Growing up in the shadow of addiction

Children who grow up with addiction and the relational trauma that surrounds it can carry the imprint of that pain for the rest of their lives.

And as adult children of alcoholics (ACoA), we can be very confused about just what we’re healing from and just how we should go about healing it. Many of us think that we can read a couple of books, “understand” what went wrong and be able to think ourselves into inner peace. Some of us feel like victims and resent any implication that we need to do anything at all. Sill others who begin to realize just how affected we were by growing up with adverse childhood experiences like addiction are incensed that we have to do all of this work to get better from “someone else’s” illness.

So we want to by-pass the years and years of the cumulative effects of relational trauma. We want to think ourselves better. We feel that if we understand what happened, we will be over it. We want to grieve once, to sob once, to hit a tackle dummy with a bataka once and get rid of all those years of pain. And all too often, we sell ourselves the bill of goods that we have. But make no mistake about it, like it or not, wherever the “illness” began, it is ours to deal with and get better from in the here-and-now.

I made the connection in my book The ACoA Trauma Syndrome, that ACoAs have a post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in which pain from childhood, is reemerging and being experienced in adult relationships today. This is a relationship illness. Much like a soldier returning from war hits the dirt when he or she hears a car backfiring, the ACoA goes numb, implodes or explodes when we experience relationship cues in the present, that trigger our unresolved pain, from a time in our past. When we enter intimate relationships in adulthood, feeling the vulnerability and dependency that adult intimacy inevitably requires of us, trigger all of those feelings of what closeness meant from early in our lives, for better and for worse. We can feel “little”, vulnerable” and anxious all over again, as if we have to shut up and go along, or keep our needs and desires to ourselves, rather than risk ridicule or rejection. But we don’t really know why and we think it’s the other person in the present, who is “making” us feel that way because we’re unaware of what we are bringing into our relationships from our pasts.

The Terrified Mind: How the Brain and Body Process-Relational Trauma

The nature of trauma is that the extreme stress or even terror of living with the alarming mood swings, rage and chaos of addiction, abuse or neglect, have the dual effect of both shutting the thinking mind down and creating lifelong hypervigilance. The fact that our thinking mind was not processing and making conscious sense of frightening or dis-equilibrating events and relational dynamics from our childhoods, means that many of the feelings and much of the information from those events remain unconscious. In other words, feelings never got processed, thought about and elevated to consciousness through words. We never talked them over, right-sized them and came back to a place of understanding what was happening. I mean how many of us as kids with drunk parents had someone telling us, “don’t worry about being raged at and hit, Dad or Mom is just drunk or high, you did nothing wrong, give it a few minutes, they will be fine.” The shame and unconsciousness associated with our parents’ behavior, generally meant that it never got talked about. And more often than not, while we were being terrified, we were also being blamed for their out of control behavior. So our fear, anxiety, and pain just went underground, it remained locked within us in a frozen, unconscious state.

That’s why as ACoAs, we don’t know what we don’t know, or even that we don’t know.

We need to bring unconscious feelings related to the events of our childhoods to a conscious level, so that they can be processed, understood and made mature sense of, brought into closure and understanding. And this can hurt. It can catapult us back to the most painful parts of our growing up, the parts that we hid from because they hurt too much to feel. The parts that we threw out of consciousness because we found them so frightening. And when we re-feel these forgotten emotions, we can feel young, vulnerable and defenseless all over again, just as we did as kids.

And this is why ACoAs want to get better in their heads, so we don’t have to white knuckle our way through all of the distressing and disturbing emotions that we thought we’d left behind.

But here’s the test, do the things that used to trigger you, still trigger you? Healing has occurred when:

· You can direct your attention to or away from the painful material or the trauma, at your own will.

· When your spontaneous response to situations that used to trigger you, is fundamentally different when your spontaneous reaction changes and lightens (without your lying to yourself).

Doing “all this work” can feel threatening to us as ACoAs. Repressed emotion was repressed for a reason, it was too overwhelming to feel at that time in our lives, when we were kids, so we got rid of it by shutting down, going numb or dissociating. Going back and feeling all of those feelings that we repressed or dissociated, feels scary all over again. When the feelings get triggered, either in life or in therapy, we want to get rid of them today, just as we wanted to get rid of them yesterday. The easiest and most common or convenient way to get rid of them, is to make them about someone or something else, “you hurt me, therefore, I am enraged and my rage is justified,” or “you’re being so mean that I am in a flood of tears, how can you hurt me like this, my tears have a reason, and the reason it probably, you.” But sadly, this does nothing to connect them to their original source, it does not trace our reaction or more often our over-reaction to that child inside of us who still longs to get angry or enraged or to collapse in a heap of helpless and infuriated tears.

But out of sight is not out of mind.

Unfelt, unacknowledged emotions that have never been made conscious, come out sideways. Some of the ways in which they reemerge and disturb our relationships are through:

Projections: We get rid of pain we can’t sit through by making it about someone else, you’re the problem, if only you’d change, I’d be fine. I keep choosing the wrong people. We see as belonging to another person, what we are blind to in ourselves.

Reenactment Dynamics/Passing Down the Pain: In a convoluted attempt to avoid pain we’re hypervigilant or we overreact or we see problems that could be managed easily as unmanageable. Our stress sensors are set too high. By over-reacting, we wind up recreating old, painful relational dynamics in new relationships e.g. with partners and children.

Transferences: Transferring unconscious pain from relationships in the past onto new relationships in the present. We see qualities in a person in the present in the same way that we felt them as children but we fail to recognize that we may be transferring pain from childhood, onto today’s relationships.

Acting Out Old Childhood Pain and Abuse Through Our Behavior Today: If we lived with rage (silent or overt) as a child, we become the rager to our own children. If we were abused as a child, we abuse our own children or spouse today. If we were neglected as children, we overreact or under react by being either overbearingly absorbed in our children or neglectful.

I find that framing this “work” as a spiritual challenge, a path towards greater enlightenment, gives it a higher purpose and meaning. If you need to heal this kind of ACoA pain, the world is full of resources. Do read a book or two and get the lay of the land, but check out twelve-step meetings in your area. They are free, life-changing and create a path out. Meetings tend to be different in different areas of the country or world, the meetings that can be relevant for ACoAs are Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous (CODA) or ACA or ACoA meetings. Google can likely come up with what’s available in your area, check several out before deciding which meetings feel right to you, healing is around the corner.

Written by: Tian Dayton, PhD