For the third installment of The Recovery Sessions, we’ve asked the children of those practicing a long-term or progressive recovery to share their experiences. We wanted to know, how has having a parent who has struggled with substance abuse addiction impacted you? And, more importantly, how has their recovery work impacted you? The third installment in this series is by Andy, who shares his account of how his father’s alcoholism impacted his ability to form and maintain healthy relationships.
My name is Andy and I'm an adult child of an alcoholic.
I was born into a family with a father who was a functional alcoholic and workaholic and a mother who was codependent and both of them were, for the most part, emotionally absent.
My father -- one of the middle of fourteen (not a typo) other siblings -- also grew up with an alcoholic father, so the wheels for his alcoholism were undoubtedly set in motion long before I showed up in the world. (Although that present awareness didn't stop my then-infant self from crafting the belief that I somehow played a part in my father's alcoholism, since he seemed to frequently send that message to my mother, so how could that claimed cause-and-effect relationship not apply to me as well?!)
Despite my late mother's long-running urging, pleading, begging, nagging, crying, threatening, etc. to get my father to not drink to excess (and I think I even once voiced my dislike to him for how much they fought -- unsurprisingly, that went nowhere) and to not behave like a jerk toward her, nothing ever seemed to change.
How long has my father been in recovery, you ask? I wish I could say that he found a formal recovery program and got the help that I believe he needs, but, sadly, I can't. He continues to drink and, in my view, remains a functional alcoholic -- and possibly pill addict -- to this day.
At a recent family gathering, the girlfriend of a relative brought up the topic of addiction and I quietly mentioned to her my father's alcoholism. She replied, genuinely shocked, "He's an alcoholic? I thought he only drank beer!"
I explained that, for the nearly fifty years I've been alive, the impact of his "beer-only" alcoholism has been that his needs (alcohol-related and emotional) took priority over the needs of all others in my family of origin.
To wit, that afternoon, I'd flown into a nearby airport and, being hungry when I was picked up there by my younger brother and father, I asked if we could stop someplace for me to grab something to eat. My father asked if the place served beer; I said that I didn't know. When we arrived, I placed my order and ate most of the meal by myself while he remained at the register, quizzing the cashier about nearby places to buy beer. He and my brother then walked to a place where he could buy a beer and brought it back to the restaurant.
In my estimation, about half of my father's siblings have struggled with alcoholism and/or other addictions. A very few of them (including my father's now-deceased twin brother) entered into some sort of formal recovery program which seems to have brought them and their families some relief. I have many paternal cousins and, sadly, I've observed similar patterns of alcoholism/addictions in them. I've even had silent observations about my brother's drinking patterns that I fear are headed in an unhealthy direction.
I know that's a long intro to say that -- to the best of my knowledge -- neither of my parents have ever participated in any sort of formal recovery program.
That said, I truly believe that everyone is in a program of some sort. Some of those programs are formal, some are informal. Some people are aware that they're in a program, some are unaware. But as each of us wakes up each day (assuming that we wake up), that day's aspect of our custom program begins to unfold. Whether that unfolding is yet another small step in the descent to a bottom or it's an ascent -- big or small -- along one of the twelve (or some other number of) steps, in my view, each of us is indeed in a program.
As a child, my mother often tried to rescue my father from his alcoholism (and the effects of same). In Karpman drama-triangle language, my father would play the role of villain and my mother would move from role of victim to that of rescuer/hero. I observed her rescuing behavior and concluded that I could probably help with the rescuing/hero stuff, so I behaved as the perfect child, at least theoretically. I never got in trouble, made good grades, and constantly tried to distract my parents from their fighting by being the funniest, clever-est, non-neediest, most whatever-I-thought-would-do-the-job-est kid I could be.
One day, when I was sixteen or so, I was at my girlfriend's house and saw how her parents talked with each other and the rest of the family. Their interactions were night and day compared to the frequent insults, crankiness, anger, pouting, passive-aggression, resentment, isolation, and other dysfunctional behaviors I witnessed in my family of origin. I then noticed that other friends' parents seemed to have similar healthy interactions (or at least healthier than those in my family of origin) and found that a vague idea had started to coalesce: Things didn't have to be this way. (Turns out that a car and a driver's license can be a good challenge to the belief that every family must be like mine.)
Unfortunately, some of the effects of my having grown up amid that alcoholism and other dysfunction were starting to show up in my life, like my having few skills for navigating a relationship. Again, I knew that things didn't have to be this way, but I hadn't a clue of how to change any of that.
In college, the universe delivered to me a brilliant, insightful, codependent woman and that meant that she willingly put up with my jerky behavior and if she eventually did get upset, I could get defensive (since I was being beat up on, right?!), pout, storm off, and -- like a good codependent -- she'd quickly chase me down with a desire to talk about what happened. After sufficient time had elapsed (usually a few days, but as long as a couple weeks or maybe months), I'd become slightly approachable, we'd talk briefly, I'd dispense some vague apology, and the landscape would reset, ready for our next stupid fight where the same pattern would play out. (Looking back, it comes as no surprise that the dynamic we'd created was nearly identical to the pattern I witnessed in my parents' relationship when I was young.)
Shortly after we started dating, I somehow stepped back and took a wider look at my drinking (which commenced in high school and continued at full gallop during college, including a handful of blackout-drunk nights), observed the reality of pervasive alcoholism/addiction on my father's side of the family (and probably also on my mother's side), and decided that if I were to continue drinking, I'd really be rolling the dice in terms of ending up like many in my father's family, so I decided that I would stop drinking right then and there. Somehow, fortunately, I never felt compelled to drink again. To be sure, that didn't mean that I was magically any less of a jerk. I was still a jerk, but now I was just a jerk who didn't drink.
Shortly thereafter, we married and after about fifteen years of emotionally neglecting my wife (who, unsurprisingly found herself suffering from clinical depression), one evening, she sat me down and asked me if I was aware of the pattern I described above. I silently nodded in assent. She informed me that she wasn't going to do the chasing part any more. She said that if I needed time to cool down or to think about things or whatever, that was fine, but if I fled, it was going to be on me to come back to continue the discussion so we could work through things.
Being the obedient child (and terrified of the implied threat of her leaving me -- fear of abandonment), I took her ultimatum (challenge?) to heart and began to cultivate a budding awareness of emotions -- hers and mine -- communication, and other skills that appeared to be useful in healthy relationships. For me, it was like trying to learn six foreign languages at the same time, but she knew that I was trying (again, the obedient child!) and that seemed to help her remain patient with my slow progress.
One day, it dawned on me that our physical intimacy had subsided (and been like that for a few years) and since she claimed that it wasn't caused by anything I was doing/not doing, I proposed that we see a therapist to see if we could get some help with that aspect of our relationship.
While, I don't think that we got much help with that topic, we did go to our sessions regularly and often enough, we'd arrive there in the middle of some sort of conflict that we could work through with our therapist's help. One day, we found ourselves at some impasse over something-or-other and he suggested that we go home and each complete a 4th-step inventory (probably a resentment inventory, although I'm not sure), explaining that it's part of 12-step program work. I reminded him that neither of us were alcoholics and he laughed, noting that such an inventory can be helpful to anyone, whether they're in a 12-step recovery program or not. (As I recall, he also asked if I'd ever considered going to an Adult Children of Alcoholics (and Other Dysfunctional Families) meeting and I told him that I hadn't, mainly because I considered myself to be an atheist and didn't think that I'd find the proselytizing suitable for me, due to the God angle.)
A few days later, I realized that was making a big assumption about how pushy (or not) people were in the ACA program, so I Googled around and found the ACA Laundry List which identifies fourteen characteristics that people who grew up in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional environment tend to have in common. Reading through the list, I think I checked off eleven or twelve of the fourteen boxes and thought, "Wow, I guess I need to look into this." I found the nearest meeting and went.
Since I frequently lived in fear of my angry father and my angry mother, my primary coping mechanism was to be hypervigilant and to try to understand everything that was going on around me. My ACA meeting attendance was no different.
I listened carefully at each meeting and tried to understand what value it all contributed to adult children getting healthier. In the beginning, I think I was playing a role of scientist or auditor -- just observing and not really viewing myself as an actual program participant. (And reflecting on my aforementioned "God" assumption, yes, there were people who see only one possible Higher Power for everyone in the world, but they are definitely in the minority. I believe that most ACA participants hold a rather pragmatic, respectful view of a Higher Power: They have a Higher Power concept that works for them, so if your concept of a Higher Power works for you, then it's the right concept for you.)
Every week, I'd hear people read our meeting script and share what was going on with them and we'd work through our workbook, but I didn't really find myself being helped by any of it. One day, about a year in, my wife and I had some stupid fight and I saw no way out of the situation. I felt defeated, frustrated, and hopeless, so I thought that I'd try reaching out to one of the men in the program who seemed to be pretty reasonable (and also married himself, so I figured he would be more likely to understand what I was going through) and see if he had any words of wisdom for me, anything that would ease my intense discomfort.
I called him, he answered, and -- after asking him if he had a few minutes to chat -- dumped my situation on him. The first response he gave me was something along these lines, "It's great that you reached out to talk. It can be really tempting to isolate and believe that you have to handle everything yourself." I immediately felt like a big weight had been lifted from me. The "I need to handle everything myself" weight that I'd been carrying around for over four decades. (Heck, my now typing what he said to me then is again uplifting and brings tears to my eyes.)
A week or two later, I stumbled across an Emotional Sobriety program at a meditation center I'd been attending and -- again, ever fearful that someone would judge my beliefs or experience or anything I was doing to be wrong (and no surprise that I was still carrying that history forward) -- I reached out to the instructor (some guy named Ron Chapman :) and asked him if this Emotional Sobriety event would be useful to me, given that 1) I was brand-new to 12-step recovery and 2) I was in ACA, not AA or NA or CA or some other "physical addiction" recovery program.
He said, "Hey, join us for the intro session and if it's not to your liking, no worries." I did, and a few minutes into that intro session, I realized that the work he was suggesting we could explore (especially the somatic work) held a tremendous amount of value for me. For example, at the end of the first full day, Ron asked me how things were going for me and I told him that I didn't think I was getting much out of it. He calmly gave me his full attention and helped me identify where I was feeling things that were coming up from some of the recalling I was doing. I closed my eyes and told him that it felt like someone was squeezing my throat so I couldn't speak. Like I didn't have a voice. Wow. That experience may have been the first time in my life that I realized that while I was growing up, I (metaphorically) didn't have a voice. Powerful stuff.
It's been nearly five years since I made my first fearful steps into that ACA meeting and I'm grateful to have been challenged to do difficult things (like making amends to my wife and people in my family for the ways I mistreated them) and for the priceless gifts I've received from the people -- both in-program and not -- who shared their experience, strength, and hope with me. These things and more continue to help me in my quest to break the cycle of dysfunction in which I grew up.
There's a lot of language in our literature on the topic of acceptance. My view is that acceptance is the key to my breaking that cycle.
When I say "acceptance", I'm not talking about tolerating others. I'm talking about really and truly trying to dig in, connect, be present, listen, and understand what's going on with the people I bump into on this tiny planet. I'm talking about my constant practice of trying to apply love and compassion to my worldview and accepting that every single person -- yes, even my father and even the jerk who cut me off in traffic today and then flipped me off -- is an actual human being who wants to be happy and free from suffering and is worth being accepted, just like me.
I know this kind of acceptance requires a lot of hard work and I know that I fail at it a lot, but the great part of the deal is that I have the rest of my life to try again as many times as I need to. Another great part of the deal is that each time, I usually find that I get a tiny bit better at some part of it.
Thank you for accepting me into your life for a few moments. I'm Andy.