Heather Ware is an adult child of an alcoholic. She has used her personal experience to inform this blog and her advice to other adult children of alcoholics.
Among adult children of alcoholics, there are certain commonalities that appear in all of our stories. And that makes sense; if you attend a 12-step meeting, you’ll see that most people tell different versions of the same base story. Because addiction is a “family disease,” it’s not surprising that adult children of alcoholics share some similar traits from our similar upbringings.
In this article, I want to elaborate on some of those similarities, and what they mean for adult children of alcoholics as we navigate our lives.
1. Feeling Unsure About “Normal” Behavior
If you have lived with an alcoholic, then your sense of normalcy may be a bit skewed. And that doesn’t just relate to drinking; many of us are unsure about how to handle our relationships, how to communicate with others, and how to handle stress. Because our parent(s) didn’t serve as models of healthy, constructive behavior, we’ve had to piece together what “normal” looks like. And by the time we’re adults, our rocky foundation can make us seem a bit “off” to the people around us.
For example, you might notice that your relationships consistently feel strained, or like you just don’t “get” your partner. This sense of otherness can feel isolating, and it can make being understood even harder. In my experience, I’ve found that therapy and a lot of introspection are both great tools in bridging this divide. Alcoholic families may not always teach the right lessons, but that doesn’t mean that you need to feel distanced from those around you.
2. Trying to Fix “Broken” People
If you’re an adult child of an alcoholic, then there’s a high likelihood that at some point in your childhood, you tried to get your alcoholic parent(s) to stop. It’s normal for children of alcoholics to try bargaining with their parents or otherwise convincing them to get and stay sober. Unfortunately, this route rarely works.
As adult children of alcoholics, many of us now feel an innate drive to help those around us; even if our help isn’t needed or wanted. This can lead to entering relationships for the wrong reason, feeling drawn to toxic people, and holding on to a relationship that doesn’t help us or our partners. This creates a deeply unhealthy environment wherein we are always unhappy with those around us for not taking the help that they never asked for.
Part of reconciling our traumatic childhoods is breaking the cycle of us creating those same conditions. While I don’t know of any way to stop this impulse from appearing, I recommend acknowledging that feeling when it appears, then actively choosing not to act upon it. It’s a learned skill, but it’s also one that I believe any adult child of alcoholics can learn.
3. Consistently Feeling Like Victims
For many of us, we grow up feeling victimized by our parent’s choices. But when we’re older and on our own, those feelings of victimhood often don’t fall away like we’d imagined. Instead, we may find ourselves in new situations where we feel persecuted, even if that’s nowhere near the truth.
This can be true even if we’re the real instigators of the issue. “Well you said this, so I was forced to do that!” was a common refrain in my younger years. An important thing for all of us to realize is that just because we come from dysfunctional homes does not mean that the world has it out for us. And more importantly, it doesn’t mean that we can’t hurt others by accident.
4. Judging Ourselves and Others
After spending our formative years surrounded by substance abuse, many of us find it difficult to forgive others for minor flaws or mistakes. Those feelings can be even more severe when we direct them inwards. For many adult children of alcoholics, this means that we seldom feel satisfied with ourselves or the people around us.
If this sounds familiar, I’d encourage you to take it easy on the people around you. Nobody’s perfect, but counting every flaw in someone else is only going to highlight the issues in yourself. Once you start cutting others some slack, you’ll find that your shortcomings aren’t as important, either.
5. Feeling Responsible for People and Events Around Us
Life from the viewpoint of someone raised by an alcoholic often includes an undue sense of responsibility for those around us. This often manifests as blaming yourself when something doesn’t go well for a loved one. Because of your previous family dysfunction, you may have felt like you could change your addicted parent’s behavior. Now, that same feeling continues into your adult life because you learned to take responsibility for the actions of others.
Honestly, the best thing to do here is to focus on the things within your control. You can support people and help them improve, but you can never control somebody else’s actions. Accepting the real-world implications of that takes time, but this process is well worth it if you want to move past your past trauma.
6. Believing You Can’t Have Fun
Alcoholic families don’t make for the happiest childhoods, and many adult children of alcoholics miss out on being children. It’s hard to relax or have fun as kids, especially because many of us act as pseudo-caregivers for our alcoholic parents: worrying about whether or not they’re drinking, staying up waiting for them to come home, etc. If you don’t learn how to let your hair down as a child, having fun as an adult may not come naturally.
For me, part of my work to recover from my childhood has been learning to stop worrying so much. Staying in the moment is challenging, but it’s important to enjoy where you are rather than worry about what might be going wrong somewhere else. The weight of the world is not on your shoulders. So take a deep breath, let go of the constant worry, and start letting yourself enjoy your time.
7. Thinking That Nobody Else Understands
To put it mildly, being raised by an alcoholic is something of a unique experience. Oftentimes, the way we reflect on our childhoods sounds very different than what our loved ones recall from their own upbringings. But while our experiences are uncommon, none of us is completely alone.
If you feel like you need support from people who understand, you have options. Al-Anon is a group that helps families and friends of alcoholics work through their respective traumas. Alternatively, if you’d like a support group that’s tailored to your specific experiences, the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization offers local meetings where you can meet and share with people who have lived through similar experiences.
Adult Children of Alcoholics Can Recover
Adult children of alcoholics are not eternal victims, and we are not doomed to repeat cycles of abuse. While we face complex issues, each of us has the ability to self-improve and make lasting changes in our lives.
That said, it’s undeniable that adult children of alcoholics face a higher risk of becoming alcoholics themselves. If addiction recovery needs to be part of your healing, you can always speak to an admissions specialist at the Vance Johnson Recovery Center, or fill out this confidential contact form.