THOUGHTS ON ADULT CHILD RECOVERY
BY CLAUDIA BLACK, PH.D.
“We became the late night regulars at the local hospital’s emergency room. For instance, one night Mom dropped a gin bottle on her foot and sliced one of her tendons. Another time she was washing dishes drunk, broke a glass, and sliced a tendon in her arm. Another night she threw a saltshaker at Dad, got him in the forehead, and he needed stitches. Once when I was alone with Mom, she fell through the window and was lying there in blood and broken glass, half on the patio, half in the family room. I phoned Dad and he yelled at me to pull her in from the window so she wouldn’t fall farther and slice herself in half. I got down on my hands and knees in the broken glass. I stuck myself through the hole she’d fallen through and moved enough glass away from her so I could pull her inside without cutting her up too badly. Then I cleaned her off and waited for Dad.”
Somebody may ask, “What happened then?” Nothing happens then. Nothing. It is Tuesday night. Or it could be Wednesday, or maybe Thursday. But nothing in particular happens.
But something does happen — children learn to repress their fears, sadness, anger and humiliation. Yet somewhere in their bodies the depth of those experiences and feelings remain, typically dictating how they will perceive and respond to themselves and others. They walk through life conditioned by years of helplessness and powerlessness. This young, 18-year old girl is already abusing alcohol and cocaine, is bulimic, sexually promiscuous and suicidal.
While the following experience may not be as extreme, Bill would also experience the consequences of living in an addictive family.
“We didn’t know dad was addicted to drugs or alcohol until my parents separated. My mom kept it a secret, and my dad just didn’t come home much. He was a doctor and we thought all doctors worked a lot. When he was home we were to stay out of his way, not to be a problem. We learned to never question and never expect anything. We were just supposed to accept his absence and disregard for us. Mom vacillated between depression, being super-mother and having a short temper. We could see her stress but it was never discussed. I really thought I was not affected but then I began to have problems in my relationships. I always seemed to need one but didn’t know how to be close. I became anxious about everything and then that would end the relationship and sabotage my performance at school. I began to experience depression and still struggle with it today. I realize I missed out on a whole lot of basics, such as feeling I was worthy, or that my needs were of value or that I could talk about any of it.”
Common emotional themes for adult children are difficulty identifying and expressing feelings; rigidity in their behavior and they often try to be controlling of people, places and things. Some find themselves overly dependent on others. As in Bill’s situation, they may feel no sense of power or choice in the way they live. A pervasive sense of fear and guilt often exists in their lives. Many experience depression and frequently lack the ability to feel close or intimate with another human being.
While it is true children growing up with addiction are at high risk to become addicted to substances, it is also common to see that they may modify their addiction to a different substance or process than the one they were raised with, such as eating disorders, sex addiction, money related or work addictions. They frequently marry someone who also has an addictive disorder. In addition, as complex as the outcomes are for many children, healing can begin by understanding the basics of recovery.
Recovery begins with accepting two basic rights
1 We have the right to talk about the real issues
2We have the right to feel
Judith Viorst wrote in Necessary Losses, “It is true that as long as we live we may keep repeating the patterns established in childhood. It is true that the present is powerfully shaped by the past. But it is also true that insight at any age keeps us from singing the same sad songs again.”
Adult Children need to take four primary steps
Explore past history
Recovery begins with speaking our truth, naming our reality, our experiences. Exploring past history means asking questions such as “What happened that was hurtful to me?” “What didn’t I have that I needed?” One does not explore the past to assign blame but to discover and acknowledge reality. It is my belief that family members truly want the best for each other and that begins with honesty. We aren’t betraying our parents, or siblings when we become honest about our reality. If there is an act of betrayal, it is with the addiction, the dysfunction of the family system. When we do not talk honestly about our experiences we ultimately betray the potential health of the family and ourselves.
To let go of the past we must be willing to break through denial so we can grieve our pain. In other words, we have to admit to ourselves the truth of what happened, rather than hide or keep secret the hurt and wounds that occurred. It is difficult to speak honestly today when we have had to deny, minimize, or discount the first 15 or 20 years of our lives. There is no doubt denial became a skill that served us as a child in a survival mode. Unfortunately denial, which begins as a defense, becomes a skill that interferes with how we live our life today. We take the skill of minimizing, rationalizing, discounting into every aspect of our life. When we let go of denial, and acknowledge the past, it gives us the opportunity to identify our losses and to grieve the pain associated. It is the opportunity to genuinely put the past behind us. Exploring the past is an act of empowerment.
It is vital, however, that we go beyond the first step. Otherwise, the grief process simply becomes a blaming process. That has never been the intent of adult child recovery.
We continue with recovery as we move from the process of breaking our denial and grieving our pain.
Connect the past to the present
Connect the past to the present means asking “How does this past pain and loss influence who I am today?” “How does the past affect who I am as a parent, in the work place, in a relationship, how I feel about myself?” The cause and effect connections we discover between our past losses and present lives give us a sense of direction. It allows us to become more centered in the here and now. This clarity will identify the areas we need to work on.
Challenge internalized beliefs
Challenging internalized beliefs means asking, “What beliefs have I internalized from my growing up years? Are they helpful or hurtful to me today? What beliefs would support me in living a healthier life?” So often we internalized beliefs such as, “It is not okay to say No,” or “Other people’s needs are more important than my own.” “No one will listen to what I have to say,” or “The world owes me and I am entitled.” “People will take advantage of me.” If these beliefs are getting in the way of how we want to live our life we need to take responsibility for what we do with them. We need to let them go and recreate new beliefs in their place.
Learn new skills
Learning new skills means asking, ”What did I not learn that would help me today?” As well, some of the skills we learned were often skills and behaviors that were premature for our age, or learned from a basis of fear or shame. When that occurs there is a tendency to feel like an imposter. In those situations, addressing the feelings and beliefs associated with the skill will make it more likely we can feel greater confidence in those skills.
With the many different issues adult children may need to address, from healthier decision making to realistic expectations, setting limits, to expressing feelings, etc., these four steps are not always linear. In general, we do them in the order listed, but as you will quickly experience, you often keep coming back to a previous step to do another piece of work.
The knowledge that comes in owning our past and connecting it to the present is vital in developing empathy for the strength of both our defenses and skills. It also helps us to lessen our shame and not hold ourselves accountable for the pain we have carried. When we understand there are reasons for why we have lived our lives as we have, and that it is not because there is something inherently wrong with who we are, that we are not bad, that understanding fuels our ongoing healing. The change we want to create in our life will be made directly as a result of letting go of old, hurtful belief systems and learning new skills.
Addressing adult child issues is about taking responsibility for what we do with our life. It allows us to live with honesty and choices.
BY TIAN DAYTON, PH. D.
Emotional Sobriety is about finding and maintaining our emotional equilibrium.
Emotional sobriety helps us to adjust the intensity of our emotional responses to life. It is tied up in our ability to self regulate on both a mind and body level, to bring ourselves into balance when we fall out of it. Issues with excessive self medication say with food, alcohol or drugs or compulsive approaches to activities like sex, work or spending tend to reflect a lack of ability to comfortable self regulate.
Emotions impact our thinking more than our thinking impacts our emotions. When our emotions are out of control, in other words, so is our thinking. And when we can’t bring our feeling and thinking into some sort of balance, our life and our relationships show it.
In order to maintain our emotional equilibrium, we need to be able to use our thinking mind to decode and understand our feeling mind. That is, we need to feel our feelings and then use our thinking to make sense and meaning out of them.
Balance is that place where our thinking, feeling and behavior are reasonably congruent; where we operate in a reasonably integrated flow.
Tragic events in the media or in your local communities can be PTSD triggers, resurrecting past occurrences in your family. Disaster Distress Helpline is a free, confidential, and multilingual crisis support service for callers and texters. The Helpline staff provides confidential counseling, referrals, and other needed support services. 1-800-985-5990 or Text TalkWithUs to 66746. For More Information