Life as an Adult Child: Growing Up With Addicted Parents
AllTreatment.com had the pleasure of speaking about adult children of alcoholics with Amy Eden, writer of the blog Guess What Normal Is. Eden is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, and has been studying and writing about issues of children of alcoholics for over fifteen years. Her inspiration for her self-improvement blog is to “help people trade armor for courage.”
Adrienne Hurst: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Amy Eden: I was born in Duluth, Minnesota and grew up there and in Oakland, California. My parents were in love but had a volatile marriage, and separated when I was three or four. I lived with my mother just briefly, then with my maternal grandparents (who had raised my mother and her three siblings) for a couple of years, until my father and his new girlfriend (soon to be my stepmother) chose to raise me. I was about five years old. While I grew up with my dad and stepmom, my mother struggled increasingly with serious depression and addictions over the years. She fell in and out of rehabs, group homes, and four marriages all her life until she died, suddenly, at 53. After college, I moved to NYC and then Boston. I worked in publishing (magazines, online, then books) and returned to Northern California almost three years ago with my partner so that he and I could have a child, be somewhat close to my family, and enjoy a West coast lifestyle (I appreciate the temperate climate like never before!). I still work in book publishing in San Francisco and write Guess What Normal Is, which I have been running for over five years.
AH: What was your childhood like, growing up with parents who were addicts?
“As kids, we can’t forage for new, trustworthy parents. I had him, no other options. Puppies wobble towards their mother even if batted away.”
AE: It was way back, when I was in junior high, that my family first became aware of my father’s alcoholism–he was hitting rock bottom about that time. My stepmom gave me pamphlets about what alcoholism was and signed me up for Al-Ateen. The Al-Ateen group was a club, a clique. Many of the kids in the group did drugs, so while it felt good to have people who I knew shared my home life horrors to talk to, it was far from a healing environment. I had a light grasp on the issues of the family disease of alcoholism, very light. But I didn’t get, at all, what the implications of growing up in an alcoholic family were. I was in deep emotional pain with no access to understanding, realization, or solutions. I was a teen living at home, so there wasn’t the space to heal–I was still locked and loaded, in crisis-living mode. Understanding my predicament and working through it was a luxury that was not realistic for me at that point. Everyone around me was sick, crazy, and hostile, and I was defending myself against it all just to keep moving through the day. I had little interest in personal growth and healing as a teen. It wasn’t until I left home and was in college–trying to have romantic relationships–that I sought therapy and a formal way to process and heal from the trauma of growing up with fighting parents, a mother who left me, an alcoholic father and his unhealthy, chaotic relationship with my stepmom (they divorced as my youngest sibling graduated high school).
The hardest part and most lasting issue about growing up in my alcoholic family was living on-guard all the time, and from a very young age. I loved my dad, but hated and feared him, too. I couldn’t trust him. That is a horrible way to exist with one’s own parent because, by default, I trusted him as all creatures naturally trust their parents. As kids, we can’t forage for new, trustworthy parents. I had him, no other options. Puppies wobble towards their mother even if batted away.
And so I grew up with a pinball game being played inside me: by nature, I trusted him, and sometimes experienced the hope of the trust being honored, but then–surprise–I’d experience the anguish of the trust being broken. Over time, I felt very worn out emotionally by the back-and-forth of trust/mistrust and the energy I expelled steeling myself against the next incident. I was angry, too. Of course! Very angry. Very sad. Very confused. I have always been conflicted about that relationship because there is hate and such sadness mixed in with a feeling of familial camaraderie. There is an occasional feeling of being shielded from life’s weight, being okay, that is fleeting but a weightlessness I seek from him without knowing that I am.
AH: What coping processes did you find?
AE: The way I coped, growing up, was to be invisible and cheery; “good.” I worked at being a child without wants, complaints, or bad moods. I became petrified when I contemplated sharing interests or desires with my parents if I thought those desires would be surprising. This is what led me to writing, eventually–a quiet, out-of-the-way means for having my say. I avoided conflict by saying and being whatever was least likely to rock the boat, cause conflict, reveal discrepancies, or expose disloyalty to the family. This turned me into an adult who is afraid of conflict, perceived conflict, expressing wants, and (obviously) accepting myself!
“I can recognize a trustworthy person, but it’s hard to convince the little girl in me that it’s safe to let down my guard.”
AE: I’m still discovering the impact of growing up with alcoholic parents! When I think back on my twenties, I see that I was isolated-without even knowing it. I might have gone out, done things, met people, dated, etc., but my spirit was caged. So when I look back on that period I think, “God, I wish I hadn’t been so hesitant.” That’s a word that comes up a lot when I think about the past and impact of my childhood-hesitation has played a big role. Something happens when we hesitate; we lose momentum and we open the door wide for fear, excuses, and sluggishness. I can recognize a trustworthy person, but it’s hard to convince the little girl in me that it’s safe to let down my guard; so I do trust people, but am extremely guarded about it. It’s like-I’ll sit in a restaurant and enjoy the people and the meal, but I’m going to sit at the back of the restaurant facing out (mafia position)! A lot of people think this kind of childhood creates control freaks, and I joke that I am one, but I have opinions about how accurate that assessment is, which I’ve written about on my blog. I think it’s less that we’re control freaks and more that we’re afraid of things spinning out of control. I don’t trust reality, so I double-check that things are what they seem to be-not in an OCD way, but in an investigative reporter-type way. I grew up with people who rarely delivered on promises, so I’m very comforted when I can be around people who do what they say they’ll do or at least can communicate about why they’re not.
Right now I’m in a stage in my healing and growing up process of making decisions based on trust of my instincts and mind-both at work and in my personal life. That’s really rewarding. It turns out that both my mind and instincts are trustworthy! (The blog is one example of this.) I also do a lot of reminding myself that I’m Okay, sort of like a soothing mother’s voice (my “own loving parent,” to borrow from the ACA literature). I’m Okay…no matter what might be going on. I’m also practicing being observant of my life, relationships, and potential patterns-that is, watching and not reacting, just observing like a painter studying a landscape that she might paint over the coming summer. I’m really becoming interested in family of origin work and will be fact-finding to discover what I can about grandparents and great-grandparents on my mother’s and father’s side (both were alcoholics) to see…well, just whatever there is to see!
AH: What have you accomplished through your blog, Guess What Normal Is?
AE: Readers of my blog say that the posts help them remember that they’re not alone, that their problems exist for a reason, and that the reason’s not their fault. I think that’s been the greatest value to people. I also answer a lot of e-mails from people who are trying to get perspective in the midst of problematic relationships, so there’s that, too. I get so, so much satisfaction from writing the blog. It keeps me on my game and dedicated to my own healing work, and it helps me feel connected to the community of others who share this childhood experience. It’s more gratifying than I can explain.
AH: What advice do you have for other adult children of alcoholics/addicts?
AE: My advice to other children of alcoholics (and other varieties of childlike parents) is to be compassionate towards yourself, and to actively work through the unhelpful behaviors we all struggle with that stem from a traumatic childhood. It’s not an admission of failure to have to go to therapy, twelve step meetings, online groups, or whatever. Rather, it’s a sign of investing in yourself and loving yourself enough to build a road to happiness. You weren’t given a road to happiness (you were told that it doesn’t exist, probably), and you have to now build your own. It’s not what we’d like, but what it’s what we’ve got. It’s scary to do the work and to face the pain, and it hurts. It sometimes feels like drowning while the world’s ending-both at the same time. But the pain of not changing is greater over time because it gets worse, whereas if you do the work to grow up, life improves over time. You do get unburied. It’s a great feeling: personal liberation.
“It’s not an admission of failure to have to go to therapy, twelve step meetings, online groups, or whatever. Rather, it’s a sign of investing in yourself and loving yourself enough to build a road to happiness.”
The problem is that therapy’s expensive. So for people who can’t afford therapy right now, I recommend books and online resources-there are online support groups, too. That stuff is practically free. There are also twelve step groups, and I recommend that as part of the overall process-ACA meetings, Alanon and AA are all useful. They’re $2 per meeting. Ideally, seeing a therapist should also be part of anyone’s recovery. Most employers offer an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), which will allow you to see a therapist for a few visits free of charge. Take advantage of that. Depending on your employer’s benefit program, your therapy could cost as little as $15 or $20 per session (co-pay) if you see an in-network provider. Call your HR department and find out what your benefits allow. Also, some counseling centers run group therapy sessions, and those are usually more affordable-and really effective because you get to learn from others and feel less like the only one struggling in the world.
My other advice is to never assume you’re “done” working on yourself! That might sound harsh, but we’re the kind of people who are really good at tricking ourselves into thinking everything is OK-magical thinking and denial are things we’re masters at-and we want to be comfortable, not chaotic. During healing and growing up as adults we hit plateaus that feel like the end of the race, but they’re just plateaus (not a bad thing; it’s just what they are). And then we get overly disappointed when we come off one of our growth plateaus and find ourselves making old mistakes again. We’re so hard on ourselves that we see this occurrence as a “failure” rather than part of the overall, lifelong process. There are no failures in recovery, just invaluable lessons and practice at being self-respecting, self-governed adults.