As the daughter of an alcoholic I was naturally intrigued. When I checked it up on Amazon I read that there were supposedly several characteristics that the children of alcoholics had in common. I ordered The Complete ACOA Sourcebook: Adult Children of Alcoholics at Home, At Work and in Love.
Reading the book was an emotional experience as I felt as if I was reading a book about me.
The fact that most of these characteristics and patterns of behavior are common to all adult children of alcoholics was quite a revelation. I am not alone in these feelings, I am not such an oddball, in fact considering the environment I grew up in, I am totally ‘normal’.
When my siblings read the book they also found it hit home very strongly and described them very accurately.
Dr Janet Woititz spent most of her professional life working with Adult Children of Alcoholics and as the wife of an alcoholic she saw first hand the impact of that alcoholism on herself and her children.
While the book focuses on alcoholism specifically, after the book’s publication she learned that the material in the book can also apply to other types of dysfunctional families, such as drug addiction, gambling, chronic illness or religious fanaticism (double whammy in our house. Mom was depressed/religious fanatic, dad alcoholic).
In the introduction to the book Dr Woititz describes the premise of the book, which is that for the Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA), there is ‘no database: Adult children of alcoholics do not learn what other children learn in the process of growing up. Although they do wonderfully well in crisis, they do not learn the day-to-day process of “doing life”.’
‘When is a child not a child? When the child lives with alcoholism.’
She describes how the child growing up in an alcoholic home never feels like a child.
Their home life can be described as ‘chronic trauma.’ While specific details may differ from one alcoholic home to the next, the overall environment is the same.
There is a constant undercurrent of tension and anxiety. There is no laughter, no sense of the carefree, no chance to relax and be a child. There is no sense of constancy, no idea of what will confront you when you walk in the door each day.
No matter how you try you can never be prepared for what you will find when you get home.
You live on hope, on the idea of how things could be if only the alcoholic stopped drinking. Retreating into a dream world is common.
I drew pictures and words in the air and frequently got into trouble for staring out the window in class. I escaped into fairy tales and television shows and imagined the worlds I found there to be real, to be how things could be for us too if only he would stop drinking.
I always felt like an outsider. I always felt different. I struggled to form lasting friendships, and generally felt unwanted and left out.
An overriding characteristic of all adult children of alcoholics is chronically low self esteem. This is not surprising as self esteem arises from things like ‘respectful treatment’, ‘parental warmth’ and ‘clearly defined limits.’
These are all generally absent in the alcoholic home. The alcoholic parent’s behavior is affected by the alcohol, whereas the non-alcoholic parent’s behavior is affected by their reaction to the alcoholic. There is consequently very little emotional energy available to meet the needs of the children.
The way that children develop self esteem is by internalizing the messages of those around them. The most powerful of those messages are the ones received from their parents. They take what they are told about themselves to be true.
Their initial analysis of who they are and the building blocks of their self esteem come from the external messages they receive about themselves.
Woititz describes how, in the alcoholic home, so many messages are contradictory. They don’t make sense, such as ‘I love you.’ ‘Go away.’
The first message they receive is ‘I love you’, but the alcoholic parent is preoccupied with drinking, so the second message is ‘go away.’ The non alcoholic parent is preoccupied with the alcoholic so their message is also ‘I love you, but please go away, I don’t have time for you.’
Another contradictory message is ‘Everything is fine, don’t worry’ and ‘How in the world can I deal with this?’ Another is the judgment combined with excuses, e.g. ‘He is a drunk’ and ‘It wasn’t his fault, he was drunk.’
The alcoholic is excused because he can’t help his behavior, he has a disease. But Woititz states that the real message here is ‘If I am drunk, I can do whatever I want.’
The child also takes on guilt for becoming angry with the alcoholic. They are told, ‘it isn’t his fault, he has a sickness’, so they feel guilty, they feel they are the one at fault, the one to blame. How can they feel anger towards a sick person? They must be very bad themselves.
Characteristics of ACOA’s
There are thirteen characteristics of adult children of alcoholics. Some or all of these will apply to you if you are an ACOA. Maybe they will have applied at different times of your life. Some that I thought at first didn’t apply to me, I later realized, did.
1. Adult Children of Alcoholics guess at what normal is
Nothing in an alcoholic household is ‘normal.’ There is no frame of reference for how things ‘should’ be or what patterns of behavior are appropriate and acceptable. Consequently adult children of alcoholics have to guess. They look at TV shows, they look at other families that appear to be normal and try and mimic that.
In the alcoholic household home life varies from ‘slightly mad to extremely bizarre’.
As Woititz points out: ‘in a more typical situation one does not have to walk on eggshells all the time. One doesn’t have to question or repress one’s feelings all the time. Because you did, you also became confused.’
There is another aspect to this, which is that the ACOA has an idealized version of how things should be. There is no such thing as ‘normal’ but the child of an alcoholic ‘bought the myth of normalcy’ displayed in sitcoms and idealized advertising, and’‘in so doing, developed fantasies about [their] ideal self, ideal others and an ideal family…..The ideal self [they] think about is the perfect child, the perfect spouse, the perfect friend, the perfect parent. Since the fantasy cannot exist, [they] spend a lot of time judging [themselves] because life doesn’t work the way [they] decide it should.’
2. Children of Alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end
In an alcoholic home, nothing happens as it is supposed to happen. There is no constancy or consistency, no reliability. If the alcoholic parent says they will do something, chances are it will not get done.
The alcoholism takes the priority, there is seldom an example of how to see a project through from beginning to end. In addition, who has the time to sit with the child and discuss a project for the child to complete, and discuss how to break it down into smaller parts, how to make it manageable?
The result is a person who often hasn’t got a clue about how to manage things in their life, while having an ideal version for how they think things ‘should’ be, and judging themselves harshly when they don’t measure up.
3. Adult Children of Alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
Dr Woititz describes ‘just as easy to tell the truth’ as being that the adult children of alcoholics derive no real benefit from the lie.
Lying, covering up, and denying are central to the alcoholic household. Lies are told to protect the alcoholic: ‘He can’t come to work, he is sick’. Or to protect the children: ‘Everything is fine’ or ‘your dad is just going through a tough time, things will get better.’
Children start to lie to protect the family unit. If teachers ask questions they say: ‘Everything is fine’, or they start to lie to the parents. After all, the parents have enough on their plates dealing with the alcoholism.
I remember never telling my mother that I needed things for school. I knew she had enough to worry about, I knew there wasn’t any money. I didn’t want to trouble her with my needs. I just did without. If she asked me how things were, I told her they were great. Lying became entrenched.
4. Adult Children of Alcoholics judge themselves without mercy
As the child of an alcoholic, you were constantly told that you were not good enough.
In my household my father criticized us relentlessly. As a small child I was constantly told how stupid I was, what an idiot I was, how thick, dumb and useless I was. From the age of around eleven the criticism became sexualized, and I was called a whore, a dirty slut, a titillating bitch.
It becomes normal to internalize these messages so that anything that goes wrong in your life you interpret as a result of your own lack.
According to Woititz the child starts to think: ‘I am a mistake’ instead of thinking ‘I made that mistake; however, I am not a mistake.’
That thinking carries forward into adulthood.
5. Adult Children of Alcoholics have difficulty having fun
The child in an alcoholic home is always on edge, always fearful, the atmosphere in the house is thick with stress and tension. They never have a chance to be a child. By the time they become adults they often have no idea of how to release that fun loving inner child.
6. Adult Children of Alcoholics take themselves very seriously
Number 5 and 6 are closely related. As a child in an alcoholic home, you don’t have a lot of fun. There wasn’t room for spontaneous fun.
Life just wasn’t fun.
The consequence of this is frequently an adult who takes themselves far too seriously.
7. Adult Children of Alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships
There is no frame of reference for a healthy adult relationship. You never saw your parents model this behavior. The relationship patterns you witnessed were extremely unhealthy.
This is a particularly weighty issue, and the entire second volume of this book, called ‘In Love: Struggle For Intimacy’, deals with this.
‘To be intimate, to be close, to be vulnerable, contradicts all the survival skills learned by children of alcoholics when they were very young.’
Because of the contradictory message the child receives constantly through their childhood, that of ‘I love you. Go away’ adult children of alcoholics may find the person who is warm and loving one minute and cold and rejecting the next, to be absolutely addictive.
‘The challenge to win the love of the erratic and sometimes rejecting person repeats the challenge of your childhood.‘
8. Adult Children of Alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control
Dr Woititz points out that this is ‘very simple to understand. The young child of the alcoholic was not in control. The alcoholic’s life was inflicted on [the child], as was the environment.’
For adult children of alcoholics there remains a fear that if they are not in charge of every detail, or if plans change outside of their control, that they will therefore lose control of their lives.
According to Woititz ‘it brings back all the plans that were never carried out, the promises that were never kept and the punishment that you could not relate to your crime.’
9. Adult Children of Alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation
While Adult Children of Alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation, when this is offered they find it very difficult to accept.
The mixed messages from childhood leave adult children of alcoholics very confused. ‘Yes, No, I Love You, Go Away’ were the messages you received.
Even when you receive approval and affirmation, you find it very difficult to accept. You would have to be ‘bombarded with encouragement’ to ‘begin to accept it.’
In my first few years as an employee I almost killed myself trying to be the best employee that had ever lived. If I did a thousand things right I would take it in stride, as if it was nothing, but if one thing went wrong I would agonize over it and feel that all my good work had just been undone.
The third volume of the book deals entirely with adult children of alcoholics in the workplace. It is called ‘At Work: The Self Sabotage Syndrome’.
10. Adult Children of Alcoholics feel that they are different from other people
For adult children of alcoholics, feeling different is something that has been with you since childhood.
While the other children could immerse themselves in the game, you could never feel fully present, it was like you were just pretending to be a child, going through the motions, your fears and worries about what might be going on at home clouded everything.
You and your entire family became increasingly isolated and, as a result, it is very hard to ever feel part of a group even now that you’re an adult. You never developed the social skills necessary to feel comfortable in a group.
Woititz describes how as a child you may have guessed at what would work to fit in. Like one child who tried to bribe her friends by giving them her prized barbie dolls.
‘It is hard for adult children of alcoholics to believe that they can be accepted because of who they are and that the acceptance does not have to be earned. Feeling different and somewhat isolated is part of your makeup.’
11. Adult Children of Alcoholics are either super responsible or super irresponsible
You either do it all, or do nothing.
I have played both parts. At certain times in my life I was so responsible it was frightening. At other times I behaved so recklessly that it was amazing I survived.
After my father went into rehab, I dropped out of high school and began working to help my mother support my younger siblings. I took on the burden of the family’s welfare and felt like it was all up to me. I felt total responsibility for my mother’s depression and felt that everything my siblings needed I should be able to supply.
I worked myself into the ground, and by the time I moved to London at the age of 22, I was burnt out. I gradually phased into a period of super irresponsibility, abusing drugs and alcohol.
Knowledge is power and knowing these things about yourself and why you are the way you are, is an enormously powerful tool in being able to move past it.
12. Adult Children of Alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved
‘The alcoholic home appears to be a very loyal place. Family members hang in long after reasons dictate that they should leave. The so-called “loyalty” is more the result of fear and insecurity than anything else; nevertheless the behavior that is modeled is one where no one walks away just because the going gets rough.’
For adult children of alcoholics this translates as, if someone cares enough about me to be with me, to be my friend or my lover, than I have a duty to stay with them forever.
‘The fact that they may treat you poorly does not matter. You can rationalize that.
Your loyalty is unparalleled.’
Because the message you constantly received as a child was that the terrible behavior of the alcoholic, was ‘not his fault’, you have no idea about what is reasonable behavior. No idea about what can be deemed acceptable and what not. Therefore, almost any behavior can be empathized with, understood, and rationalized away.
‘Your fears of being abandoned make it almost impossible for you to abandon others……..You find yourself assuming that if he or she is no longer treating you as in the beginning, then there is something wrong with you.’
13. Adult Children of Alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Woititz states that ‘This [behavior] can be best characterized as “alcoholic.”‘
The alcoholic themselves operate in the ‘here and now.’ They want to have a drink. They do not think further than that one drink. They do not think of the consequences, the fact that they may have promised to stop drinking, the fact that they have work to do, or the fact that they promised to be home early. They don’t think beyond that first drink. So adult children of alcoholics may unconsciously model this behavior.
When you were a child, you never had the chance to behave impulsively, you were forced to behave like an adult when you were a child. So as an adult, you may make up for this loss.
‘The situation is further complicated by a terrible sense of urgency. If you don’t do it immediately, you will not get a second chance. And you are used to being on the edge of a precipice, living from crisis to crisis. If things go smoothly, it’s even more unsettling than when you’re in a crisis. So it’s not surprising that you may even create a crisis.’
Adult children of alcoholics also tend to ‘look for immediate, as opposed to deferred, gratification.’ This isn’t hard to understand. As a child, if you didn’t get it now, you never got it.
Promises were never kept. If you were told that you couldn’t have it now, but you could have it for Christmas, or you couldn’t do it now, but you could do it on the weekend, chances are you were disappointed.
Something came up. There wasn’t money, or there wasn’t time, or they just forgot. There were more important things going on, the drama surrounding the alcoholic superseded everything else. You knew that if you didn’t get it now, you wouldn’t ever get it.
For adult children of alcoholics there is a sense of ‘This is my last chance’ constantly. As Woititz says: ‘You even become impatient with yourself when you decide to work on patience, and don’t become patient immediately!’
For anyone who grew up in a home with alcoholism, or any form of addiction or severe dysfunction, I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough. With a section entitled ‘Breaking the Cycle’ and many, many helpful suggestions of ways to deal with these issues, this book is a fantastic resource.
Similarly, if you are in a relationship with someone who is an ACOA, reading this book could offer you tremendous insight and understanding. There is even a section entitled ‘So You Love An ACOA.”
I feel that I gained an enormous amount of clarity in terms of my own life and relationships, and I have been able to deal with most of these issues very successfully.
Some I had already dealt with prior to reading the book, however it still helped enormously to understand where they had originated. Some issues I am still working on, but the self knowledge I have gained is invaluable. If you’d like to read the book, it is available from Amazon.