not the end. There are parts of this struggle not made for the internet. There are parts of this struggle that didn’t affect Chris as much. Every story is different. This is mine.
*DISCLOSURE: affiliate links used.