A Long Overdue Letter to "My Child Within"

An adult child of an addicted parent reaches in

OK. OK. So, I begin with the most distinguishable trait of the adult child of addicted parents.

I begin with perfectionism. I pace. I ponder. I ruminate. I fret. If this was not the age of electronics, the floor would be littered with ripped-up paper. You see, this letter must be exactly right. Flawless. Above reproach. Nothing can ever be a "work in progress." You and I live in a world where there is no language to describe being in process. I must "get it right" the very first time.

And of course, there is no "asking for help." Asking for help is a sign of weakness. We learned that very early in life. Perhaps addicted parents who found recovery can ask for help. That is because they need it. But we are tough-ass survivors. Strong. Resilient. We do not need help. We supply help, whenever and wherever it is needed. We can do it ourselves. We have done it ourselves. It's always been that way.

The truth is I don't know where to begin. I don't know how to communicate with you. I've never done this before. I wonder how the tens of thousands of others, just like me, begin their inner dialogue. How did Tony, the founder of the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) movement, begin communication with his most vulnerable and authentic self-state: the child he once was. You see, I can follow in another's footsteps. I can mimic the work someone else completed before me. I can copy. I can paste. I can quote, cite, recite. I can lecture. I can write.

It is galactically more difficult to reach into the marrow of my own psyche; my own heart and soul; my soma; my mind. I grope in obscurity, hoping to befriend, or nurture and cultivate the person who lies in wait. You are the unborn "I" within me. You have been with me through everything. You know our story. You know the path we have traveled. But in my inner groping, I do not wish to disturb the slumber of some grotesque, hideous monster. Some mutant-self my parents were correct in despising.

You are my ghost self, sitting invisibly on my lap, in gestational stillness, observing, while I plowed frenetically through scores of texts, articles, lectures, testimonials. I seek to learn everything there is to know about Adult Children of Addicted Parents. You remain, already knowing the truth. Everything that is needed waits here within. I must lay claim to our story.

It is said that the Adult Child of an Addicted Parent must learn to re-parent their own wounded, inner child. Yet, I wonder about that. I think it may, perhaps, be the other way around. The Adult Child of the Addicted Parent must learn to receive parenting from their disenfranchised, internalized, disowned self-state. For it is that self-state who most likely knows the most about, is the most familiar with, parenting emotionally crippled adults.

How might we understand and integrate the readings and explorations to which we have devoted our life? Certainly, we understand the language. We know the phrases, slogans, "buzz" words. We know what the "Laundry List" is. We recite the "3 C's" while we sleep. We know the common characteristics befitting of the ACOA: control freaks; approval seekers; conflict avoidant; excitement seekers; overly self- reliant; overly dependent; internalizers; externalizers; perfectionistic; intimacy avoidant; judgmental; confuse love and pity. Countless descriptors. Each one yields a tiny, bird's-eye view into the most complex disease on the planet, and its relentless impingement on the character development of the most unsuspecting victims in its path: the children of addicts.

We know how to apply the Twelve Steps to ACOA recovery. We know how important it is to ask for help, to be part of a community of recovering people. We know the importance of making and keeping one's self spiritually fit. We know when and where to do our daily meditations. We understand the importance of having a sponsor.

This is my first letter to you. The first time I've "reached in" to you. I think it fitting to "keep it simple," so I will leave you with two thoughts for the day. This first one is this: there is a difference between the meaning of the words "won't" and "can't." Our personal anguish in life centered itself around having parents who "won't" love us. And nothing we did or didn't do, said or didn't say, ever changed that. No amount of achievement or accomplishment yielded their love. That is because the parents given to us were too sick from the disease of alcoholism and chemical dependency. They could not love. The disease robbed them of this capacity. This disease does that to its victims. There was no "won't love;" there was only "can't love."

Last, but certainly not to be considered the least, is this—self-care. The most challenging and complicated aspect of being an ACOA in recovery is self-care. Care of the self; care for the self is more accurate. We ACOA's simply do not care for ourselves. This is due, in part, to the fact that we do not know the self we are to care for. Or, if we do know that self, we routinely treat it with careless contempt. Recovery is about growing an internal self. It is about building and consolidating an internal, cooperative, contiguous self-structure. And this is done through radical kindness, radical acceptance, radical empathy, radical tender, loving care of the self.

Radicalization of self-care is done through very frequent communication between internal self-states and the external, everyday self. In other words, communication between you and me. And all that boils down to this: expect another letter from me soon!

Warm and loving regards.

Fran Williams, PsyD, LP, LMFT, is a clinician, educator, and senior psychologist for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, where she works with individuals, couples, families, and groups. She is an adjunct professor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies and at St. Mary's University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Fran presents weekend retreats for ACOA and others affected by addiction at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center.
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