Control: The Struggle for Adult Children of Alcoholics

I like to be in control. I’m the oldest child. I grew up in a home where nothing was in my control — something that’s pretty common for children of alcoholics.

However, I’m not a control freak in the usual sense of the phrase. I often think I’m right (who doesn’t?), but I can certainly recognize when other ideas are better or truer. I can let other people take the reins, as long as I trust in their competence and capability. I don’t need to take charge of absolutely everything.

Pretty standard, right? Wrong. I came across a Psych Central article about the ways the need to feel in control manifests in adult children of alcoholics. And again, what an eye-opener! As always, this childhood trauma comes out in some weird ways.

Some list items that stood out to me:

Feeling uncomfortable with uncertainty
You guys. I’m known to say, “I dislike ambiguity.” That’s a thing that comes out of my mouth on a regular basis. I hate uncertainty. I hate the grey area. Most of the time, I just want to know one way or another, even if it’s not the outcome I want. The thing is, sometimes, there is no solid answer, and I’m not sure how to deal with that.

Difficulty having plans change
This one is a real struggle for me. When I make a plan — or even when I’m simply anticipating something — I  automatically create an image of it in my mind. Then, I start looking forward to that thing and building emotions around it. When it doesn’t go as planned, it’s difficult for me to be pleased with the reality. Funnily, this doesn’t happen every time; I can handle most changes of plan easily. It’s really only things that have an emotional connection, I think.

Perfectionism/Being highly critical of yourself
This tendency shows itself most in my “athletic” pursuits. (I put that in quotes because that’s a pretty generous description. :)) I like to be awesome at the things I do; I don’t like just being competent. I like to improve quickly. I hold myself to high standards, and it’s frustrating when I can’t meet them.

Running has been a really great help in this area. I’ve never been athletic, and I’ve always had a super negative interior monologue…and then one day, I was finishing my very first 11-mile run, and when I hit the 10.5-mile mark, I started scolding myself. “Wow, you’re slow. You’re pathetic. People must be laughing at you for struggling so hard.” And then, I snapped back to reality. WHY wasn’t I saying “You just ran 10.5 miles! You’re about to hit 11 miles, which is further than you’ve ever gone! You’re amazing!”?

I’m so, so fortunate to have a friend who is my biggest cheerleader for anything physical. He constantly supports me, always tells me how well I’m doing, and reminds me that it’s fine to be a human who sometimes needs to run slower. After a year of this constant positive feedback, my internal voice changed! I stopped berating myself (mostly) and started being gentler. When long runs get tough, I think — and I’m not kidding — “you-are-awe-some, you-are-awe-some” in rhythm with my footfalls. It helps. I am awesome!

The super-critical tendency has arisen again now that I’ve taken up swimming. I want to be great (or hell, at least baseline competent) right away. I know that’s not reasonable. With the help and coaching from that same friend (a super athlete), I’m trying to quiet those voices and just accept that I’m a beginner, that I’m learning. Maybe not succeeding completely, but I’m not beating myself up about it.

Difficulty delegating or asking for help
I’m getting better at this! I’m pretty comfortable asking for help, though delegating is still tough unless I trust the person. And I either trust people too much or not at all, so that’s kind of a crapshoot.

Are normal people really super gentle on themselves and so easygoing that they just flow with everything instead of wanting to control it? I have a hard time imagining that life. 🙂




A Small Triumph

I have oh-so-many personal-growth goals as an adult child of an alcoholic, but chief among them are those that validate my own worth (as opposed to putting everyone else first). Three biggies:

  1. Stop making decisions that are self-destructive in order to accommodate other people (I have a HUGE problem with this, particularly when it comes to people I adore and things I very much want to do. Also, this touches on codependency, which I’ll tackle at a later date.)
  2. Realize that other people’s needs and wants are not more important than my own
  3. Figure out how to identify and live in the normal, particularly when it comes to finances

Today, I made progress on all three fronts! I’m a part of an exercise group; after each weekly session, the group goes out for a beer. It’s a fun tradition that I love.

Tonight, however, I was torn. I had three options:
– Go for a beer with the group at a new location that I wasn’t particularly excited about
– Go with friend #2 to the bar, as she requested
– Go home, have dinner, and catch up on work

Normally, I would have chosen the first option simply for the opportunity to hang out with my favorite friend, or the second option simply to accommodate friend #2, because I know she really wanted to hang out — even though both of those options would have me coming home later than I wanted, which would mean that I’d just go to sleep instead of finishing my work, which would put me behind financially and perpetuate the cycle.

Instead, I somehow managed to do what was right for ME. I turned down both beer options — with only a bit of guilt — and went home. I got a ton of work done, had a good dinner, and now I’m heading into tomorrow without feeling stressed or behind.

You guys, this is a BIG DEAL for me!

I know it doesn’t sound huge, but let me explain how difficult it was. All the way home, I debated about going for the beer with friend #1. I love him, I love his company, we haven’t had a decent conversation in days, and I miss him! However — because this strong emotional connection is so lovely, I often use it as a reason to make decisions that aren’t right for me. I hang out when I need to be working. I agree to dinners or trips when I should be using the money for other things. I sacrifice my own needs to satisfy his wants. The thing is, he’s not asking me to do any of that, and would be horrified if he knew. So, I’m trying to stand firm when it comes to my own well-being, even when it means sacrificing something that brings me pleasure.

Now, intellectually, I know that this friendship is strong, and that missing one beer is not a big deal. I know that it is not worth the stress and financial burden of falling behind! I know that he would make the same decision if the situation was reversed. And yet, thanks to my childhood, I have this deep-seated terror that if I don’t please the people I love and keep the peace, they will abandon me or deem me not worthy.

…I didn’t put those things together until right this moment.


(A little while later) 

You guys, I had to stop writing for a while. I had to pause to let that realization sink in. That simple thought blew my world right open. I never thought I had a fear of abandonment, but holy shit, this completely explains some of the behaviors that I couldn’t understand but also couldn’t seem to control. The kind that come from so deep within that you’re operating well out of the conscious realm, kind of on autopilot. Frankly, the nutty kind.

This kind of overwhelming feeling — this compulsion to do anything to keep a relationship, even when it seems crazy — only happens with people I truly adore. People I love. People I want to have in my life forever. Turns out, since those relationships are so significant and dear to me, they flip on that deeply rooted terror switch.*

And then I fucking lose my mind. Internally, of course — you’d never know it from the outside. Suddenly, I’m making stupid decisions that I know are bad for me. I willfully ignore work projects for unimportant social opportunities. I create those opportunities, even though I should be doing things for work or health. I worry constantly. I act needy, even though I don’t want to be. I ignore my own interests, instead inserting myself into areas of the other person’s activities as a way to maintain that strong connection. My emotions are suddenly dictated by the other person’s moods and emotions and whims.

And of course, in doing so, I create the thing I fear the most. After all, who would want to be around that nut job?

When I get down to it, it sounds so stupid. How could I possibly think that my sweet friend would ditch me if I have my own full life? If a relationship is strong — and this one is the strongest — it doesn’t need me to hang on for dear life. In fact, it actively needs me to loosen the grip and cultivate my own life so there’s a healthier balance.

And frankly, if a friendship can’t survive me attending to my own needs, it’s not one worth having.

I’m honestly feeling all the cliches right now. A weight has been lifted. A veil has been lifted. I can see clearly now. You guys, I’ve been struggling to find separation and self-fulfillment in that relationship for two years, and I could never figure out why I kept failing! (It’s not a normal struggle for me — people frequently describe me as the most independent person they’ve ever met.) But now that I have seen and identified that fear of abandonment, I don’t think it has such a strong hold on me any more. Fun fact? I can think of pursuing my own interests right now without that tug of fear at my chest!

Well. That’s enough revelation for one night. Thanks for sticking with me!

* (Thanks a lot for that, Dad. Great job showing me that if I don’t step juuuust right, the important people in my life will write me off or abandon me.)

Let’s Talk Podcasts

I don’t know any other adult children of alcoholics (except for my siblings) and I hate the language of 12-step meetings — and I really don’t want to burden my sweet friends with my ACOA issues. So, in the absence of someone to talk sense into me, I’ve found podcasts extremely useful.

Feeling Worthy
I started with this podcast from EFT Radio, which deals with the deeply set beliefs that you’re unworthy, unlovable, or not good enough. I think these are pretty common beliefs for ACOAs; they certainly are for me. For a few days after listening to this one, I actively remembered to think “I am worthy!” on a regular basis. Disclaimer: it ends with some weird tapping stuff, which I am super skeptical about, but I suppose it’s harmless. 

Attitudes Toward Money
As part of my need for chaos and my discomfort with the normal, I have a pretty disordered relationship with money. We grew up without it, so I never knew what it’s like to have enough. Plus, the stress and disorder that comes from spending beyond my means is a familiar place for me.

Then, there’s the natural emotional reaction. Worrying that there’s not enough coming in makes me stress out and constantly run numbers — which eats into the time when I should be working, thereby exacerbating the problem.

So, I’m trying to adopt an abundance mindset. (Bear with me, because I know that sounds cheesy and The Secret-y.) I’d like to be more positive, confident, and relaxed about money so that I spend less time worrying and more time pursuing productive and lucrative work.

This Money Beliefs podcast by Brooke Castillo and the Life Coach School was a good start!

As an adult child of an alcoholic, I try to maintain control in a number of ways, including trying to master a technique before I dive in to something new. Enter Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, specifically, Ep. 209: “Show Up Before You’re Ready”. Gilbert and the lovely Glennon Doyle Melton talk about the importance of just jumping in, even if you don’t feel ready. I don’t know about you, but that is a lesson I seriously need to learn!

Try them out! And, if you’ve found any other helpful podcasts, please share them in the comments.

Pushing Through

I go through this phase where when I’m learning something new, I gather all of the information I can. I work on technique. I try to correct things I’m doing wrong. And that’s valuable, but as a beginner, many times, there’s value in just doing.

I realized this just this morning. I’m learning to swim for a triathlon, and I’ve discovered that swimming — in a serious manner, not just casually around the lake or pool — is hard. There are so many things to keep track of! Keep your face in the water, tuck your chin a little, lift your elbow on the stroke recovery, point your fingers at the bottom of the pool. Kick your legs, but don’t bend your knees. Figure out how to stick your face out of the water juuuust a tiny bit, and don’t breathe in water. Don’t lift your head. Don’t sink!

So I start to cross the pool, and I get a few strokes in, screw up the breathing, and stop. “Keep going!” my sweet teacher-friends yell, “Don’t stop!”

Yesterday, I went to the pool without my learn-to-swim buddy or my teachers. Without that crutch — without anyone to ask questions of — I was forced to just do. I struggled through, lap after lap, wondering if the lifeguard was judging me.

And about 30 minutes in, it all started to click. Suddenly, I found a rhythm. I was still kind of gasping, but I could make it across the pool. Then, I overcame my fear of bilateral breathing and just went for it.

Success! I didn’t care so much about my mechanics or technique, which obviously are still that of a beginner. And I was proud!

And then it clicked: I do this all the time. My voice teacher told me, after endlessly discussing support and placement, “Eventually, you just have to stop worrying about technique and sing. Then, things will fall into place and we’ll fix problems that pop up.” My absolute beginner adult ballet teacher (oh yes, it’s a thing!) said, “Don’t stop when you make a mistake! Just keep going!”

Is this related to the whole adult child of an alcoholic thing? Possibly, I suppose. Sounds like a way to be in control, avoid failure, etc…

Living in the Normal

I just read a great post on Scary Mommy about being an adult child of an alcoholic, and something stood out to me:

“You’re not comfortable with normal.”

Oh. My. Goodness.

That statement rocketed around my brain, setting off a burst of realizations and connections. Of course I’m not comfortable with “normal.” I grew up in chaos and uncertainty. It’s what I know! So A) I’m not even sure how to identify what’s normal, and B) I don’t know how to handle it when it arrives.

To deal with this unfamiliarity and discomfort, I self-sabotage.

If I’m being productive and working regularly, and money is coming in nicely, I suddenly stop working. Or get bored. Or let quality slip. Or suddenly HAVE to go shopping. Or opt not to pay a bill. Or go out for an expensive dinner that I can’t really afford and send everything into a tailspin.

Then, my life is thrown back into chaos, which I know well. I’m comfortable with it. I know how to survive there. It sucks, but it’s familiar.

You guys. This is blowing my mind.

As always, I’m not quite sure how to move forward with this information. But it seems to me that I have to do several things:

  1. Figure out what normal is for money, work, and relationships
  2. Identify when normalcy starts to get scary/freak me out/make me nervous
  3. Recognize those feelings in the moment and address them
  4. Force myself to keep doing the normal behavior and see what happens

Why Am I Blogging?

Courtesy of whologwhy

I’ve been aware of the problems adult children of alcoholics face for some time now. In previous years, I’ve read the Laundry List, but while I identified with it, it never quite hit home.

Then, a week ago, I came across it again. This time, it resonated like someone had slapped me across the face. Suddenly, I saw how all of the worst things about me — things I thought were just unchangeable traits — connected back to my experiences growing up with an alcoholic father.

The main things I noticed:

  1. My tendency to be hyper-aware of other people’s reactions. I’ve always chalked this up to the fact that I’m empathetic and observational (I am a writer, after all)…but what if it’s because I always had to read the room to see what mood my dad was in? And unlike normal empathy, I tend to pick up on the tiniest changes in people’s faces or moods, and instantly assume that I’m to blame. Thinking back on it, a friend’s momentary dark expression or tonal shift can send me into a spiral of worry, anger, and self-doubt. This isn’t healthy!
  2. I lean toward codependency, but only in the relationships that really matter to me. One, in particular. I love this friend dearly, and so I tend to anchor my mood, emotions, and self-worth in his reactions. I also exercise behaviors that link us together strongly, presumably in an attempt to avoid abandonment. I’ve also, on many, MANY occasions, sacrificed the things I want or canceled my plans in order to work with his schedule and preferences, and I’ve made stupid financial decisions to accommodate him.The result? I’ve become needy! (Super weird, given that I’m pretty intensely independent in most areas of my life.) No good for me or him.

    Note: this is ALL ME. He has never asked it of me, and I’m sure he’d be horrified if he knew I was putting myself out.

  3. My self-worth is in the toilet. This is a strange one; I’m very confident in many areas of my life, and most people would never guess. BUT my self-sabotaging behaviors — which stem from the belief that I’m not worthy of love or financial success — usually manifest in money matters and relationships (see #2). As a result, I am in a financial tailspin and I damage any potential of love.
  4. I can’t lose weight. I run five days per week. I’m starting to cross-train in other sports. And yet, I’m holding on to 30-40 pounds of extra weight. From what I’ve read, it seems pretty clear that the weight is affording me a few things: protection from the world (my angry dad) and also from rejection. After all, what if I lost weight and he STILL doesn’t love me (he never will and I know it, and I know it’s not ME, but that’s another story).
  5. I fall for men who are not available or not appropriate. If I know the relationship won’t start or last, I never have to worry about scary long-term commitment.

So, why blog?

Obviously, I have some healing to do. Now that I’m aware of these things, I can’t ignore them! However, after looking into ACA meetings, I found that the language makes my stomach turn. My dad spouted them during recovery, and also when he went back to school to become a substance abuse counselor — when I was still very angry — and I had a jackass boyfriend who went to sex addiction counseling to cover up his disgusting cheating behavior. That language is so closely associated with those terrible times in my life that it makes me miserable and physically sick.

So, I’m going to do it on my own. I started a Google doc that went to multiple pages, real quick — and since I can’t find anything like this on the internet, I’ll do it myself. Partly to organize and track my process, and hopefully, to serve as a resource for someone else in the same boat!

I am an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

I’m the adult child of an alcoholic. Frankly, I hate that phrase: “adult child.” It sounds ridiculous, but it’s the accepted term.

My dad is the alcoholic — he was a big drunk for much of my childhood, but no one knew. Not even my mother. All I knew was that he had a terrible temper, and that he could go from nothing to screaming in seconds. I never knew what I would do to set it off, but it was frequently me and one of my younger brothers that seemed to trigger him the most. When that happened, it was all terrifying, red-faced, in-your-face screaming. Sometimes he’d hit us, too — often, with a belt. Always out of anger.

I lived in fear. I tried my best — walking on eggshells — not to do anything that would set him off. Whenever possible, I hid, losing myself in books and staying as far from him as I could. When he wasn’t in the house, or when he was out of town or gone for any length of time, a palpable sense of relief fell over the family. And then the tension would grow as his return neared. Occasionally, he would lose his mind at my mom, screaming and threatening her. Honestly, I don’t remember if he hit her — it’s entirely possible, but all I remember is terror, and eventually, screaming at him to stop.

We told my mom to get a divorce over and over again, and I was so angry at her for not protecting us from him. Eventually, the shit hit the fan one too many times, and I think she insisted that he get counseling or she was going to leave. At one point, he threw my grandparents out of the house. It was horrifying and embarrassing, and I feel like that may have been the start of the end.

They got counseling, but the damage was done. I’m so thankful that my baby brothers were spared the bulk of his awfulness, but oh my goodness, he certainly left a mark on the rest of us. Eventually, to no one’s surprise, my parents did get a divorce, but it was more than a decade later. And now, I don’t really have a relationship with my dad, but since the divorce, I can at least be in the same room with him without wanting to punch him, so I suppose that’s progress. We text or call on birthdays and holidays, but to be honest, I rarely think of him.

College: Starting to Heal

I started college in 2000, and I was pissed. I was so, so angry at what I had to put up with growing up — but of course, I didn’t know that. I just overreacted to everything, got irrationally angry at small or unintentional slights, and got into some stupid drinking behaviors. Nothing too serious, but not great for a kid who was not equipped to handle it. That winter, my grandpa died, and I was a complete asshole about staying for the funeral and missing my first days of second semester — I didn’t know it, but I was taking out the anger I didn’t know I had on my mom. I honestly had no idea that I was so hurt and so angry at her for not taking better care of us.

Then, at some point, I identified that I was full of rage. I distinctly remember Thanksgiving break of my junior year of college. I was alone in the house, all roommates gone home for the week. I don’t remember what prompted me, but I cried and cried. And I wrote a letter to my dad and let all of my anger out.

And after that, I felt better. I was a little more even-keeled, but not quite so angry.

Where I am Now

Until a few days ago, I thought I was doing fine. A while back, I learned to stop obsessively following the rules — although I admit, I still feel a little bit of a twinge. 🙂

A few years ago, I dated a complete asshole. A “sex addict” — but I think really, that was just his excuse for behaving like a jackass and carrying on disgusting things behind my back. I STAYED in that relationship for a year and a half! It broke me down, demoralized me, made me feel like more of an object than a person, and left me crushed. HowEVER, it did one great thing for me. When I discovered all of the crap he’d been getting up to behind my back, I lost my mind. I had the higher ground. I no longer cared what that asshole thought, so I just let him have it. I began to tell him exactly how I felt and what I thought.

And guess what? The world didn’t crash down around me! I could say how I felt and say what I needed, and everything was all right. Now, granted, the WAY I went about it — in anger and rage — was not healthy, but it was a huge step for me. I’m now able to identify what I’m feeling…though honestly, it is still very difficult for me to articulate that with a person who I care about. I still react dramatically, so it’s hard for me to think rationally and speak evenly.

Last year, I learned something. I was angry at someone very close to me for something he had not done. But I didn’t tell him — maybe I was afraid of how he’d react, maybe I didn’t know how to say it, maybe I was afraid of him telling me I was an idiot — and instead, I just made little digs and little comments, and let him know with my facial expressions and body language that I was angry.

And he did a great thing for me: he didn’t play along. When I finally got up the courage to tell him that I was mad — over Facebook messenger, like a coward — he didn’t apologize. Instead, he said he didn’t respond well to games and that if I had a problem, I should just tell him. And THAT deflated me. Of course there was a little bit of defensiveness, but I recognized the truth in what he was saying. (I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it, actually.) I behaved so badly, and he put me in my place without being unkind.

And that’s about all I can bear tonight. I promise to do a post on why I’m starting this blog soon!