Adult Children of Alcoholics and Addicts: Haven’s Story
There are some stories that go untold. As we focus on adults in recovery from addiction, we often overlook the needs of their children.
In addition to what kids have to go through when their parents are active, there are countless adjustments following their parent's recovery that often go unsupported. The long-term affects of this failure can be debilitating. As the adage advises: "What we lived with we learned. What we learned we became."
HAVEN is an amazing young woman who reached out to me long after I helped facilitate her father's recovery. She thanked me for helping her dad as he is thriving today but went on to ask, "You remember me as a kid. I'm an adult now but I'm by no means grown up. What am I supposed to do?"
To best determine what would be helpful and to support her in having a voice, I encouraged Haven to share her story of surviving her parent’s addictions and mental illness and what her needs are today. Her insights as an Adult Child Of an Alcoholic/Addict (ACOA) show wisdom well beyond her years:
“I want you to know that no one in the last three generations of my family had a 'normal' childhood. When I was born, my parents were turning 20 and 21. It was kids having kids. To be honest I don't think anyone really 'grew up'. While I wasn’t ever free to just be a kid, it takes longer for people like me to mature emotionally. We tend to stay stuck at the same mental ages as when we were the most hurt. For me that’s eight years old.”
A Child’s Wish
Clinicians call it “magical thinking”. A child wants something so desperately, they simply decide that bad things were only a dream and/or good things are going to happen because they are necessary. Haven explains this occurring in her childhood:
“I had the strongest wish, a theory, that this was all a horrible nightmare, and that I would wake up tomorrow with everyone home, sober, and filled with love. And every time I realized that wasn't going to happen, it broke my heart even more. Then there were times where I wish we could just pretend, and maybe it would just end up working out.”
Growing up in a family where addiction and/or abuse and neglect is present forces a child to take on roles to compensate for the ways in which the family fails to function in a healthy manner. Most literature on ACOAs recognizes the roles of Hero, Mascot/Clown, Scapegoat, Lost Child, and as in Haven’s case, being a Caregiver:
“My parents did drugs when I wasn't there and drank when I was there. They fought a lot. My mother had a mental health disorder and both of them had a drinking/drug problem. I was eight when the divorce was enacted.
I protected my brother from the things that I couldn't protect myself from. I was young, but I remember how scared I was. He wasn't old enough to remember any of it, which I am glad for. I wish he had some of the good memories. “
“I’ve been labeled an "affected other". That term is so cold and unfeeling to me. It doesn't express the trauma of what I’ve been through. I had to move my bureau in front of my door because I was afraid my Mother's “parties” would enter my bedroom. No child should have to deal with that. “Affected other” doesn't even begin to describe the things I have seen, heard and felt.
Kids are seen as resilient little creatures that bounce back no matter what you do. That notion is deceiving. Sure we “bounce back”, but the way we do can be pretty nasty and disfigured. Only a lucky few can take all that hurt and anger and turn it into something amazing. Some of us become artists, some therapists, others become singers. Music is how I cope and singers are what got me through my low points. Unfortunately, many of us go on to become what we feared: addicts and alcoholics.”
Her View on Recovery
"Only one of my parents is in recovery. The other I have lost all contact with and I prefer it that way. In my mind, when someone is in recovery, they are in for life. It isn't a crutch, it isn't an excuse, its a safety system. Going it alone isn’t manageable. We are pack animals, and when the disease makes you turn on your family of origin, you need another pack that knows what you are going through to help. The family of origin mustn’t become enablers and babysitters, but rather, light houses.
How the Past Impacts Her Present
“I have been hurt so much by my parents that I have a hard time trusting people. I am always positive and strong, but if you could project the inside of my mind, it's riddled with worry, self-hatred, loneliness, disgust and love for this world, indecision, depression, anxiety, artistic abilities, a rhythm that would put Elvis to shame, and a need for me to help people with what I have experienced.
According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I am a Healer. That’s what I tried to do with my parents. I tried to be a mother to them, when they were supposed to be taking care of me. My greatest challenge is to get as good at taking care of me as I am at taking care of others. I have learned that there’s a world of difference between caring for and taking care of."
Today Haven identifies creative expression, writing, and sharing her story for the benefit of others as ways to ensure her continued growth and healing. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the field of health and human services. She shows great wisdom in identifying the need for further healing before entering the field.
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