I walked into my first Adult Children of Alcoholics Meeting (ACA) late—which is kind of ironic, given that I had been brought up to never be late. I spent the first 10 minutes of the meeting agitated about my lateness and what others would think of me. I think that’s all the confirmation I needed to know I was in the right place. Then I heard words spoken around the room that made the hairs on my arms stand on end. It was like I was in a room faced with 20 versions of myself.
Like my first AA meeting, while I wanted to run out of the room, something kept me rooted in my seat. I knew that I needed to be there—it was the next piece of the recovery puzzle.
Over the past five years of sobriety, my life has transformed; what was once a bare existence of working, using, and sickness, has become a life of my wildest dreams. I now live on the other side of the world, I have discovered talents that I didn’t even knew I had, and I have leveraged those talents to design a career most people dream of.
But, I was left with repetitive patterns of behavior in my life around relationships—particularly intimate relationships—that were destructive and harmful. I couldn’t understand how I had radically progressed from a life of nothing to a highly functioning life, yet still struggling in just this one area. Perhaps those most painful and traumatic area of all.
No amount of step work, or CBT, was touching the surface. I was struggling to cope and couldn’t understand why I acted like a five year old little girl in my relationships. She was frightened, terrified of rejection, needed constant validation, sought approval, was virtually incapable of asking for her needs to be met, and treated every parting of company like abandonment. I have spent my entire life reliving the abandonment of my father 34 years ago, in every relationship I had.
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It has been suggested to me to seek either family of origin therapy—referring to the place we learned how to communicate, how to process emotions, ask for our needs to be met, and form our beliefs and values—or go to ACA, over the course of my recovery. I occasionally looked at the ACA fellowship meetings list, but kept putting it on the back burner. I’ll deal with that later, I’m not ready. I’d say. Then life took off and I thought I didn’t need it.
Until the next relationship; which always served as a reminder of how much I actually did need it. Each relationship turned up the volume of that reminder. Until it became too loud for me to ignore it anymore.
Co-founder of ACA, Tony A, defines Adult Children as follows: ‘An Adult Child is someone who responds to adult situations with self-doubt, self-blame, or a sense of being wrong or inferior, all learned from stages of childhood.” He goes on to say that without dealing with this issues, “we unknowingly operate with ineffective thoughts and judgements as adults. The regression can be subtle, but it is there, sabotaging our decisions and relationships.”
You are an adult child if you have lived in a childhood where alcoholism, addiction, abuse, mental illness, or other types of dysfunction existed within your family setting.
At the beginning of the meeting, a list is read called The Laundry List—this is a list of traits or characteristics of what they refer to as Adult Children. This is what made me shudder with identification:
- We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.
- We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.
- We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
- We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our sick abandonment needs.
- We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.
- We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc.
- We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.
- We became addicted to excitement.
- We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”
- We have “stuffed” our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much (Denial).
- We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
- We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.
- Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and took on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.
- Para-alcoholics are reactors rather than actors.
Oh my god, that is me! I screamed to myself. It was the most definitive list of my personality that I had ever heard. While I could use those characteristics as a measure of areas where I had improved in my life in the process of recovery—no longer needing others approval, finding recovery, working on certain co-dependent behaviors—I saw the deep need to look at this fundamental aspect of my being as a whole.
It offered a new found perspective to my repetitive behaviors and angst. It was a similar realization that you have in addiction when you discover that recovery isn’t about stopping taking drugs, it is about learning what led you to take the drugs in the first place. The drugs, or the behavior in this instance, are just the symptoms of a greater problem. The root of my problem, was the dysfunction I had grown up in and I carried that child into adulthood.
Perhaps the greatest struggle of pursuing this program of recovery is that I no longer align myself with a 12 step modality at this stage of my addiction recovery. It seems at odds to me to get help for these issues in a 12 step fellowship when I have made a conscious decision to move away from it. Yet, like with the first few years of my recovery, I can put aside my issues with the 12 steps, and try not make judgments until I have experienced this path of recovery and all that it has to offer with an open mind.
I can see that there is hope. ACA offers a safe place that I can find freedom to express my greatest hurt, pain, and fears. A place to free myself from the shame and blame of the past. Somewhere I will learn to no longer imprisoned by the traumatized child within me. I will recover the child within me, re-parent myself, learning to love and accept myself in the process. I know that I can heal this aspect of myself.
I know that this is exactly where I need to be, as challenging as that may be, because I don’t want the past to hold me back—that is recovery.