Q. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. My father was an abusive alcoholic and we feared him. I’ve had many problems, but thought I had overcome them. Now I keep getting involved with boyfriends who drink too much. My friends say I’m codependent because I don’t see the problems in these men until I’m already involved.
Adult Children of Alcoholics Carry Baggage
A. Often adult children of alcoholics have many problems even if they don’t drink. They may feel intense guilt because an alcoholic parent directly or indirectly blamed them for problems. They may have difficulty expressing their feelings or even being aware of their feelings. They also may have difficulty trusting others and forming close relationships.
All of us carry into adulthood the patterns we learn as children. As children we do whatever we must do in order to survive physically and emotionally. Children of alcoholics learn to ignore very inappropriate behavior and abuse on the part of their parents. They learn to not ask questions and they learn to not feel, or think or trust. Dr. Claudia Black, a psychotherapist, has identified four roles children assume in alcoholic families. These roles are also seen in any dysfunctional family.
1. The Adjuster does whatever he is told. He disassociates from his thoughts and feelings. He is a “good” child but grows up not knowing himself.
2. The Responsible Child grows up too fast, taking of the care of younger siblings, doing many jobs parents usually do. He is an over achiever. As an adult this person will continue to take care of others, but may also be controlling and bossy, trying to stay in control.
3. The Placater is very sensitive to the pain in the family, learns to worry about others and ignore his or her own pain. The placater avoids conflict; walks on egg shells, and always tries to please.
4. The Rebel or Scapegoat expresses anger early in life, is often in trouble and may begin drinking even before the teen years.
As an adult these roles help you avoid inner pain and give the illusion of control. Your chosen role helped you survive a chaotic and abusive childhood, but keeps you from forming warm, close relationships. Adult children of alcoholics are often isolated and afraid of people, especially authority figures. They lose their identity in trying to please others. They are very sensitive to anger and criticism.
Many adult children of alcoholics have low self-esteem and judge themselves harshly. They often have intense fears of abandonment. Adult children of alcoholics are at risk of either becoming alcoholic or marrying an alcoholic. They may have an addiction to work, sex, drugs or food or they may marry someone who does.
See a Counselor
Professional help can teach you about normal feelings and behavior. You had no model for this in the alcoholic family you lived in. Be sure to find a counselor with special training in treating alcoholism and codependence.
Join an Al-Anon Group
Joining an Adult Children of Alcoholic group (Al-Anon) is essential also. In a codependent group you will learn you are not alone and you are not to blame. You will learn that your anger, confusion and fear, are natural. You will experience safety in a group, perhaps for the first time. Most importantly, you will learn to turn to God (your “higher power”) for healing and forgiveness. A Christian group called Celebrate Recovery is similar.
“Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” Jeremiah NIV