“Sometimes I feel like I was raised by wolves,” sighed James, a 55-year-old man who grew up in a home with two alcoholic parents. “I’ve gone through so much of my life guessing at what ‘normal’ is. It’s like trying to find your way through a dark woods without a compass.”
According to Rosemary Hartman, supervisor of the Hazelden Family Program in Center City, Minn., reactions like James’ are typical for people who grew up in dysfunctional families. But acknowledging that there were issues that deeply affected the whole family system is an important first step toward emotional and spiritual healing.
Hartman said this acknowledgment frequently happens when adults have their own children. “They want to be good parents, but struggle with how to do it. They have some notions that are guided by principles in culture that sound good, but they don’t know how to practice them because they had no role models.”
Often, children raised in alcoholic families learn the “four Ds” early on:
- Don’t talk about what is really going on.
- Don’t trust anyone but yourself.
- Don’t feel or have needs because there is no one available to validate or respond to you.
- Deny there is a problem.
Because they don’t know what “normal” is, they may constantly seek approval or affirmation. What might be considered overachieving by others might seem routine to children of alcoholics who learned to try to be perfect so they wouldn’t disrupt things or incur the wrath of the alcoholic.
Children in such a system may also have trouble identifying or expressing their feelings. In their homes it may not have been okay to cry or be angry. Sentiments crucial to a child like “I’m sorry,” or even “I love you,” might have been absent or not authentic, delivered without an emotional foundation or behaviors consistent with such statements.
There is a saying in Twelve Step mutual-help groups that “We’re only as sick as our secrets,” but breaking the pattern of secrecy or the no-talk rules that may have existed in a family can be difficult. “It’s only been within the last 25-30 years that people began to talk about these things,” explained Hartman. “For persons with older parents, there was such a lack of understanding of addiction as an illness. It was considered a moral issue, and people with addictions were viewed as weak—as bad parents, people or spouses.”
It’s important to understand, said Hartman, that acknowledging the reality of an alcoholic family is not about blame. It’s about understanding the disease of alcoholism and the dire effects it can have on a family, then taking responsibility for your own behavior once you’ve gained the tools with which to live a healthy and balanced life.
An Al-Anon-affiliated group for adult children is an excellent place to start, said Hartman. “Part of the problem with growing up in an alcoholic family system is there aren’t consistent principles and values,” she said. “The Twelve Steps offer a set of principles by which we can live that are in line with every belief system.”
A Twelve Step group also provides a safe place where people can check things out to see if their responses, reactions and feelings are appropriate. In other words, it’s a great place to practice “being normal,” ask for help, and receive support and validation.
Hartman said that people on a journey of healing typically go through a grief process, encountering emotions like denial, anger and fear along the way. There is often grief surrounding the loss of the myth of family and the loss of a happy childhood. The goal, she said, is to learn about addiction, develop new coping mechanisms, let go of resentment or judgment, and ultimately move to a place of compassion and kindness towards others.
Hartman cautions adult children to approach recovery “slowly and quietly,” and to concentrate on themselves. “This is your own personal journey and it may be threatening to family members who still view alcoholism as a moral failing or who feel you are being disloyal by telling family secrets. You can’t take others along, but you can demonstrate positive changes. We can’t rewrite history, but we can take steps today to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
Visit the Al-Anon Web site (www.al-anon.alateen.org) to find an Al-Anon-affiliated adult children of alcoholics group in your area.