5 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics


Number 3: Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.

Growing up I’d always felt like I was different. Not different as in I had some amazing athletic ability or that I was blessed with a brand of intelligence that made me a shoo-in for Harvard but different in that I came from an alcoholic family that most people I knew couldn't relate to. I remember once at a sleep over, in middle school, where I decided to open up to a select group of friends about my brothers’ heavy drug use.

I thought for sure that once I filled them in on all of the sordid details my all access pass to the cool club would be revoked and I would be left to wade through the dramas of adolescence alone. I was surprised and secretly relieved when it appeared that my friends were hardly fazed by the details I shared. Which led me to believe that maybe, despite being both raised by and related to a bunch of addicts, that I really wasn’t that different after all.

Unfortunately, my high fizzled as soon as I found out, a few days after my confession, that my friends had unanimously decided that I had made up everything I told them. So not only was I back to feeling different but thanks to a couple of catty preteen girls I was also labeled a liar.

It wasn’t until I started regularly attending Al-Anon meetings in my 20’s that I was able to connect with other people who had also been affected by addiction. Once I realized that I wasn’t alone, I slowly opened my mind to the possibility that maybe what I feared made me different from other people, really wasn’t all that bad. This realization inspired me to learn everything I possibly could about addiction.

In addition to attending weekly Al-Anon meetings I also sat in on AA meetings. I studied every piece of Al-Anon literature available and after I blew through all of those books and pamphlets I turned to the Self-Help aisle in my local Barnes and Noble. It was through the wisdom of authors such as Pia Mellody and Melody Beattie that my fears and quirks started to make sense.

But it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Janet Woititz’s book, Adult Children Of Alcoholics, that I made great strides in my recovery. Janet was the first to list and describe the 13 most common characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics or ACOAs. Below, I have listed the five characteristics out of Janet’s original list of 13 that I identify with the most and I have considered how each one has played out in my adult life.

1. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun

I took my first trip abroad, with my husband, back in 2011. It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime with an itinerary that included stops in Italy, Germany and Poland. Initially, I was excited but as the trip crept closer I found myself growing increasingly miserable. Instead of anticipating all of the fun we could have, I became preoccupied with all of the reasons why I didn’t deserve to go.

During the trip, against the back drop of the Rhine river in Germany and the grand plazas of Italy, I picked fights with my husband and let my mood swings suck every last drop of joy out of the experience. It wasn’t that I didn't want to have fun but it was more about not allowing myself to have fun because I was convinced that I didn’t deserve it.

Once our vacation was over, I thought about the other areas of my life where I sabotaged fun and enlisted the help of my therapist to work through those urges. Her advice was simple, “Dawn, you’ve just got to fight through it and make a deliberate effort to choose fun as often as possible.” I’m still working on this one and every now and again I fall back into my old patterns but at least now I know that I have a choice and that it is indeed okay and even necessary for me to choose fun.

2. Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy

Organization is not a strength of mine. Sure, I know where all of my fitted sheets are stashed in the closet but when it comes to paperwork and instruction manuals for electronic devices I am a first class mess.

A few months ago, I flat out forgot my debit card’s pin number and after tearing through every drawer in the house, several times over, I couldn’t find the slip of paper I wrote it on.

I could have easily solved the problem by calling my bank and setting up a new pin but instead I sat crossed legged on my living room floor, buried in a pile of random papers, and proceeded to berate and mercilessly judge myself. Over and over I screamed about what a fucking idiot bitch I was and how stupid I had to be to forget something as simple as a pin number.

Like most ACOAs, I grew up blaming myself for everything that went wrong in my family. No matter how clean I kept the house or how strictly I followed the rules, it was never enough to keep my brothers out of jail or stop my mom from drinking herself numb. As a result, I became a Nazi of a perfectionist and even today, as an adult, I am prone to beating myself up over things that are as inane as losing my pin number.

3. Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved

The last guy that I dated, right before I met my husband, broke up with me because I refused to give him a blow job. The last thing he said, after I tried to explain to him why I was so uncomfortable with his request was, “You should be cool with blow jobs at your age. You’re not in high school anymore.”

Part of me knew that this jerk didn’t deserve an apology or a phone call but I called him anyway, a few days after the incident, hoping to patch things up. Unfortunately, he used the call as his opportunity to berate and shame me. He spent a good 20 minutes going on about how much of a paranoid freak I was, how all of our mutual friends thought I was crazy and how I had too many issues for him to deal with.

I hung up the phone in tears, convinced that I had done something wrong and that I was responsible for his reaction. Eventually I realized that I didn’t owe this guy anything and I certainly didn't need to put up with his verbal abuse just because his massive ego had been bruised.

Today, I can honestly say that I am grateful for the blow job incident simply because it forced me to pay closer attention to the quality of men I let into my life and to question why I kept choosing to be loyal to the coke heads, alcoholics and assholes even though I knew they were no good for me.

4. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following through a project from beginning to end

I remember being sprawled out on my friend's bedroom floor the night before her wedding. While she was busy packing bathing suits and tanning oils for her exotic honeymoon, I was busy moaning to her about unfair my shitty life was, “God, it’s so hard," I whined to the ceiling. “My career is non-existent, I can’t find a decent guy to date….What the fuck is wrong with me?”

Without missing a beat, my friend turned from the lumps of clothes in her suitcase and said, “In all the years I’ve know you Dawn, I’ve never seen you finish anything you start. Maybe that’s your problem.”

Growing up, my parents’ addictions took priority over every thing else. So instead of learning how to break goals down into manageable parts or how to be a problem solver, I learned how to survive in a chaotic environment where guns, drugs and violence were everyday hazards.

Even though today I am an an adult in my 30’s and far removed from the chaos of my youth, I still find it difficult to finish what I start. But at least now I’m not dependent upon the alcoholics I know to teach me that I can take responsibility, show up for myself and find the support I need to follow through.

5. Adult children of alcoholics feel that they are different from other people

Several years ago I had a friend whose mother was a hoarder. Over several cups of Starbucks coffee and wedges of blueberry cake, she shared with me what it was like living in a house where there was barely enough room to breathe let alone a comfortable place to sit. Growing up, she feared, just as I did, that she was different from other people. And the more she shared, the more I realized that even though her mother was a hoarder and my mother was an alcoholic we were both equally screwed up in surprisingly similar ways.

So, maybe being an ACOA doesn't really make me all that different from a person who grew up with a controlling mother or with a morbidly obese father or with a chronically ill sibling. Maybe it’s our perceived differences that make us more similar than we realize.

After all, aren’t we all in recovery for something?

This article has been vetted and authorized by SoCal ACA Intergroup. Article by: Dawn Clancy, via: the fix