Creative Arts with Patrick Moore


Shaming as a Tactic for Political Change?
August 24, 2016, 3:09 pm
Filed under: Literary Criticism, nature, Political Philosophy, Sociology

There is a new book that suggests shaming is a good way to hurry environmental changes. I want environmental changes as badly as anyone, but I think shaming people for the pollution they cause is likely to backfire. Is there a better way to help the world into better balance?

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a photo I shot in 2002 of a man pondering big questions..

 

My reading of the American founding documents leads me to urgently protect others’ rights to their views and voices. I consider this “tolerance” to be one of the primary values of being liberal, which I consider myself. I would be a hypocrite if I were to shame someone for speaking their views. It seems that we liberals do a lot of the shaming, as I will describe below. I apologize to all the people who have been shamed for speaking their views. You have a right to have different values and ideologies than mine, and to say what your values are without being bashed for speaking up. If I am a vegetarian, I protect your right to say what you believe about the merits of meat and the meat industry. For me to reply, “meat is murderer, so you are a murderer,” is not an exercise of my free speech, the way I read the founding fathers. Shaming is a method of suppressing others in speaking freely, in my opinion.

I am glad this is coming up now. I have been thinking about the irony of shaming ever since early last year when that book came out: Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool by Jennifer Jacquet.  http://smile.amazon.com/dp/B00N6PBETW   While I disagree with Jacquet’s recommendation of shaming as a tool for political change, I can’t argue that shaming works to make political gains, at least when you look in a short enough term, say, a decade or two. If you look ahead more decades, or centuries from the shaming event, you see backlash that in some cases is worse than the gains.

I would like to advance two ideas about shaming. 1) I think shaming is incongruent with liberal philosophy. Any movement that behaves incongruently with its own principles is bound to block the fulfillment of its aims. 2) Furthermore, being shamed is horrible! It borders on abuse. Shaming has awful side-effects! Being shamed is traumatic. Traumatized people are likely to act out in terrible ways, decades later.

New trends in the year and a half since the shame-promoting book came out, I believe, show some of this trauma coming to the surface, not just in America but worldwide. Three articles from the current issue of The American Interest show this. The first article by Jonathan Haidt tells how after Brexit, many countries are thinking it is more important to preserve what little securities we have here in our own nation, than to press into global issues and risk losing our little securities. Those who want to focus on the needs at home (nationalists) are then judged by globalists as small-minded. A later article by David Blankenhorn tells how Trump Supporters feel judged. Another article later by Henry Foy tells how some Polish people feel they are being shamed by “Bicyclists and Vegetarians” for maintaining their traditional views including one-man-one-woman marriage. I urge you to read these three excellent articles at: http://www.the-american-interest.com/back-issue-toc/?i=6205

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I offer a solution. Do not shame.

Less effective, you may argue? Perhaps in the short term. I believe in the long term, however, refraining from shaming will be more effective at fulfilling the aims not only of liberals but of all humans.

Below I first describe how shaming has been used to oppress the South for two hundred long years, then how shaming is currently being used deliberately, to battle the planet-murderers. Then I describe how the book To Kill a Mockingbird uses shame in a surprising way. While I am glad slavery was abolished, I don’t think the war between states has really come back to balance yet. While I want humans to stop polluting the earth, I predict a judgmental approach won’t succeed in the long term. While I am in favor of equal rights for all humans, I think uplifting one group by oppressing another will just have a see-saw effect with no lasting progress. Finally I offer what I think are better ways forward.

 

Shaming the Slave-Holding South in the 19th Century

Shaming has been going on in America for about two hundred years, I think. Before and during the War Between the States, abolitionists shamed slavery supporters, using namecalling, predictions of God’s judgment, threats of damnation, and other shaming tactics. Some reply, yes but it worked! Nobody doubts the public shaming humiliation did weigh on the side of Lincoln’s winning a second term and the North winning the war. Yes, slavery was abolished, which is a good thing. What was not yet a topic for public consideration at that time (that we now have the luxury to consider) is a new question:

Was there a way to get slavery abolished without oppressing a different population, ongoing?

The South went from pre-war abundance to post-war poverty. Some historians say the South has never yet bounced back from that blow. While I am glad slavery was abolished, I am sad that to accomplish this important gain, the North came to oppress the South morally and economically. How sadly ironic that, in attempting to free one group of oppressed, another group was oppressed. Later I will show how the shaming over slavery of the 19th Century continued into the 20th Century, over the civil rights movement. I will use the book and movie, To Kill a Mockingbird to show this.

 

Shaming in the Climate Change Debate

Those who see climate change as human-caused, tend to bash those who see climate change as natural fluctuations.

I love nature and I intend to make a difference to restore balance. But not by actions like shaming that cause more imbalance.

Since I love nature I do a lot of research and reading about how to change things for the better. Unfortunately most (or it seems all) the writing has adopted the language of war. It’s now a battle over the environment. Those who see climate change as natural fluctuations are now the enemy. If you were to do a wordlist of any environmental article or book you would get a high repetition of war terms. How can you wage a war for the goal of a peaceful state? That makes no sense to me.

Yesterday while reading State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? by The Worldwatch Institute  http://smile.amazon.com/dp/B00C4Y9AYM , I came across the word

ecocide. What is ecocide? Homicide is murder of a human. Genocide is murder of a whole race of humans. Genocide is considered horrific, a crime far more shameful than mere homicide. The word, genocide, is spoken now or written in a kind of shock-awe, because if the shame sticks to someone, the person is now a perpetrator of the worst imaginable crime and will be brought down, caused to fall from power, hung for war crimes or worse. So what is ecocide? It is the murder of an entire ecology–all humanity including all animals, all plants–everything in the ecosystem. If homicide holds shame, and genocide holds more shame, than how much shame comes with the term ecocide? If ever there was a loaded term…

I am a volunteer Friday Docent at a natural history museum. A docent interacts with people not as a teacher, telling them what is what, but as a facilitator, allowing the person to make his or her own discoveries. The museum’s mission is

“to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding…”

The mission statement was written in 1959. In 2015 the museum decided to take a stand on global warming. The museum now declares that climate change is human caused and not just a natural fluctuation. In particular the leadership at the museum would like us docents to promote energy that comes from other than fossil fuels.

I was inspired to volunteer at this particular organization because of its mission. I felt conflicted being asked to support a position that is generally considered to be liberal, when at least half of the visitors would be arriving with the opposite political position. Also, I don’t want to be “a liberal” when I’m at the museum. I just want to support people, without letting any of my ideologies slip out.

Does boycotting the fossil fuel industry match the museum’s mission statement? Mabye they overlap some percentage. Still, how can you get someone to harmonize with nature, while you are not harmonizing with that person?

I believe that climate change will come to balance faster and fuller by helping others to first feel inspired by nature, then to resonate naturally and feel love of nature. Once they are in this state, I trust them to come to their own conclusions. There is no need to tell people what to think, when they are already being natural.

Telling people what to think is always risky. Even if we tellers-of-facts are not being judgmental or shamey, I have seen too many people feel shame, when told their view is wrong. I am not willing to risk accidentally shaming someone by telling him or her that climate change is x y and z. I do wear a button that says, “Ask me about Climate Change,” as the museum’s leadership wishes. When people do ask, I ask them what they think. I support their thought processes. I connect with them person to person using the help of nature around us. I respond to the person in words, expressions, and energy so they feel competent, smart, reasonable, and capable of resonating with the natural world. Then I trust them to draw their own conclusions.

 

Shaming in the Civil-Rights Era

In the book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Atticus Finch first establishes himself as holding the moral high ground by saying often to his daughter, Scout, morality depends on seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Fantastic! Wonderful! He is like the previous century’s abolitionists, taking the moral high ground by stating all men are created equal. Atticus walks the talk: he demonstrates his empathy principle in a dozen ways throughout the book. Unfortunately there are at least two times he goes against his own principle, which undermines the books big message. Bob Ewell is a white, “uneducated” Southern man who accuses a black man of abusing his daughter. Atticus is the lawyer defending the black man. The author leads us to believe the black man is innocent and the drunk Bob Ewell abused his own daughter, then later accused the black man of doing it. Atticus calls Bob Ewell “trash,” and teaches shaming to his daughter (who is narrating):

Atticus tells Jem, “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance… (p. 221)

Now, trash is inanimate. Trash is not a person. This is something we have learned since the 60s, that when an oppressor wishes to abuse a person, the first thing he does is to label the person as a non-person, like, “He’s an animal. He’s a monster.” For a non-person has no rights, and you can do what you want to them. “Trash” is not a human being. In fact, trash isn’t even an animal or monster, which at least are living beings. Atticus is saying Ewell is not a person. Trash is only inanimate but that kind of inanimate objects that real people throw away. Not only average trash but “sickening” trash. Atticus is saying that Ewell deserves to be discarded and never seen again. Trash should be destroyed, like the rabid dog that Atticus shot earlier in the book. But trash is even less lovable than a poor afflicted dog. Atticus adds that Ewell is “low-grade.” Is Atticus following his own moral philosophy of seeing things from the other person’s perspective? In ten examples in the book, yes Atticus applied empathy, in two of those cases, Atticus applied the principle even to Ewell. But this time Atticus breaks his own rule.

To Kill a Mockingbird has one more example of Atticus shaming the Southern Man. Outside, after the court finds the black man guilty, the judge reaches to shake Atticus’ hand, but Atticus reaches past the judge to shake the hands of several black people. Why can’t he shake everyone’s hand, if equality is what we’re after? Apparently equality is not what Atticus was feeling in these two moments. Equality, yes–for the oppressed blacks. But for “ignorant” Southern whites–no.

Did the author intentionally write Atticus with these two incongruencies? Or was Harper Lee unaware of these tiny inconsistencies in Atticus’ moral philosophy? One may guess she did not see Atticus’ loathing Ewell as a flaw in his philosophy. Perhaps Lee also saw people like Ewell as “trash” and wished to publically humiliate those like him in the form of a best-selling book and movie. Apparently the author was reclusive and never said what she intended in her story. I don’t know that anyone ever asked her this question. I haven’t read any critiques of TKAM written prior to Lee’s death that have asked this question. Perhaps it would have been taboo to bring it up while she lived? On the other hand, we may ask,

Did Harper Lee intend that one day we would see the two incongruencies in Atticus Finch, an otherwise perfectly-moral man?

If Lee intentionally wrote Atticus this way, this would make it indeed great literature, the greatest. For who among us is perfect? Even Jesus threw tables around when he felt morally indignant. But if this was her intention (to show Atticus’ inconsistencies), nobody knew this during the civil-rights era.

The 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird had a huge influence on the civil rights movement. Gregory Peck’s performance showed disgust so convincing that any viewer comes away from the movie just as disgusted. The movie escalates the shaming of Bob Ewell so effectively, that it helped to change the State laws in the South and enforcement of Federal laws to make life safer for black people in the South. So again you could say, yes, shaming works. Shaming on the big screen works even better than shaming using a novel. But again I ask, at what cost? Was there a way to restore the naturally equal rights of one group of people in the 1960s without oppressing another group of people? Maybe again in the 1960s, we didn’t yet know enough to see that shaming is hypocritical to liberal aims and ineffective in the long run. There might have been another way, but the time was not yet right to implement it.

Speaking of Southern Man and Popular Culture, musician Neil Young sang a potent rock song called Southern Man in the 1970s that shamed the Bob-Ewell-type Southern Man. The band Lynrd Skynrd wrote a retaliatory rock song called Sweet Home Alabama. In the 70s I took sides with Neil, against Skynrd. Other rockers took sides too. I had never been to the South and had done no research other than Neil’s song, but the song seemed to be all I needed to take a stand. Maybe we didn’t know any better then. Who started it? You could say the Southern Man started it by treating the Black Man as a lesser-than person, or even a non-person. But how does it help for Neil Young to make the Southern Man into a lesser-than person or a non-person? From Lynrd Skynrd’s perspective it was Neil Young who started it…

 

Who’s Responsible?

Who is more accountable for the escalating tension, is an important question to ask. David Blankenhorn asks this question in his article Listening to Trump Voters in this month’s American Interest: http://www.the-american-interest.com/?post_type=post&p=141203  Blankenhorn asks the question with regard to Trump Supporters. If they feel traumatized by decades of having their ideology described in shameful terms like “racist,” with momentum on the side of accelerating liberal advances, who is to blame for their electing a liberal-slayer?

Let’s say… let’s guess that the answer to Blankenhorn’s question is, we liberals are at least partially accountable. Liberals have made huge advances for several decades since Reagan, sort of leaving conservatives behind in a lot of ways. And how do the victors treat the defeated? With more leverage, with more hateful terminology, with threats to completely dismantle everything they once held dear, their very identities. To force liberal ideologies into schools and courts, to change the very balance of the country for good. It must feel like being cornered, like facing extinction at the hands of gloating, condescending executioners who judge you without even understanding you.

What could we liberals have done differently? Or better, what can we do differently now? Because let’s say Trump doesn’t win the presidency, but all these people are still feeling traumatized, shamed, disgruntled, resentful. They feel like they don’t have a voice and when they do voice their opinions they are ridiculed. The answer is, don’t ridicule. Don’t shame. Listen. Hear. Value the person who has the opinion. Ask how they came to have that opinion. Be curious. Be nonjudmental. Let them have the moment to share what they think without thinking of winning the argument. It’s okay to have conversations that are just learning about another person without debating the competing views.

 

Take a Stand

I am not suggesting we rest on human rights. There is a huge difference between stopping something that goes against human rights, (or natural rights), which I advocate, and shaming the ones who had participated. Shaming is considered by many experts in family-and relationship-psychology to be a form of abuse. Some might say, even if shaming borders on abuse, it is far less abuse than what the others are doing. This may be accurate. But even as a less-intense form of abuse, I stand by the concept that shaming is a) mildly abusive and therefore incongruent with a philosophy of abuse-stopping, and b) while it may “work” in a decade, shaming has many unwanted consequences in following decades, that will in time outweigh the benefits–especially when other ways also “work,” ways that do not leave resentments or festering traumas.

What other ways? Something like the museum’s mission statement. Listening with curiosity. Listening–not just waiting until it’s my turn to say what I want, but really wanting to understand the other. What led to that view? Wow, my view is a lot different, I wonder how we got to have such differences? Nonjudgmentally. With compassion for the person as a person, not as a political party, class, age, region or other label. You get the idea.

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The Kind of Books We Avoid
August 3, 2016, 4:52 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, self-help, Spinoza

 

” You have to understand that your reactions to the normal events … will be colored by the unhappiness in your past.”

–Dr. Jim Mastrich, from his 1988 book, The ACOA’s Guide to Raising Healthy Children

This rather long blog post is sort of a book review. It’s also about why this book has gone out of print, and why our current culture is not so interested in reading books like this. I try to make the case that we really should be reading books like this, even if it is uncomfortable to learn certain things about ourselves…

Three years ago I was shocked to find a book that so accurately depicted me and my life. Picking up the one-cent used book for the first time, I noticed the back cover listed a handful of traits. As I read the traits, I was very surprised to find, most of them matched me. I felt a combination of disgust and fascination. The disgust was:

How dare they pigeonhole me! I am a unique individual, self-created. I am not a predictable pattern that can be listed in seven traits!

The fascination was,

How can an author who does not know me, describe me so well? How does she know my life experiences and thoughts? And if she does, why is nobody talking about this anymore?

I imagine most people experience this disgust. Or maybe we don’t, because we keep some distance with the kinds of books that might bring up this reaction.

Each of us believes:

  • I am my own person.
  • I am not molded by my parents.
  • I am not molded by schooling, media, peer pressure or the culture.
  • I made my own choices to become who I am.
  • My choices were made freely. I was not coerced.
  • I am above coercion. I am a free agent. I make my choices based on reasoning.
  • I am consistent in my reasoned choices.

We believe these things with fervor. Or, at least we dearly hope they are true. To the degree we doubt them, we double down and make ourselves believe them even harder! At least that is how I operate.

I recently re-read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. The characters in the novel sometimes do outlandish things. When asked why, they give justification. For example, the main character Richard breaks into his girlfriend Susan’s apartment to steal the tape from her answering machine. When asked why he risked his life climbing up the outside of a tall building, he said he didn’t want her to hear a phone message he had left for her. Richard believed he acted freely, with reasoned consistent rationality. But under scrutiny his justifications fell short. His behavior was disproportionate to the need. This word, disproportionate, shows up three times in the book. I wonder if Douglas Adams was describing through fiction, something he was struggling with in his real life?

One of my favorite books of all time is The Ethics by Benedict Spinoza, written in Holland in the 1600s. In his own life drama, Spinoza had loved a young lady, and she chose to marry Spinoza’s rival. He felt a lot of frustration, sadness and anger about that. Later, he found these emotions, and the thoughts and actions they trigger, were not improving the quality of his life and spirituality, but the opposite. His actions and thoughts were not his own. He was not self-created, but pushed and pulled by repeating the same thoughts about the betrayal of his feelings. He felt he was being led around by a nose-ring, like a bull. So he wrote about it, taught workshops and came up with this book, The Ethics. He discovered, then taught how to get to the bottom of his interpretations and judgments, like “betrayal,” and re-examine them with objective reason (for example, “she didn’t intend to do this to me personally”). Through this process he became “free,” or at least freer than he had been. Like Dr. Mastrich suggested in the quote above, Spinoza came to understand his reactions to normal life was colored by his earlier experiences. He didn’t want his perception always colored, (always the same color), but clear.

I don’t think many people today read Spinoza’s Ethics.  And I don’t think many people today are reading books about how our experiences with our parents long ago, color our daily experience now. I think we avoid these books for the same reason…

Our generation has thrown all this knowledge away. We feel so entitled, that now we are entitled to not be influenced by what our parents did with us. Also, we feel entitled to not be reminded of how life was with our parents. We feel entitled to be taken as we wish to present ourselves now. It is as if we choose a new set of clothes in the morning, and by this choice we erase our past. Now I am going to be a mature adult, we tell ourselves, as if this erases the influences of the past. I do this too. I go from short hair to long, for example, and then to short again, and long again, as if each time I am recreating myself as a new person. Who am I fooling?

So that’s the general situation of our culture, how and why we are not interested in books like Spinoza’s Ethics and The ACOA’s Guide to Raising Healthy Children — A Parenting Handbook for Adult Children of Alcoholics by Dr. Jim Mastrich with Bill Birnes, 1988.

Now I’d like to dive into a specific situation. Most of us had parents who either drank, or did other things that made them absent for gaps of time in our growing-up years. They might have been in the room with us, but they simply were not present. They were disconnected from us. We didn’t get the normal nurturing during these times. Once they got into this mood, they told us we were bad, that we would never amount to anything, or that we were going to hell. They said or implied they didn’t like us, didn’t want to be around us, that the things we did made us disgusting to them. We began to fear the worst: they might leave us for good. In fact they left regularly–if not physically leaving, they escaped in other ways. I imagine there are few adults today who got through childhood without this experience.

The first book I read on the subject was by Janet Woititz. The list she wrote on the back of her book, was what gave me the feeling of disgust and fascination. How could she know I am that way?

Back of ACOA

Why should we think about this? It’s icky to think about.

It is helpful because many of the thoughts we often have, many of the behaviors we often do, directly stem from this period. It’s not currently in fashion to admit this, but much of our “identity” is not even ourselves. I would say 40% of my current identity is (unfortunately) similar to one or both of my parents. I would say another 40% of my current identity is my attempts to be the opposite of how my parents were. That means 80% of my current thoughts and behavior are not even me! By trying to be the opposite of my parents, they are still in control of who I am! I am only in charge of about 20% of my current thoughts and actions, in my estimate. I am 53 and still not done with my mommy daddy issues. It sounds embarrassing when I say it that way. The good news is, that percentage gets higher every year. I am on schedule for an on-time arrival at the real me, giving me time to enjoy the life that was given to me, in the ways that are uniquely me.

Here are some of the things on my to-do list that help me move toward that goal. Here is a list of some of the traits I got from living with parents who intermittently disconnected, escaped, threatened me, judged me and the rest:

  1. A longing for honesty but in reality avoiding hearing honest feedback about myself and difficulty giving honest feedback to others. I react dramatically when someone has lied. I vacillate between the wish to expose liars, and the wish to protect them from exposure. I sometimes give information that is not accurate, thinking that I am protecting myself and others.
  2. A conflicted relationship with “reality.” I long to know the secrets of the universe and how the world works and how people operate, including myself. But I also fear what this knowledge will show. I don’t want to do much “reality testing” for fear of, what if I come up short? What if someone I care for, comes up short? What if the life I am leading comes up short? I was told I was no good, that I am ruined or spoiled, that I am selfish, that I am judged and going to hell, and I still fear its true. So I must be careful in dealing with the “real world.” I isolate. I protect myself. I tamper with evidence, like a trial lawyer, spinning it to show what I need for it to show. My approach to reality is, I will look at it only if I can be certain I can live with what I see. This approach certainly clouds my vision and perception. I need to work on this.
  3. I always second-guess myself. Before allowing my first guess to go into action, I need to assess the implications. Will I be judged by others? Will I judge myself? Will my self-esteem be harmed? So I make a second guess based on what I think will be safer. Then, part of me knows I sift evidence (the previous thing in this list) and compromise evidence. That part of me doubts I really know anything. That part of me knows I don’t have a clear view of reality, I don’t perceive accurately. That part of me doubts my first guesses and my second guesses. So I make a third-guess. Then the guesses cycle through again. This is exhausting. I feel tired a lot. I don’t feel like I have enough energy to move forward on a lot of projects I’d like to do.
  4. Everywhere I look, everyone I see looks like a self-centered, unethical, scamming, advantage-taking, lazy escapist.

Besides the six that Janet Woititz listed in her book, here are a few more traits of inconsistently parented adults that Dr. Jim Mastrich adds in his book:

  1. Disappointment is the norm. A diminished passion for life, dimmed happiness, pessimism about the future.
  2. Reversed child/parent relationships (the child controls the family, the parent longs for the child’s approval).
  3. Frustration is the norm.
  4. Lack of knowledge how a person is supposed to act (because your role models did not model natural responsibility).
  5. Fear of the outside world.
  6. Distrust of authorities and institutions.

Whew!

I think looking at these things helps. I was talking with someone who feels he can’t finish projects. I mentioned that was something on the list of ACOA traits. If your parents never sat down with you to see how you plan a project, never supported you to go through all the steps, supported you to complete it, then you never would have gained this skill. It’s not a character flaw in you, its a result of having absent parents who were too focused on their own life quality to help you with yours. While this was a sad thing for him to hear, he feels better about this tendency of his to not finish projects. It no longer bothers him as if it weighs against his being judged a quality person.

Of the books on ACOA out there, I recommend the one by Jim Mastrich. It appears to be out of print so I may give you the sample below. Its not that I am trying to benefit from showing you someone else’s copyrighted text. Its more like the amount you would get in a Kindle sample, so you can decide if you want to buy the book. Do buy the book! While you are at amazon, click on the button that says, “I’d like to see this book as a Kindle eBook.” This will help them put the book back into print so the author can get some more money for it. The fact is, nobody is writing about this anymore. It still needs to be discussed! Our generation ignores these issues at our peril, as they say…

Link to buy the book: http://smile.amazon.com/dp/0020405812

Yes, this book is about parenting. If you are not going to be doing any parenting, I still recommend you buy the book. By reading how it is for the parent, you get a better understanding of how your parents parented you!

This book is also available on CD. (I got my copy from the library). It is read by George Guidall, a great reader. Here is a link to the CD (even though it is currently unavailable): http://smile.amazon.com/dp/0788703021

 

The ACOA’s Guide to Raising Healthy Children

A PARENTING HANDBOOK FOR ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS

Dr. Jim Mastrich with

Bill Birnes

1988

Preface: The Big Zero

Several years ago I began noticing an interesting pattern in the stories that my clients at the Community Mental Health Center at Rutgers Medical School were telling me. As a psychologist, family therapist, and substance-abuse specialist, I spoke to many clients who came in for all sorts of reasons: chronic depression, marital discord, parenting difficulties, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with their career choices. Very rarely did any of them voluntarily identify themselves as having alcoholic parents. Many still were not even aware that their parents were alcoholics. Yet, over the course of getting to know them, I realized that over 60 to 70 percent of my clients were adult children of alcoholics. Most came for counseling, assuming that their current problems had no connection with their past. And most were not ready to admit that they came from alcoholic families.

With the discovery that their past had been compromised by the physical and emotional abuse that oftentimes takes place in alcoholic families and the realization that many of the conflicts they faced in the present were the result of their experiences in alcoholic families, many of my adult children of alcoholic clients came to new realizations. Most ultimately realized that they were not only the victims of abusive parents but also the victims of an extended campaign to deny the truth, to hide it not only from the outside world but also from the children in the family. When we shared our feelings about the implications of this discovery during therapy sessions, most of my clients were able to realize, of course, that nothing was wrong with them; they had lived under “the big lie” for twenty, thirty, sometimes even forty years. As a result many had developed a personal view of the world that was particular to their own situation. Having grown up in an environment of distorted reality, they had developed equally distorted views of the world around them. Now, however, as adults and parents, they had to adjust their perceptions to a world interpreted by people who had not grown up in alcoholic or dysfunctional families. And this was one of the major sources of conflict.

I began conducting an informal survey among my clients who were adult children of alcoholics and found that the overwhelming majority of them-men and women alike were prototypical survivors: assertive, strong-willed, self-reliant, success-oriented, focused, and intense. Many were classic Type A personalities who were more unforgiving of their own shortcomings and mistakes than those of others. If left undisturbed by the turbulence caused by intimate relationships and child rearing, most of my clients would have pushed forward into their middle years, chalking up success after success, packaging the fears and nightmares of their childhood into smaller and smaller boxes in the most remote corners of their consciousness.

However, in my survey I found that the singular most sensitive trigger in the lives of almost all of my clients was raising children or the prospect thereof. Taken as a matter of course by most non-ACOAs, fsr ACOAs raising children threatens to raise the specter of their deepest fears of insecurity, worthlessness, and abandonment. As a biological imperative, most physiological and many psychological aspects of children’s lives are prepackaged almost from the moment of conception and are beyond their parents’ control. I found that those ACOAs who had tucked away their memories of childhood into neatly wrapped parcels were most afraid that their own children not only would open the parcels but, in malicious abandonment, would spread the contents all over the living room floor for all the world to see. Those ACOAs eventually found out, as you will too, that this is not going to be the case.

It was obvious to me, however, that whether perceived or real my clients’ fears about children or even having children were seriously disrupting their lives and threatening to destroy their relationships with their spouses or lovers. The more we explored these problems, the more we kept confronting one simple, basic truth: most of my ACOA clients had never experienced normal childhoods. Purely. and simply, they did not know how a normal, functional child *as supposed to grow up. Many of my clients watched “The Cosby Show” or “Family Ties” on television and reported that it was like watching life on another planet. It all boiled down to one question: What goes on in a normal family?

Had most of my clients been able to experience functional family lives, they would not have looked upon the prospect of raising children with such trepidation. Without the benefit of memories of a normal childhood, -y clients had no basis for understanding how children should be cared for, how they should be nurtured, how they should be raised, what parents were supposed to do, and what parents’ expectations of children should be. As one of my clients expressed it, her childhood was “a big zero, a giant black hole that sucked everything in.” She complained that she could not pull a memory out even if she wanted to. So, she asked, how was she supposed to figure out what to do with her own children?

All of this told me that if ACOAs who were parents or thinking about it had a map of the terrain of raising children, a road map that would tell them which way to go, with a compass always pointing to normal, then they could find their own way without needing to serve eighteen years in a normal family setting. They would have greater confidence as parents. They might not have to ferret out their worst memories of parental mistrust just to keep their own eighteen-month-old from sticking a fork in the wall socket.

Many of my clients came into therapy sessions fully armed with baby- and child-care books, but, they explained, it was like reading a foreign language. Because most of them did not share the same basic assumptions as the authors-the world is healthy, the world is full of trust, your parents loved you, so you can love your baby-my ACOA clients were lost. What if your parents did not love you? some asked. What if you could not even remember most of what your parents said and did? Without those memories, without those assumptions, much of the standard advice in child-care books simply fell on uncomprehending ears. It was not the reader’s fault that the author was not speaking the same language.

Therefore, I decided to write a book for adult children of alcoholics about how to raise healthy children when you did not come from a healthy family yourself. My clients told me that if they could have a manual or reference guide that spoke directly to them about what they were supposed to feel, they would at least have a set of instructions to help them. No book could replace the warm feelings that being raised in a loving family environment can create, but it might help readers provide that kind of environment for their own children.

Actually, I wrote this book with as well as for my clients. You will hear their own stories, experience their memories, and work with them to solve their problems. Most of all, you will see how you yourself can raise your own child to be healthy and happy even if you were not raised that way by your parents. I. have changed names, of course, as well as details here and there, to protect confidentiality, but all the stories are true.

The book is organized chronologically like a standard child-care guide, from birth through adolescence to adulthood. However, I have included chapters early on for ACOAs who are new to parenting, then later chapters on talking about alcoholism and substance abuse with a child or teenager, alcoholism in your child, the empty-nest syndrome, dealing with an aged or infirmed alcoholic parent, and grandparenting your child’s child, especially when alcoholism or substance abuse appears in the family. These are topics most of my ACOA clients wanted to see included in a book because they can be found nowhere else addressed to the needs of ACOAs.

I would like to start all of my readers off on the same foot. I realize that most of you understand what it means to be an ACOA and have come to grips with some of the feelings surrounding your childhood and early family life. This book is not a primer for ACOAs, it is about raising healthy children. However, if we can agree on some of the shared goals that most ACOAs adopt when they consider having children and then understand what alcoholism is, we can all move forward at our own pace, at least we will be speaking mutually intelligible dialects.

Goals

  1. Rewrite the script. Most ACOAs I speak to want to rewrite the script so that they do not carry the dysfunctions of their families of origin into their children’s generation. They want to rewrite their personal scripts and the scripts of the family so that their children and grandchildren do not become alcoholics and can live without the fears and insecurities that plagued the lives of the ACOAs who are their parents.
  2. Break the cycle. Of utmost importance to most ACOAs is breaking the cycle of alcoholism. The behavior that resulted in alcohol abuse or drug abuse is oftentimes carried from one generation to the next. Physical infirmities, the nature of the disease of alcoholism, and genetic predisposition toward substance abuse must be fully understood and appreciated by children so that they do not trick themselves into “just one drink” or “just one puff.”
  3. Eliminate denial behavior. Most ACOAs report that one of the most troubling aspects of their families of origin was denial behavior, pretending that something that was apparent was not really there. “Dad’s just sick, he’s not drunk”; “Mom’s having ‘girl’ problems today”; or “Outsiders don’t understand.” By denying the truth in their families, ACOAs can become very sensitized to the truth and the absence of truth. They can be vulnerable to and victims of the social games and nuances, many of which involve a level of dissembling or downright dishonesty, that weave the pattern of everyday dis course at work and at home. Denial can become a cancer in families and relationships, and understanding what denial is should be a goal not only for ACOAs but for all people who have grown up in dysfunctional families.
  4. Our children are not ourselves. Children should be allowed to live out their own lives and write their own scripts. Our job as parents is to do our best to raise healthy, happy, honest, positive, independent, and productive children. They should not be forced to live out their parents’ lives or their parents’ deepest emotional aspirations. Children are not the material to repair the damage in the ACOA’s own childhood. Do not use your child; raise your child. If you have nagging problems that still reach into your present family from your own family background, you should consider working with a mental health professional who is a specialist in working with ACOA-related issues. Do not force your children to solve the problems for you or to live in such a way that your problems are solved vicariously. Let your children be children.

Origins and Types of Alcoholism

You probably already know that alcohol is one of the oldest mood-altering substances known to man and that alcoholism has been a problem since the dawn of recorded history. In virtually every society alcoholic beverages are produced from such raw materials as grains, fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and they are consumed for many reasons, ceremonial and otherwise.

Alcohol works in your body chemically by depressing your central nervous system, although depending upon the damage, social setting, expectations of the individual, and phase of the drinking cycle, there are a variety of seemingly contradictory physiological effects. Alcohol may depress, stimulate, tranquilize, or agitate; it may release one drinker’s inhibitions while sedating another’s. Some people become mellow, others bellicose and even pugnacious. In almost all drinkers there are some mood swings, impairment of judgment, and impairment of perception and muscular coordination. The greater the amount of alcohol, the greater the impairment. Too much alcohol will inevitably induce stupor. A repeatedly high intake of alcohol inevitably produces some degree of permanent brain and neurological damage, deterioration of the kidneys and liver, ulcerations of the intestinal and stomach lining, and may ultimately result in muscular paralysis, coma, and death.

Alcohol is also classified as a toxin. For chemically sensitive or genetically predisposed individuals-and you or your child may fall into this category-alcohol can be a deadly poison. For such an individual, one drink is all it takes to trigger a chemical mechanism that can make that person profoundly sick. If you have an allergy to alcohol or a serious physiological reaction to the substance, avoid drinking at all costs. If you are an ACOA, you should avoid drinking as a rule because you may have a latent allergic predisposition that can be triggered at any time. You may not be allergic at all, but you are playing Russian roulette with your metabolism. I ask my clients who are ACOAs to follow a simple rule: Don’t drink!

All ACOAs should understand that alcoholism is recognized as a disease by both the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization. The disease may be manifested differently according to the individual, but it is nevertheless a disease that can reach through two or three generations and snatch the unsuspecting descendant. It should be no surprise to you that many ACOAs have struggled with alcoholism themselves.

Despite the common stereotype of the Bowery drunk, only about 5 percent of all alcoholics are skid-row types. The vast majority are employed, married, and hold positions of responsibility in their communities. Alcoholism is often masked behind likable, even affable people with good jobs, seemingly stable family relationships, and pleasant demeanors. Alcoholism recognizes no racial or social barriers and cuts across all economic classes. Succinctly stated, alcoholism is a physical or psychological dependence or involvement with alcohol to the point of its interfering with the individual’s adequate functioning…

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ACOA Parents in Crisis

Susan’s son flinched instinctively. He drew back from the refrigerator as if he’d received an electric shock. The moment he caught his mother’s angry glare out of the corner of his eye he knew he was in trouble. “I didn’t hit him. I didn’t have to. He was already afraid and beat his retreat through the living room without even looking back.” Susan followed him through the living room, preparing to unleash the verbal barrage that had welled up in her from the moment she heard his footsteps coming down the first-floor landing. Yet angry as she was at her son, she felt a tremendous surge of guilt-and then anger at herself. Finally, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of remorse. By the time she confronted her ten-year-old son in his room, she was so disconcerted by her own conflicting emotions that what she told him made as little sense to her as it did to him. “I knew all the time that I was completely out of control, but there was nothing I could do about it. I only prayed that I wouldn’t hurt him.”

Many months later, Susan still couldn’t explain the anger she felt toward her son. She knew that she was overreacting. “I have a hair-trigger temper that makes me lash out at him for even the most minor infractions of rules I set.” In therapy she explained that when she was most out of control, she could see herself only as a little girl who had failed yet again to please her father. And she was angry at her failure, full of a child’s rage that respected no boundaries. Susan complained that she did not know how to discipline her son:

“I don’t know. Whatever other parents understand about the balance between correcting a kid’s behavior and allowing him the freedom to explore completely eludes me. When he disobeys, I can only perceive it as his disapproval of me as a parent. It’s like he’s saying, ‘You fail!'”

She took his natural assertion of his own will-what every parent ultimately wants his or her child to achieve-as a fundamental personal challenge. And she responded as if she had to prove her power as a parent over and over again. Her child’s willfulness touched strings in her that resonated deep into her past and kept her from dealing with the reassuring logic of the present.

This was a far cry from the successes that highlighted the rest of her life. Susan was a special education teacher who had won praise from her department head and the school principal. She was an overachiever, a statuesque “all-American beauty” who seemed reassuringly calm and competent in the face of any challenge. She was a perfectionist in her professional life as well as at home.

Susan had married a man who was also confident of his own abilities and of Susan’s. He depended on her to work around the house with the same level of commitment that she gave to her elementary school students. He, too, worked around the house, and planned to teach their two boys to be as handy with tools as he was. Yet for all his self-confidence, he was unresponsive. Assuming that Susan was as capable of handling her own problems as she was of handling the problems of others, he did not support her in what he considered “domestic” chores. Nor did he initiate conversations on his own. She was forced to prod him for attention or throw a temper tantrum when she felt she could no longer cope. Consequently, Susan was left to solve her problems on her own in the solitude of the night after the rest of the family had gone to bed. And as the tensions in the family grew, Susan’s tantrums became more frequent and pushed their relationship closer and closer to the edge.

By the time Susan entered therapy, she was in crisis. Her realization that she was losing control was not the result of any identifiable single event; rather, it had developed gradually from a long series of minor events that had stretched her coping abilities beyond their resiliency. As hard as she worked to maintain an outward semblance of normalcy, the energy required to cope with new circumstances demanded she work even harder. Eventually, her hair-trigger temper began to make her fear her own capacity for violence:

“When I’m mad I just get confused. I don’t know what normal anger is. When I get mad I don’t stop. It seems to all pour out or be forcing itself to the surface. I know this isn’t right, but I can’t help feeling it.”

Susan found that she was replicating the behavior of her alcoholic father. His violent temper and his inability to cope with the slightest of obstacles were always directed at his children. Even though Susan was not herself an alcoholic, she nevertheless was living out a script written for her years before when she grew up as one of seven children in a dysfunctional alcoholic family. As she grew up, the survival mechanism that she had developed in her family helped her become an overachiever. She overcompensated for her father’s weakness by becoming strong. And she was able to succeed because she had a rigid determination driven by the image of her father chastising her throughout her childhood.

When she married, however, Susan found she had to work harder. She relied on her husband for support, and in the early years of marriage the support was always there. But when she became a parent, dormant memories of her own childhood began to surface and dictate her responses to her husband and sons. She panicked as she realized she did not know how to parent. No one had taught her. She had not grown up in a functional family and therefore had not seen how normal parents played out their roles. For the very first time in her adult life, Susan found herself alone and frightened that she could not do the job. Her response was to become a rigid disciplinarian just as her father had been. And the more her husband failed to support her in this role, the more she turned on him, as if he, like her two boys, were baiting her and threatening to expose the deep secrets of her past. Her family had become the “them” she had envied throughout her life, the normal people who navigated through life’s obstacles with an insouciance that defies an reason. And now she, even within the confines of her own home, was standing alone against the enemy.

Bill’s own personal crisis was less dramatic than Susan’s, but it was no less poignant. It came later in his life-in his forties-as he watched his fifteen-year-old daughter glide into her first significant relationship with an older boy. He had watched from a distance for years as Kristin matured, guided through her adolescence by her mother, whom she seemed to emulate in every way. She was reserved, ?r unlikely quality for a teenager, studious, and a varsity athlete in two sports. To the world of her peers and teachers, Bill’s daughter was a tribute to the strength of his marriage, a child that any parent would have been proud to have raised. yet to Bill, there was a disquieting undertone to all of this.

Unlike most of the children in her age group, Kristin showed no signs of rebellion or true expressions of joy. Her ebullience at winning a field hockey game or an event at a swim meet was always paced according to the emotions of her teammates. she was happy at being on the honor roll, but that was enough. There was no drive to be first in her class or even to slack off and be “bad” as many of the other girls in her honors classes had done from time to time. Kristin was a follower, a loyal assistant manager who carried out her instructions with diligence and dedication, but stopped the moment she had fulfilled her responsibility.

Now, in her relationship with her boyfriend, Kristin was again a loyal follower. She was displaying attributes that reminded Bill all too painfully of his own disdain for sticking his neck out:

“We were becoming exactly alike. we both had this uncanny ability that I learned as a child to adopt the camouflage of my surroundings. It wasn’t the worst attribute in the world; in fact it got me through some pretty difficult times when I was growing up. But over the years I came to hate it about myself because it seemed sneaky and weak.”

As a child, Bill had learned to adapt to whatever changing situation overtook his family. He had learned to agree with those around him, even when he knew they were wrong. He had accepted every lie his mother told him about his father’s problems, learning to ignore the obvious.

“She would always say, “Your father is sick again,” or “I just don’t know what to do about your father’s illness. Lord knows, I’ve been to doctor after doctor, but none of them can help. We’ll just have to live with the problem ourselves.” Time and again she would say, “You’re such a helpful little boy,” as if I really had a choice. Other fathers would go to picnics, play in school softball games, drive a group of us home on a Saturday afternoon. But my dad was always sick. There were times when he would just sleep on the couch for hours, so that if my friends wanted to come over, they couldn’t. “People wouldn’t understand,” my mother would say. And I went along. I went along with everything. I didn’t really buy her story. I just didn’t argue. You couldn’t argue with her because she kept on saying the same thing over and over again as if she didn’t hear what you said. I learned that you get along by going along. That’s the way I’ve lived my whole life. And now I’m forty and my daughter will grow up to be just like me.

The only thing is that sometimes I get so mad, I don’t know where to put my anger. I learned long ago never to hit out at anyone, so I never fight. But still I get mad when I acquiesce to something I don’t want to do, and it happens much more now than it used to. There are times when I feel like I’m chewing myself up from the inside out. And I don’t even drink.”

Bill found that in the process of learning to accept whatever his mother told him as the truth, he had become just like one of the courtiers in the tale of The Emperor’ s New Clothes. Now , he sadly realized, his daughter had learned the trait from him. He wondered whether the same anger that knotted up his stomach at nights burned within his daughter as well, but he was too frightened at first even to involve her in his therapy program.

Children of Alcoholics as Adults and Parents

Susan and Bill were both adult children of alcoholics who faced crises in their relationships with their own children. Even though they had come to accept their parents’ problems with alcohol abuse, they were not prepared for the problems they faced as parents. This, unfortunately, is an all too common occurrence in the life patterns of adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) who marry and raise families of their own. As mental health professionals trained in the treatment of addiction have come to find out, alcohol abuse not only affects the parent who drinks but can affect his or her children and grandchildren as well.

For Susan and Bill and the hundreds of thousands of ACOAs like you who have grown up in families affected by the presence of alcoholism, the scars left by alcoholic parents run very deep. Parental dependence on alcohol creates an unhealthy family environment characterized by:

  1. Psychological and even physical abuse;
  2. Forced denial of reality, creating self-doubt in children’s minds;
  3. Loss of childhood happiness;
  4. Contorted or reversed child/parent relationships;
  5. inconsistent or fluctuating child/parent relationships;
  6. Extreme childhood frustration and anxiety;
  7. A profound sense of disappointment on the part of the children;
  8. Lack of role models;
  9. Fear of the outside world;
  10. Distrust of authorities and institutions.

Given these circumstances of the prototypical ACOA’s upbringing, it would be virtually impossible for the ACOA not to become a fearful parent. This is a fact that most adult children of alcoholics fail to realize until after they have had children and discovered that their parent/child relationships are crippled by the past. Sometimes, the damage to the ACOA parents can be so pervasive that its effects can reach forward in time through their children into the next generation of family members.

Therefore, ACOAs like you who are parents or who are considering the prospect of starting a family must learn how to raise children within the context of your own background. You have to understand that your reactions to the normal events of child raising will be colored by the unhappiness in your past. You may overreact to your children’s problems. You may be a rigid disciplinarian. You may find yourself engaging in abusive behavior patterns. Or you. may be so bound by memories of growing up in a dysfunctional alcoholic family that you find yourself incapable of dealing with your children’s legitimate problems. In short, you must learn how to be a normal parent who relates to his or her children and to other parents in the community. And that is the purpose of this book: to teach you and other adult children of alcoholics how to raise healthy children who will not be burdened by the guilt, anger, and fears from your past.

The Personality Conflicts of ACOAs as Parents

The very conflicts that troubled you as a young child growing up in a dysfunctional family don’t simply vanish when you become an adult. The coping mechanisms that you used to deal with the outside, or normal, world still operate as you navigate through school, college, the business world, and into relationships. The ACOA makes deals with the past, learns to forget or screen out the most painful moments of growing up, and adopts a veneer of positive dynamism toward solving life’s challenges. However, because the overwhelming majority of parents see little versions of themselves and their parents in their children, the child of an ACOA can trigger an emotional time bomb by bringing back to the surface those same fears and conflicts that had become manageable over the years. Thus, parenting can too often become an elephant trap, a pit of unresolvable conflicts into which the otherwise successful ACOA can tumble just because he or she does not know that being an ACOA parent should involve ongoing processes of. self-discovery as well as healthy child raising.

As you, as an ACOA, examine the emotional conflicts that you confront in your relationships with your children, you will realize that the problems began long before you became a parent. They began in the early years of your own childhood when you internalized certain axioms endemic to alcoholic families. These axioms, unless consciously rejected, will always remain and define the relationships you develop with your children, spouse, and grandchildren.

Damaged Goods

Most ACOAs consider themselves to be “damaged goods.” This is not surprising because the very fact of growing up in a dysfunctional family can result in severe emotional and often physical damage. If you are an ACOA and feel as if you are somehow unworthy because you are damaged, you are not alone. Moreover, your fears and feelings about the outside world are quite normal considering your childhood.

You can break this cycle of inferiority by recognizing your childhood for what it was. Your feelings of inferiority are as much a part of you as anything else. You can go forward by accepting them as part of you and acknowledging that they were created by your own childhood family situation. You can change how you feel by first becoming aware of what you feel, understanding why you feel that way, and deciphering the messages the child in you tells your present-day adult self. This is not as easy as it sounds. I have observed that for most ACOAs, accepting oneself and the difficulties of one’s past is one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish. However, once it is accomplished, many other obstacles on the road to dealing with one’s own children are easier to surmount.

Personal Forgiveness

Most ACOAs find child raising especially difficult because they are constantly blaming themselves for the “sins” of their parents they have visited upon their children. ACOAs are in the middle. When Susan lashes out at her son, Bobby, for his real or perceived mischievousness, she is actually striking back at the years of pent-up anger she feels toward herself for failing her father. She has not learned to forgive herself, and, hence, is unable to forgive anyone around her. Because her son is the most immediate object in her environment, he receives the brunt of her anger.

If you are an ACOA, you must understand that how you were raised and how you have to come to see yourself are not your fault. They are merely the hand of cards you were dealt. Yet many ACOAs blame and continue to punish themselves as if they, and not the situation, are the cause of the problem. When ACOAs raise their own families, they oftentimes inadvertently attend to the needs of their spouse and their child at the expense of their own. Thus, when their needs are not met, they are prone to carry blame and resentment into this new family.

If you find yourself falling into this pattern, try to accept that the anger is not your fault. You have the right to be angry just as anyone else would in your situation. It is your responsibility, however, to take control of your life. Doing this means that you will be able to establish meaningful relationships with other family members and structure a healthy and functional home environment. This need to accept responsibility is particularly important for ACOAs considering having children, because the sooner you come to terms with your past, the better able you will be to cope with the normal and predictable strains of parenthood. Indeed, your honest awareness of your emotions, thoughts, and personal beliefs is your greatest asset in breaking the negative cycle.

A Pervading Sense of Fear

Adult children of alcoholics in all walks of life often speak of having a generalized sense of fear that accompanies all of their activities. For ACOAs who are parents, this fear penetrates the family unit arid colors the relationships they have with their children. ACOA parents can easily transmit this fear to their children, as Susan has done in her relationship with Bobby, and cause them to be afraid and insecure. Sometimes this sense of fear leads the ACOA parent to become hypervigilant, ever scanning the horizon for the next impending disaster. Consequently, ACOA parents are uncertain of their ability to provide a-safe for their families. Even though the ACOA parents are no longer children themselves and not subject to the unpredictabilities of life in a dysfunctional family, they still feel vulnerable because of their experiences and carry this vulnerability into their own families.

The most striking characteristic of this fear is the apprehension and distrust of the feeling itself. In other words, ACOAs can be afraid of being afraid. They are afraid of situations that have caused them to be fearful in the past and they are afraid of relationships that remind them of the fears they experienced as children. But because most children learn to deal with fear, ACOAs learned as children to cut off the fear and deny the apprehension. This often has very devastating side effects because emotions are much like the opposite ends of a pendulum. Cutting off fear and sorrow on one side often means cutting off joy and exhilaration on the other so as to balance the emotional load. In this way, many ACOAs deaden themselves to emotions in general by the time they have reached early adolescence.

This was part of Bill’s problem and the personality characteristics he exemplified to his daughter. By trying to cut off all his emotions and simply accept whatever his mother told him, he managed to alleviate the most crippling effects of pervasive fear, but only at the cost of amputating part of his emotional response to perfectly normal stimulation. As a result, by the time he had reached middle age and looked forward to enjoying the success his daughter was about to have, he found himself fearing that she, like he, was trapped within an emotional “dead zone.” At the end of a full circle, Bill realized that he had his appointment with fear after all, only this time it was a fear for his daughter’s future.

Like many ACOAs, Bill expended tremendous amounts of energy suppressing his intense feelings because he was afraid of them. He most feared the anger that he felt for his parents. Again, this is natural. Most children fear the anger they feel toward their parents. But because in normal circumstances their anger is also reasonably mitigated by childhood happiness, children learn to socialize anger, to control it, and to channel it into acceptable modes of expression. Children in ACOA alcoholic families rarely learn to channel their anger. There[ ore, because they can’t manage it effectively, they are afraid of it controlling them and consequently grow up to fear it.

Nowhere is the fear of rage more evident than in an ACOA parent’s attempt to deal with his or her own children. The fear of overreacting to the specific situation or the terror of misplacing anger can be so great that many ACOA parents simply do not react until they have already lost control and lashed out at the most minor of provocations. This causes some children of ACOA parents to become very shy and tentative when faced with new situations. It can also result in spoiling a child-when ACOA parents are afraid of disciplining, children can learn to take advantage of their parents’ conflicts at a very early age.

The ACOA’s fear of feelings is really a paradoxical problem. On the one hand, ACOAs fear what they might be compelled to do if they revealed their true feelings, yet they are also afraid of what others might do to them. The adult child of an alcoholic flips back and forth between the fear of being abandoned and the fear of being engulfed by someone else. The deep longing to be connected with another person is fueled by an apprehension of being left alone. Thus, there is always a concurrent worry about being swallowed up by a spouse or sexual partner. In an ACOA’s family, this fear creates a tension between the parents that makes the children feel insecure. The child of an ACOA often feels as if his or her parents are always pulling in two different directions or that the family home is not as secure as those of other families. In other words, the very fears that disrupted the ACOA’s home life during childhood often reemerge in the ACOA’s life after he or she has become a parent and disrupt the lives of his or her children.

Perpetual Guilt

During the course of my clinical practice, only on rare occasions have I encountered a child who was raised in an alcoholic family who did not feel guilt, and plenty of it. Guilt is a tremendous burden, and ACOAs live and breathe it every day of their lives and long after they leave their alcoholic parents. Guilt is often accompanied by intense feelings of shame. Children of alcoholics are embarrassed by the behavior of their parents and at the same time feel responsible for it. The responsibility they shoulder is unfair and unhealthy, it is also unjustified, but it is a fact that the ACOA must accept before he or she can go forward. Susan, for example, felt that she was the cause of her father’s drinking problem:

“Whenever he was disappointed or angry, I knew I was the cause of that, too. Even as a mother of my own two boys, I know better than to feel blame for his death. I know |m crazy to feel guilty about it, but I blame myself every day for what happened to my father. I might have just as well pulled the trigger, because that’s how I feel.”

The guilt that Susan feels is directly connected to an exaggerated sense of responsibility. It is a manifestation of a perceived need to exert control in an attempt to cope with the fear that dominates the life of an ACOA. This scenario creates a myth in the mind of a young child of an alcoholic (COA) that he or she is omnipotent. In alcoholic families, the child’s omnipotence in the face of situations he or she can’t possibly control gives rise to an unrealistic notion that he or she has the power to fix the problems of the family, but has failed at the job. If only Susan could have helped out around the house more or had loved her father more, then everything would have been all right in the family. And now that she is a mother she can tap into that same guilt when dealing with her own two boys. It makes her angry, therefore, when her omnipotence fails. Her son has made her look bad; he has pointed out another one of her glaring weaknesses as a human being. Because he disobeys, he shows the world that Susan is flawed. Thus she feels like lashing out at him for almost the slightest infractions to keep the world from finding out that she is a failed child of an alcoholic and a failed mother.

Pat, whose alcoholic father continually abused her physically and sexually when she was growing up, feels ultimately responsible for the shame and anger she carries with her:

“I would greet my father at the door every night thinking I could calm him down or make him happy. sometimes I think that I did have the power. I felt very responsible.”

Pat has not been able to have children. She has been barely able to establish a functional relationship for any extended period. The guilt, anger, and fear that dog her footsteps every day interfere with her adult life each time she finds herself attracted to someone. She is in despair because she feels that by establishing her own family, she can erase some of the guilt she bore during the years of sexual abuse by her father. She is incorrect in that notion because she still can’t accept her childhood feelings as facts without assuming that it was all her fault.

In Susan’s case, without an honest understanding and awareness of the feelings of guilt and the attempts to control others-because of her perceived sense of responsibility and power-she trips up her relationship with her sons. It also keeps her from helping her children develop a sense of personal responsibility of their own. Thus, the cycle of “damaged goods” is carried forward into the next generation even though Susan’s children are not ACOAs.

A Sense of Worthlessness

As destructive as all the feelings we have discussed up to now-anger, fear, and guilt-can be, the sense of worthlessness is potentially the most damaging. People who feel totally worthless, those who believe that they do not belong in society, are the most likely to commit crimes against other people. In families, parents who feel worthless-and this includes the vast majority of alcoholic parents and many ACOAs who are parents-are in the highest risk group for child or spouse abuse. In clinical therapy, therefore, one of my first objectives in any crisis intervention situation is to convince a potentially violent person that he or she has worth as a human being. If the person accepts that, then all of his or her other feelings can be addressed. For a person who does not accept a sense of worth, violence or self-destructiveness is only two steps away. It is no mystery that the overwhelming majority of violent felons are people who have no sense of worth.

Children of alcoholics grow into their adulthood with a generalized sense of worthlessness, of just not being good enough. They were not the architects of their dysfunctional family system: the stresses and strains were already at work tearing their parents’ lives apart. The children did not have the overall responsibility to insure a sound and healthy structure even though their parents might have told them, as Pat’s mother told her: “‘We had hoped when we had you that you would keep us all together.” As a child, of course, Pat did not have the physical or emotional maturity to understand what that meant. She wasn’t even old enough to evaluate the nature of the responsibility that had been placed upon her. Yet, like Pat and Susan, children of alcoholics often assume the blame for the emotional instability and/or the collapse of the family. They feel that they have failed and are worthless. These feelings are all the more insidious because they are not consciously acknowledged.

When they become parents, ACOAs who have not addressed their feeling of worthlessness are in a very high-risk group for the emotional or physical abuse of their children. often they see their children as the cause of their feelings of worthlessness. Many times they transfer the complete responsibility they had to bear as children onto the shoulders of their children. If the marriage is failing, it is the children’s fault; if the ACOA, can’t earn enough money to support the life-style he or she wants, the children’s selfish needs are to blame; and if the ACOA parent is not able to make friends or establish social ties in the neighborhood, it is because the children have made him or her look bad.

As the years pass, the problems only get worse. If the ACOA parent isn’t worthy, then why worry about the child’s needs at all. The parent can slip into profound depressions during which the children are neglected or abused. During periods of near fury, the children, who are the physical embodiment of the parent’s worthlessness, are the victims of physical or emotional violence. And if the cycle of dysfunction is allowed to continue into the next generation, the very types of abuse the child of an alcoholic experienced may be committed upon his or her own children. The propensity for violence is directly proportional to the level of worthlessness the ACOA feels. And the level of worthlessness the ACOA perceives is directly proportional to the level of dysfunction in the family when he or she was a child.

The sense of worthlessness which many children of alcoholics carry into their own families and inflict upon their children is also the result of a fear of being abandoned. This is one of the most desperate fears that can afflict any child. In even moderately dysfunctional families, the child of an alcoholic is often left alone without the basic nutrients of physical intimacy with a parent, the comfort of the parent’s voice or presence. The absence of the physical presence of the parent translates itself into a sense of having been abandoned. The newborn actually feels anxiety and separation. As the child grows, so does this sense of having been left alone. Anxiety increases as the children in this situation realize that they must care for themselves while at the same time they feel helpless and dependent upon others. The reality, however, is that the child is forced into a form of isolation because of the parent’s preoccupation with alcohol. Given the egocentric nature of early childhood, the child cannot know this. Rather, the child justifies it by deciding that he or she is responsible for it.

The feelings of abandonment typically evolve into unarticulated feelings of worthlessness: “No one care for me; no one cares about me; I am not worth anyone’s attention; I am all alone! ” For ACOAs who are parents or who are about to become parents, the abandonment/worthlessness syndrome must be addressed as early as possible so as to break the cycle. This is even more important in cases where the ACOA is about to have an unplanned-for or unwanted child. Bobby, a nineteen-year-old college freshman, was in that situation when he came in for “last resort” therapy. In one of his many serial relationships with girlfriends, to whom he was unable to commit himself emotionally, the unthinkable had happened: they had conceived a child. They were both Catholics, and abortion was out of the question for them and their respective sets of parents.

Bobby was an ACOA who was suffering from a sense of abandonment and worthlessness that had largely gone unnoticed by his mother. His natural father was an alcoholic who left the family shortly after Bobby was born, and his mother remarried years later. Now, because his stepfather had money and they lived in affluent Princeton, New Jersey, Bobby had had the opportunity to attend good schools. He was always able to satisfy his immediate surface needs by “running with the pack,” but he never developed close relationships. He made surface contact with people, shallow acquaintances which satisfied his need for companionship but never resolved the need he had to reach out and trust that someone might find him worthwhile. After he reached adolescence, Bobby became very active sexually, but all of his relationships were unsatisfactory because he felt that none of them were based on any truth:

“I really never knew who I was. That is, I know who I am, but I was never able to explain myself thoroughly to someone else, so no one ever got to know me. I feel all alone and worthless even now. I have got so much going on in my head, but I don’t like what I look like and don’t even know how to dress in a way that’s me. I want a girlfriend, even a wife, but I can’t respect any girl who would like me back.”

But now Bobby found himself about to be married to a woman he didn’t like and about to have a child he neither wanted nor felt able to care for. Part of him wanted to flee but he could only see himself repeating the pattern his father put into motion before he ever knew him. His father not only abandoned him when he was young but kept his distance as Bobby grew older. Bobby still longs for the meaningful contact from his father that he will never receive. Now his child might face the same future that Bobby experienced. That, he said, and nothing else, drove him into therapy. He had to address the deep sense of deprivation he felt about others and his concrete belief he was completely worthless:

“I just feel bad. It’s like I can do nothing right with anybody. I feel bad that he doesn’t want anything to do with me. I can’t contact him directly. He won’t even tell me where he is. So if I want to write him, I have to send it to my uncle and he will send it to my dad. I wanted to write him just to talk to him, especially now. But I just can’t do it.”

If Bobby does abandon his wife and child, the danger is that the child will grow up with the same sense of deprivation and worthlessness that Bobby faced. It he stays but remains as emotionally distant as he has for all of his life, he might inflict ACOA even worse damage on the child. Bobby’s only hope is to confront the past and determine just how to rewrite the script that was handed to him. This is what all ACOAs have to do, even those who are not about to become parents.

The challenge for you as an ACOA who is raising your own children is to understand how your past, chronic feelings of worthlessness may affect your present self-image. You have to use this awareness to make and keep the distinction between yourself and your children. This is a constant task, even for ACOAs who have been through therapy and claim to have straightened themselves out. In moments of stress or during crises, it is too easy for ACOAs to fuzz the border between the present and past, as, for example, Susan does, and overlay their own self-image upon their children. As parents, ACOAs must be mindful of their tendency to want to control their children’s feelings and behavior, and it is the deep and often subtle sense of worthlessness that fuels the perceived need to control or to be extravigilant.

You must also be aware that you serve as a constant role model for your children. Children observe their parents every waking moment, including words said and those left unsaid. If children sense worthlessness in their role models, they will learn to approach the world in a cautious and defensive manner. They are also learning to devalue themselves. This is especially true if the same-sexed parent has low self-esteem. Why should children feel any different than their parents if that is all they see? This is all the more reason for you as an ACOA parent to be aware of yourself and the signals you send to your children.

Either / Or Thinking

Another characteristic learned by children of alcoholics is a style of perceiving the world in which people or objects are seen as all of one thing and none of another. This is sometimes called “two-valued thinking” and typically shows up when making judgments about others. Someone is either good or bad, right or wrong, us or them. It reminds me of the statement “I know what I believe: don’t confuse me with facts.”

It is not a coincidence that this inflexible approach to the World is one of the typical characteristics of an ACOA. It is one of the prime bases of confrontations between ACOAs and their own children. ACOAs are threatened very early in their lives with the fact that the behavior of others is beyond their control. They rely on their own sense of omnipotence, but see it collapse time after time in the face of the drinking, physical or sexual abuse, emotional trauma, and violence that predominate in many dysfunctional families. Thus, the child of the alcoholic clings to those things he or she feels can [r controlled and is rigid in his or her defense of them

Within the context of his or her own adult family, the ACOA has the potential to become an out-and-out tyrant. When flexibility and understanding are called for to resolve conflicts with children, the ACOA parent tends to put his or her foot down and refuses to budge-“No, you can’t have any more dessert”; “You can’t use the car under any circumstances’; “I absolutely refuse to take you and your friends to the mall”; “You can’t leave the house and that’s final.” He or she can be unrelenting in conceding anything to the children. This, in turn, often creates tensions with the non-bases for the ACOA’s refusal to even consider the reality of the issues. The problem, of course, is that the ACOA is not acting rationally. He or she is falling back into a rigid two-value stance that was learned as a child and will not be given up until it can be accepted, understood for what it is, and replaced with another navigational coping mechanism.

To make matters even more complicated for ACOAs, as children they see not only that they can’t control the thoughts and feelings of others but that they can’t even control their own thoughts. Thus, they block out any contradictory information, clapping their hands over their eyes and ears so to speak, in an effort to keep their own mental processes as uncluttered as possible. They want to control themselves and control others. Their two-valued thinking is often a direct result of their ability to accomplish neither goal. Whatever they try to do, they cannot make the world safe or count on others to do so for them. Accordingly, ACOAs are left “holding the bag” if one of their parents abandons the family. These feelings of being deserted can generate powerful surges of hurt and anger throughout childhood and well into one’s adult years. Sometimes the hurt and anger never dissipate. These feelings are so powerful in a young child that the children of alcoholics are often out of balance and risk falling headlong into one feeling or another. If they admit they trust someone and the person is not 100 percent perfect or infallible, the person becomes the enemy and a critical threat to their existence. If the nonalcoholic parent marries again, the stepparent is either the family savior or the monster who had driven out the alcoholic parent. There are no balance and no ability to judge, only the complete rightness or wrongness of any given situation.

For the ACOA parent who has not given up two-valued approaches to situations, the results can be disastrous. This is all the more true because many successful ACOAs sometimes train for adversarial professions in which two-valued thinking is the way one keeps one’s “edge.” For a public prosecutor, an advertising executive, an independent sales representative, or an aggressive administrative manager, the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong has to be rigidly defined:

“On one side is company policy, and on the other side is the enemy. Let the other side in, and you’ve lost the battle. It worked for me when I was a kid and it works for me now. The only problem is that It doesn’t work for my kids.”

When Ron, one of my professionally successful clients, said this to me, I didn’t believe him at first. But when I realized that his job as quality control manager for a large retail store chain in New Jersey forced him to think in either/or terms, I understood how well he had been trained for the job. He learned to think in these terms because he was a child of an alcoholic parent who saw the world from an us/them perspective. You were either on Ron’s father’s side or against him. Ron rigidly defended his father even though the man floated from job to job until he abandoned the family altogether. Then Ron learned to adopt his mother’s they’re-all-out-to-get-us approach to the world. By the time he was a senior in high school, his aggressive-adversarial approach to any challenge made him the ideal student advocate. He was a sought-after management candidate after he was graduated from business school and moved up quickly in the retail organization. In his case, two-valued thinking was not an impediment to a successful career. It was a critical advantage that he, as an ACOA, had over more balanced thinkers, who may seem too wishy-washy for potential employers. However, when applied to child raising, a two-valued approach almost always polarizes a situation and alienates children and other family members. In Ron’s situation, it drove his wife and children away from him and was threatening to break up his second marriage as well. “When you’ve failed twice for the same reasons,” he told me, “then you know it’s not her fault.”

In their attempts to maintain an emotional balance in the face of a chaotic family life, ACOAs tend to chose one feeling or another and hold on tight to it. As in Ron’s and Susan’s situations, the feeling may be adhered to regardless of any evidence to the contrary and will often lead individuals to force issues in their relationships to justify the self-fulfilling image they have of themselves. Bobby’s insistence that he was just not worth any woman’s friendship is an example of this, as is Susan’s insistence that her son confronts her out of his perception of her weakness and vacillation.

In many cases the feelings are sex-typed. Generally, men tend to choose anger and visual displays of rage, while women are more likely to become victims, feel hurt and abused, or remain passive and weepy, although Susan was an exception to this rule. This is especially the case when the child has been victimized by the parent or when the alcoholic parent is the same sex as the child. When ACOAs become parents, even though the impetus for the behavior is no longer present, the patterns have become habit. Thus, they have a propensity to teach their children to adopt the same roles.

Control

The flip side of either/or thinking is the ACOA’s compulsive need to control any and all situations. You may attempt to keep tight control of your feelings at all times because you have to deny the inherent chaos in the world. You might do this because on an unconscious level you know that your unchecked feelings can be very disruptive. Accordingly, you might try to act only in certain familiar or tried-and-true ways and deny any contradictory thoughts and emotions. As you can imagine, this can be very unhealthy because it splits off part of the personality from reality. At best, the effort required to keep real feelings in check drains you to the point where you may be unable to relate effectively to other people. In parent/child encounters, this makes the child of the ACOA very panicky because he or she does not know where the parent is. As Susan’s eldest son told me in family therapy: “I never knew whether she was angry or not. She had a mad look and would turn real red, but then she would speak real soft and slow-like. It was scarier than when she would hit me.”

The issue of control on all levels pervades the personality style of adult children of alcoholics. They perceive the need to give order to their environment whether it be a structured situation, such as a work setting, or one as unstructured as a dynamic interpersonal relationship. This need to exert control is generally an attempt to compensate for a lifelong history of unpredictability in persons or situations. Like all forms of compensatory behavior, the tendency to exert control is suitable only over the short term. Over the longer period, the ACOA’s need for control usually strains his or her relationships with others and eventually destroys them.

ACOAs who exert control over others may also develop manipulative techniques in order to satisfy their needs. They are skilled at eliciting desired behavior from their partners. Both ACOA men and women are able to use feigned weakness, sexuality, guilt, or the threat of retaliation in order to lock their partners into unhealthy relationships. They usually get their way, but the satisfaction is short-lived because even the most gullible partner is soon able to figure a way out of the maze. When a manipulative ACOA finds his or her partner close to escape, the person simply changes the rules of the game and closes another emotional trapdoor.

For ACOA parents who indulge in this behavior there are very few rewards. The children usually turn out to be just as manipulative as their parents, primarily because the ACOA parents are good role models. This often results in a form of emotional one-upmanship in which parent and child engage in years of standoffs until one or the other gives up or goes away. Children of ACOAs who have graduated from these relationships report that their lives are often filled with turmoil as they try to sort out the strategies that they and their parents have used against each other. In the worst case scenario, both spouse and children abandon the manipulative ACOA parent, repeating the very pattern that the ACOA was guarding against in the first place. In short, manipulation as a form of control simply doesn’t work and almost always backfires against the ACOA.

Compulsive Behavior Patterns

Many ACOAs also adopt a pattern of compulsive thinking and behavior. compulsive thinking, unfortunately, leads to difficulties in decision making because one can never be too sure about whether the right choice has been made. This form of thinking often leads many to continual crises: due to apprehensiveness about making a decision, the ACOA puts off taking any action until his or her back is against the wall,

For ACOA parents who must plan some of their children’s activities, this kind of crisis situation leads to unresolvable family tensions and constant battles. The children learn never to trust their parent’s plans and decisions because they can be unmade as easily as they are made. Moreover, because the ACOA parent is usually less prepared for activities than other parents are, his or her own children come to rely on their friends’ parents rather than their own. In an ACOA family where the parent already has a problem with self-doubt and low self-esteem, seeing his or her children turning elsewhere for competent leadership further undermines the parent/child relationship.

In this sort of situation, relationships, even marital relationships, can decay over the long term because the ACOA partner is always focused on putting things together while the other partner can’t understand why his or her spouse simply didn’t plan more effectively. When both parents share responsibility for a child, the tensions increase even more because one parent always seems to be lagging behind. This seems backward at first glance because most compulsive people plan events down to the last detail. However, the compulsion I have seen is so extreme that the person becomes afraid of planning because he or she is afraid of making a mistake that can’t be undone. When the event is near enough that such a crisis occurs, the worry about making a mistake is obliterated by the need to “just do anything.” Thus, the compulsive is able to force him-or herself into acting without worrying about the consequences.

This form of compulsiveness is also accompanied by addictive behaviors that are so masked the ACOA doesn’t even realize that he or she is repeating a pattern established by the alcoholic parent. For example, ACOAs may believe that deviating from a specific route to work or to school brings with it dire consequences. They may rely on specific items of clothing in times of great stress or a particular briefcase or book bag in order to take an important exam. Their compulsive behavior may evolve into a series of activities centered around sets of events that have to be performed just so in order to be successful:

“When I was eleven or twelve, I began taking a fountain pen with me to school for days when we had citywide reading or math exams. In high school, I designated a special “test pen” that would always bring me good luck. I also had special test shirts and good luck socks or other articles that I carried or wore to school. It got so that by the time I was in college, I had entire uniforms that I had to wear to tests. I began to realize one day after my wife broke my pen and tore the pocket on my good luck shirt-which by that time had become a rag-that I had evolved an external skeleton to replace the internal one I never had. Both my parents taught me to be this way, I guess, because their lives were simply collections of rabbits’ feet.”

Parents may have to dress their children in just the right way in order for them to feel confident. Their children may be forced to adopt rigid and repetitive behaviors just to please grandparents or friends. Deviation from the compulsive’s preset schema is tantamount to extreme disobedience and invokes a severe punishment from the parent. These compulsive activities may become so emotionally debilitating for the ACOA’s child that he or she may become extremely passive, unwilling to exert any energy because he or she is too afraid of punishment.

The most extreme and self-destructive forms of disorder that ACOA compulsives develop involve alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and a variety of eating and nutritional disorders. The tragedy is that the ACOA has become addicted to a pattern of behavior that by itself resembles the addictive behavior of the alcoholic parent. In the ACOA’s case, however, the addiction is actually a form of compulsive behavior, although it may also be a chemical sensitivity as it is with most true alcoholics. Should the ACOA be a parent at the same time, he or she will almost surely inflict abusive behavior upon the family similar to the way his or her alcoholic parent did.

Perfectionism

A very common tendency among ACOAs is to be a perfectionist. In fact, the majority of ACOA professional people who attend therapy sessions are superachievers who routinely surpass their peers. They are tough competitors who don’t like to give in and rarely compromise when they feel they can attain victory. Perfectionism is not without its victims, however, as any child of an ACOA will readily attest. Most of the ACOA parents in my therapy groups regret that in their drive to become perfect parents, unlike their own alcoholic parents, they sometimes inflict painful damage upon their children. Like their own parents, they tend to view the world outside the family as a hostile place and fear their children will compare them to “normal” parents and find them lacking. In trying to outdo other parents, ACOAs require that their children also be perfect. Any crack in the veneer of their life-style is a sign of imperfection that ACOA parents feel can’t be tolerated.

I routinely facilitate ACOA group therapy sessions which contain’ superteachers, supercops, super-computer-programmers, superstudents, and supermothers. The drive to excel is so strong that any obstacles-even children-may be plowed under in the onslaught. Many of these superachievers share common physical ailments as well. The majority of them have been diagnosed as hypertensive. Many have been treated for ulcers or other gastrointestinal disorders. Some admit that they are overstressed and have sought group therapy to relieve the strains of having to perform. And finally, many ACOAs freely admit to sexual inadequacies or other dysfunctions.

Perfectionist ACOAs are typically the most rule-bound of parents. They impose a rigid sense of discipline, even though the rules may be masked by a false illusion of flexibility. They are prepared to compromise with their children on minor issues, but behind their rules is the need to generate an illusion of perfect competence in the face of an imperfect world. If the child challenges his ACOA parent’s need to be perfect, the parent’s response may well be irrational and inappropriate. The challenge goes to the very heart of the ACOA’s fears: that he or she is a blemished person and inferior to the rest of the community.

Loss of identity

It is a commonly held belief that the most effective parents are individuals who are sure of their own identities. In order to help a child discover his or her identity, the thinking goes, the parent should have no conflicts about his or her own identity so that the child will not get mixed signals in using his or her parent as an early role model. As reasonable as this adage sounds, it is purely and simply a myth. There is no written or unwritten law that states that in order for parents to raise healthy children they must be absolutely confident and beyond insecurity in their identities. However, as false as this belief is, many ACOAs not only adhere to it but berate themselves because they believe it’s their fault that they are unsure of their identities.

It sounds corny, but the expression “f don’t know who I am” routinely turns up as a form of self-description in many ACOA therapy groups. This problem is one of the core characteristics of most adult children of alcoholics. It is often compounded after the ACOA becomes a parent because there are then at least two major conflicts impairing his or her role in the family.

  1. Because the ACOA lacked a fundamental understanding of who he or she was as a child, the adult has emerged from doubt rather than self-assurance. This doubt concerning adult identity raises other doubts about the ACOA’s perceptions of the world.
  2. Because the ACOA has not fully understood his or her childhood identity, the person may have an impaired ability to understand normal childhood identities in general. Accordingly, as parent, the ACOA will have a large blind spot when it comes to making judgments about his or her child’s behavior or development. When these two forms of impaired perceptions combine, the results can be painful for both parent and child.

If you are already a parent, you have to try to fill in this blind spot on the fly because, under otherwise normal circumstances, you can’t call time-out and go back into your own childhood to reestablish your identity. If you are not yet a parent, or are about to become one, your job is a bit easier. But because you want to get on with the rest of your life, you should not dwell overmuch on what has already taken place. Rather, you should focus on understanding your past instead of mourning what you feel you did not have.

Parents and parents-to-be who are children of alcoholics must , remember that their daily perceptions of what was going on in the family were routinely challenged by one or the other parent. Sometimes the challenges were direct, as in the case of seven-year-old Pat, whose mother kept on telling her that her father loved her very much and “would never do anything to hurt you.” These conversations almost always took place after Pat complained to her mother that her father, with the heavy smell of alcohol on his breath, took her onto the couch, rubbed her bottom, and made her touch his penis. Unfortunately, Pat never established a childhood identity because she was a surrogate wife and lover whose own mother was lying to her.

Sometimes the challenges to a child’s perceptions are less direct, as in Bill’s case, when his mother pulled a curtain around the truth and did not let anything penetrate it. In either a direct or indirect challenge to the child’s honest view of reality, the results are the same; the seeds of self-doubt are planted in the child’s mind. If doubt is accompanied by guilt and shame, as in Pat’s case, the child of the alcoholic experiences the feeling of going numb.

Blind spots become dead zones where no feeling can take place. Many ACOAs with these dead zones fully established are able to paper over the seams during their college and young adult years and think that all is well. It is not. Whether there are only blind spots of perception or zones where no feelings can take place, the ACOA has no coping mechanism whatsoever to withstand the natural shocks that children routinely administer to their parents. The ACOA either falls back on an unreal set of disciplinary rules to lock the child into a proper behavior or alternates between hopeless guilt, which turns the child into a monster, or violent rage, which often turns into physical or emotional abuse. Either way, the dysfunctional pattern established in the ACOA’s childhood family is carried into the ACOA’s adult family.

ACOAs can prevent this damage by trying to understand what took place in their families when their childhood identities were becoming established. First, they should come to grips with their own natural confusions about what happened. The role reversals and denial that so often characterize the alcoholic family almost always lead to feelings of confusion in children who know no other way of relating to others. Many ACOAs develop deep wells of anger in reaction to the many embarrassments and unfulfilled promises that were made to them. The childhood anger, oftentimes accompanied by real visions of violent acts, is typically so frightening to the child’s mind that it must be walled in. Ironically, the fear of anger is channeled into a very critical attitude toward self and others. Thus, many ACOAs bring a hypersensitive perception of responsibility into their adult years. Once they become parents, the responsibility can be too much to bear; when the anger breaks out, the children of the ACOA are the first and most visible targets.

In even the most dysfunctional families, children learn about themselves and how to relate to other people by observing and identifying with their major role models, their parents or other adults in a parental position. Children of alcoholics are no different. The dilemma is that the child identifies with either the alcoholic parent or the enabler parent (the spouse or partner who is trying to enable the alcoholic to function or allows the alcoholic to continue the dysfunctional pattern of behavior in the family). Both parents are inadequate role models. If the alcoholic parent is identified with, the child feels out of control. If the enabler is identified with, the child may feel helpless, burdened, or hopelessly unable to cope. In either event, regardless of the laurels they garner during their young adult years, ACOAs are guilt-ridden, confused individuals on the inside.

When ACOAs as parents bring this confusion into a parent/ child relationship, they tend to create the child in their parent’s image. This is natural because it is the only intimate parent/child relationship the ACOA has ever developed. The pattern of dysfunction not only repeats itself, in the most bizarre of circumstances it can actually cause reversed roles, with the ACOA parent becoming the child and the ACOA’s child becoming a pseudo parent. Unless the child of the ACOA receives therapy at some point in the future, he or she is likely to become the person the ACOA parent created. If that person is the image of the alcoholic parent, the alcoholism itself may repeat in the child and that child’s children may adopt the personality dysfunctions of the ACOA grandparent. As you can see, under the worst of circumstances the dysfunction can easily be carried into succeeding generations, like the alternating swings of a pendulum. And already given a genetic predisposition, the odds become even greater.

Chronic Mistrust

Molly’s lack of self-trust was caused by a lack of rules in her family when she was growing up:

“My parents were gypsies. They both drank heavily. We had no rules for anything. They ate when they were hungry and left food out for me. If they had eaten all the food I did without. We had money, but my father was an artist and it came in when it came in. They did a lot of drugs, too, so you never knew when they were going to be spaced or straight. You couldn’t even guess what would happen next.

For me today, I . . . trust nothing. If it’s not there now, it’s not gonna be there tomorrow. I’ve been pregnant twice, but I got abortions. Knowing what I know about how I was raised, I couldn’t bring a kid into this world. If it were up to me, the kid could be standing on its head and think it was walking on its feet.”

ACOAs develop a distrust of their own perceptions and feelings and of their ability to respond appropriately to situations. It’s not surprising, therefore, that one of the most significant personality characteristics of an ACOA is the difficulty he or she has in trusting other people. As parents, ACOAs routinely, but unconsciously, distrust their children. This is not to say that ACOAs think their children are lying all the time. It is to suggest, however, that ACOA parents often doubt their children’s abilities to perceive the world accurately. Consequently, one of the biggest areas of parent/child conflict, ACOAs report, is over the differences between the parent’s and the child’s perceptions of the same thing. This conflict is entirely normal in most families; in ACOA families it can be exacerbated to the point of hostility.

Paradoxically, in the extreme cases where the ACOA believes that his or her ability to perceive accurately is impaired, the ACOA may place all of his or her trust in the child. The parent admits to blindness and the child becomes the Seeing Eye dog. This results in an emperor’s-new-clothes syndrome in which the child’s view of the world is correct no matter what. Even normal parental disagreements are suppressed, and the child then dictates what is and what is not true. In a family where both parents are present, this is less the case because the non-ACOA spouse can rein in the child. In single ACOA parent families, however, no such form of control exists.

Children of alcoholics are understandably prone to develop an overly cautious nature. Sometimes this leads to the development of independence and self-reliance as a way of avoiding dependence on others. ACOAs tend to cover up mistrust of others by looking and dressing extraordinarily well, by presenting themselves as articulate and confident in social settings, and by developing a competent and effective style on the job. In fact, because of their hardworking, easy-to-please nature, ACOAs often make the best employees. They are loyal to the organization because they come to see it as family. They have learned to be protective of their environment and, hence, defend company policy. And their level of contribution to the company is often disproportionately large with respect to the level of compensation. In other words, ACOAs often work cheap because they are either too embarrassed or too guilty to stand their ground when seeking raises or promotions that they rightfully deserve. When refused the raise, they harbor a subtle resentment that, unexpressed, may eventually lead them to quit.

The more they succeed in their professional environment, the more ACOAs come to believe in the image of their success. They reject the feelings of insecurity when they come to the surface, even though the distrust of others and the feelings of guilt and shame are still operative. They harbor deep longings for the caring and nurturing they did not receive as children. Inside, there still exists a child who rejects adult logic, mistrusts others, and will likely spurn the caring of another adult when it comes. Thus many adult children of alcoholics set up a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies in relationships, justifying the distance they keep from others.

This may go on for years until they convince themselves that the feelings of love and passion they experience for others as adults do have some validity. This is a new emotional stratum for them. When the current to the automatic distrust mechanism has been turned down sufficiently so that the emotions are allowed to dictate the response, the ACOA may even agree to marriage. A new level of emotional equilibrium within the ACOA and within his or her marital relationship will develop. If left undisturbed by outside pressures, this relationship will muddle along for years even if the mate or spouse is an inadequate partner. However, when children enter the picture, the emotional equilibrium is upset and all of the pent-up distrust and anger will come right back to the surface.

If this leads to self-discovery and healthy relationships with spouse and children, the finite period of trauma may be a good thing. However, if the trauma is plowed under and the ACOA continues to “get along by going along,” everybody suffers: the ACOA, the child of the ACOA, the grandchildren of the ACOA, and the spouse, who may well be trying to keep the relationship from falling apart. During the entire period of the relationship, the automatic distrust the ACOA has of other people causes a knee-jerk reaction whenever he or she feels threatened. The trigger mechanism has been so finely tuned that even the most competent and controlled individuals have difficulty suppressing it. Therefore, the ACOA will feel an additional layer of guilt, especially when the trigger mechanism has been fired and his or her children are standing directly in the path of the response. Chronic mistrust has profound implications for child rearing. ACOAs suppress the need they feel for others, especially for their children. On a deep level, this need may seem overwhelming. Therefore it is no surprise that ACOA parents have difficulty setting appropriate limits when confronted with the needs of their children. Ever uncertain about what to do, many ACOAs swing to being either underinvolved with their children or hypervigilant and controlling. Usually, they adopt hypervigilance as their mode of response.

Early in their lives, children of alcoholics begin to feel controlled by the needs of their parents. Yet this, too, often leads to an impulse to control the feelings and behavior of their own children. There is a fear of loss of control if the ACOA relaxes his or her rigid inhibitions or if the child refuses to feel what the parent wants him or her to feel. The result is an overprotectiveness, the fear of the parent that if he or she steps back from the edge just once, the child will be lost forever. Since most children are naturally resilient, they reject the parent’s overprotectiveness and fight to go in the other direction. The tension that arises between the ACOA parent and child and between the ACOA parent and his or her spouse then threatens to disrupt family dynamics.

Pat, whose father systematically abused her throughout her childhood, exemplifies this push/pull tension in her relationship with her very young son. Because Pat’s mother did nothing to protect her from her father’s violence, she has overreacted and protects her son from everything and everyone:

“When I used to lie in bed at night, I would cry that my mother couldn’t protect me. Now I’ve gone in the other direction with Michael. I am so afraid of what my mother didn’t do that I get so overprotective of him. I would like him to have a good relationship with his father, but I just can’t trust Bill’s judgment. I always think he plays too rough with Michael. I’m afraid that something will break and that it will be my fault. If I stood up to Bill and said, “Let him go! ” that would do more damage than letting him hurt Michael. I just know that I’m not going to let my kid go through what I went through. I don’t care what I have to do to protect him. I just wish I could be more sure of what I see every day. I don’t know what to act on. I don’t even know when it’s OK.”

It’s very hard sometimes to maintain the clear thinking that effective parenting requires, but it is well worth the effort. The energy that you invest in self-discovery will almost always help to insure that you will do a better job for your children than your parents did for you.

Remember, the key to surviving in your parents’ alcoholic environment was through your learning to adapt. You learned early, and you learned the hard way, not to trust too readily. You learned not to have expectations that were too high or to depend upon the goodwill and intentions of others. But you also learned to be resilient, to be able to change when the situation demanded that you change. If you grew up in a household where violence was ever present, you learned to camouflage yourself quickly. If your parents denied the truth about alcoholism, you learned that your suspicions did not go away. Whatever traumas still linger in your memory, treat them as lessons and not as your inevitable fate.

These lessons produced a pattern of personality characteristics and behavior that if not consciously understood may seriously affect your children. Clearly, these lessons were skills that you needed to adapt in order to survive. Congratulations! You’ve survived. Now you must realize that many of your behavior patterns are no longer appropriate or even adequate for developing healthy parent/child relationships. You are at the point now where you are, as Freud noted, bestowing the sins of your parents upon your children. Unless you take the risk to understand and accept your past for what it was and to come to grips with how if influences you today, you take the greater risk of carrying your feelings of inadequacy and guilt into your relationships with your children.

Your responsibility now is to raise healthy children. In the following chapters, I will show you how.

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The above is by Jim Mastrich. I not trying to benefit from his copyrighted text. This is about the amount you would get in a Kindle free sample, so you can decide if you want to buy the book. I am showing it to you so you will buy the book!

Link to buy the book: http://smile.amazon.com/dp/0020405812

While you are at Amazon, click on the button that says, “I’d like to see this book as a Kindle eBook.” This will help them put the book back into print so the author can get some more money for it. The fact is, nobody is writing about this anymore. It still needs to be discussed!