Adult Children of Alcoholics

What does it mean to be an Adult Child of an Alcoholic?

"Perhaps the biggest tragedy in our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns. Entangled in the trance of unworthiness, we grow accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment and anxiety, with restlessness and dissatisfaction."
—Tara Brach

Hello, my name is Elene. I grew up with two alcoholics, my father and paternal grandfather, who lived with us. I was an only child until I was eight and a half years old, and I lived in constant fear of what would happen next. My coping mechanisms were to figure out how to do it right, be perfect, not rock the boat and be the good little girl. All the while, I wondered what I had done wrong.

I searched for many years to find a way out of the entanglement described so vividly in the opening quote. I looked good on the outside; I was super-responsible, capable, and a "nice" person. On the inside I was a mess - full of fear, anxiety, anger, self-hatred - and much practiced at keeping it all on the inside. Or so I thought. It leaked out in controlling behavior, people-pleasing, compliant behavior, approval-seeking, and judgment of self and others. Oh, yes, and did I mention living life from the viewpoint of a victim?

There wasn't a name for the web of emotional pain and unhealthy behaviors I experienced. Yes, there was Al-Anon, and that is where I began my recovery journey. Al-Anon was very helpful, a significant part of my healing. It helped shift the focus from my father to my own behavior. Yet, there was something missing.

In my 40s, I discovered the missing piece; I was an adult child of an alcoholic. I first heard of ACA in 1985 and immediately felt a resonance. At last there was a name for what I was experiencing, and there were others like me. I wasn't alone. There was high energy, enthusiasm and interest in ACA groups for many years, followed by a decline of meetings and struggles in the program. In more recent years, due to the hard work of some of the pioneers and others in the movement, there has been a resurgence.

It was in 1978 that the name emerged: Adult Children of Alcoholics. (From hereon I will refer to it as ACA/ACoA; both are acceptable usages). ACA began with a group of Alateens who eventually became young adults and wanted a program more specific to their needs. Soon they were joined by a recovering alcoholic known as Tony A. He was a New York City stockbroker, about 50 years old, who would become a co- founder of ACA. Tony grew up in an abusive alcoholic home and noticed a set of behaviors that, in his observation, were common to himself and others in the group. He listed fourteen characteristics that have lovingly become known as "The Laundry List." Some of the behaviors included in "The Laundry List" are those I listed in the first paragraph. You can find the complete list on the Internet by searching "the laundry list by Tony A."

In 1991, the idea for an ACA basic text was ignited. In 2006, the ACA "big book" was published followed by a Twelve Step workbook the following year. Other materials continue to be published, giving new strength and clarity to ACA recovery.

What exactly is meant by the term, "Adult Child"? It typically refers to adults who have grown up in alcoholic or other dysfunctional homes. In Tony A.'s words, "An adult child is someone who responds to adult situations with self-doubt, self-blame or a sense of being wrong or inferior - all learned from stages of childhood. Without help, we unknowingly operate with ineffective thoughts and judgments learned in childhood. The regression can be subtle, but it is there, sabotaging our decisions and relationships." (page III, Twelve Steps of Adult Children) In summary, it means we meet the demands of adult life with survival techniques learned as children.

As in Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a statement of the problem and solution. "The Laundry List" is a statement of the problem. As stated in the literature, "The solution is to become our own loving parent." All of us have two distinct aspects of our personality: the Adult and the Child. When these two parts are connected and working together, there is a sense of wholeness within. When these two parts are disconnected, because of being wounded, dysfunctional, or undeveloped, there is a sense of conflict, emptiness and aloneness within. Healing happens when we make the decision to learn from and with the Inner Child.

The Twelve Steps of ACA are the heart of the Adult Children of Alcoholics program. They are the pathway to emotional sobriety. Emotions and the body feelings connected to them were deeply buried inside of me. I came to see that the problem was not that as a child my needs were unmet, but that as an adult they were unmourned. The hurt, betrayed child inside me cried out for what she missed. She so much wanted to let go of the pain and the stressful present neediness she felt in adult relationships. In fact, the neediness itself told me nothing about what I needed from others; it told me how much I needed to grieve the unchangeable past and get in touch with my own inner sources of nurturance. I did this in a variety of ways: Twelve-Step work, therapy, body work and spiritual direction.

The principles of ACA are not about blame. They are about owning your truth, grieving your losses, and being accountable today for how you live your life. Step by step, one day at a time, the movement is from shame to self-worth, from secrecy to honesty, from loneliness to connection with self, others and a Higher Power, and from silence to having a voice.


Elene Loecher 100x149Elene Loecher is a spiritual director and mindfulness teacher with 40 years of experience leading retreats, including 31 years at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center on the campus of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City, Minnesota. She has a private practice of spiritual direction in Minneapolis. Elene has presented at past "The Grace of Aging" retreats at the Renewal Center.
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