Over the last ten years, I’ve learned a lot about my unhealthy coping mechanisms and self-defeating behavior patterns. Substance use at a young age affects the brain’s neurological development during a crucial time and has lasting results. Using drugs significantly contributed to a dysfunctional perception of myself, poor regulation of emotions, difficulties with relationships, etc.
But recently, a therapist brought to my attention that there is a crucial page of my psychological blueprint that has not gotten enough attention. My dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors began long before I ever picked up a drug — and even the quickest summary of my childhood would explain why. Before I was an addict, I was the oldest daughter of an alcoholic.
A Common Occurrence
Why is it that when we are labeled with a substance use disorder, so much focus goes to our addiction, and much less on the way our parent’s substance use precipitated it? Therapists have briefly glazed over the fact that I grew up in an alcoholic family in the past, but not to the degree that I believe they would if I didn’t have my own SUD.
This isn’t an attempt to play the role of the victim. I’ve taken responsibility for my substance use and the resulting damage inflicted upon both myself and everyone around me. I hold myself accountable. But I don’t think it’s fair to forget that I was a product of my environment.
It’s well-known that many adult children of alcoholics (or ACAs) share several similar characteristics. According to the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, there are at least fourteen common characteristics, a few of which include:
- Being approval seekers
- Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility
- Confusing love and pity, tending to love those we can “fix” or “rescue.”
- An addiction to excitement
- Judging themselves harshly and having very low self-esteem
- Difficulty feeling or expressing themselves
- A tendency to become alcoholics/addicts, to marry one, or both
I can personally relate to almost every characteristic on this list. My father’s alcoholism forced me to grow up very young and assume adult responsibilities I shouldn’t have had to worry about. My father was either working or drinking. My mother devoted herself to her church and scrubbing our house — as if she could somehow scrub away our family’s dirty secrets. There was little time to do things with me or my sister.
Like many others, my addictive personality started with obsessions to hobbies and particular people years before I ever picked up an illicit substance. I always felt rejected. I tried to play the traditional role of the “hero” in the alcoholic family. I was a classic overachiever and continuously strived to achieve an unrealistic perfectionism that still hinders me to this day.
After a certain age, seeing that my overachieving didn’t have the desired effect, I became the problem child and the “scapegoat” — -hanging out with the wrong crowd and partying. It was then easy for my parents to blame all of the family’s problems on me.
I gravitated towards risky behaviors and excitement to feel the rush. Suppressing my feelings due to my family’s dynamics had left me feeling perpetually numb.
And yes, I went on to become an addict myself and also married one. The father of my two daughters’ was an addict (he died of a drug overdose), and my husband is an addict as well (although, like myself, he’s in recovery).
The Residual Effects
This past year, I participated in a workshop for women in recovery, which focused on healing from trauma. Several times during the workshop, we discussed the role that our substance use (and for most of us, our partner’s substance use) contributed to some of the traumas we had experienced and our codependent personalities. It was the first time I had ever really learned anything about codependency, and I hadn’t realized how much of it existed in my past relationships.
But not once during that workshop was it mentioned that codependent personalities almost always originate not from our substance abuse or our partner’s, but from growing up with an alcoholic or addict for a parent.
We endured many experiences as children in an alcoholic/addict household that dramatically impacted us. These include acting more like the parent than the child, continually searching for approval or attention that we never got, and always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I believe these experiences have more of a lasting effect on our behavior in relationships as adults than our own substance use.
It’s time we start discussing the impact that growing up with an alcoholic or addict for a parent has on a person’s substance use disorder and their behaviors. While it’s true that not all ACAs end up abusing alcohol or drugs, there’s a substantial number who do. If we can’t address the role that our parent’s substance use played in developing our dysfunctional behaviors, how can we expect to heal or move on?
Even in recovery, we can’t expect to change these underlying defense mechanisms, coping skills, or thought patterns until we confront those childhood emotions from which they evolved. For the first time in my life, I am finally addressing how my father’s drinking affected me as a young girl, and I think it’s the most significant progress I’ve made in my recovery so far.