If my needs weren’t met as an infant, for example I was denied basic care and emotional support; right out of the starting gate, I don’t trust you.
A couple of months ago I wrote about being the child of an addict. I shared the things I’d want you to know about what it’s like to be me. The response to that article has been overwhelming, and is ongoing. You’ve poured your heart out to me and I have been humbled and honored to hear your stories of pain, reconciliation, triumph.
Many of you have asked for a companion article that offers some advice for those who love an ACoA (Adult Child of an Alcoholic). So here I am, humbly.
If you are one of the many people who asked for this article, you’re already on the path to love and understanding, and miles ahead of those who aren’t attuned to their partner's needs. If you didn’t ask for this article, but are reading it, then I can only assume you’ve clicked either out of curiosity or concern, both of which are a great foundation.
This article is by no means meant to suggest that any person is any more or less insecure — or in need, or struggling — than me (or any other ACoA). It is meant to identify some of the unusual emotional challenges that the grown-up kids of addicts face, and hopefully to give those folks who love us some insight. Of course, not everything I tell you here will apply to every situation: Pick and choose what seems appropriate to you, and even better, ask the person you love what would help.
I’m not a doctor or a psychotherapist. I am just a person who grew up with a significant amount of pain and suffering, which has shaped me into this woman I am today. I speak from my heart, through my pain and fear, and hope that in this you can find some strength, some solidarity, and some understanding.
I’m mentioning this first because you are not responsible for my behavior (in the interest of simplicity, I’ll be identify the ACoA as “me” throughout.) And also, I need it. Who among us doesn’t need some sort of therapy (if you are saying “me”, you probably need it anyway)? I really need therapy. My psychosocial development was probably stunted because one or more of the necessary milestones of childhood was not met.
You can read about Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development here. But to sum it up, each stage much be resolved before the next stage can be addressed. I might just be stuck in Stage One: Trust vs. Mistrust. If my needs weren’t met as an infant — for example, I was denied basic care and emotional support — right out of the starting gate, I don’t trust you. Therapy can help me resolve that and process through the next seven stages.
Try not to scream YOU NEED THERAPY at me. That’s not helpful.
I have trust issues.
See above. I don’t trust you. I don’t trust anyone. I don’t even trust myself a lot of the time. I may be suspicious of your actions for no reason. I won’t necessarily believe what you say to me — even “I love you” may be cause for question. I am probably afraid you are going to leave or hurt me in some way. I know pain more than happiness. I have been left, both emotionally and literally. Being left is a familiar feeling. I may not know any other.
Please give me affirmations — more than once. This means you might be giving more in the relationship than you are receiving, and I’m sorry. I need to know I matter. I have not mattered.
Remind me not to blame myself for everything.
See above: I’m sorry. I’m probably going to be “sorry” for things I have nothing to do with. Your coffee is cold? I’m sorry. I was emotional? I’m sorry. I forgot to put the clothes in the laundry? I'm sorry. Climate change? I’m sorry. I’m just sorry for everything. I probably grew up blaming myself for everything wrong in my life. Kids can’t differentiate between themselves and their parents. So I’m perpetually sorry. Can you remind me when things aren’t my fault? I genuinely don’t know.
I’m probably going to need to hear it several times.
Also know I am going to try to fix everything that is broken.
This is exactly where codependency is born. Take a broken thing and add it to a broken thing so that the thing can fix the other thing, which A. never works and B. is really damaging in the process. Remind me that I can’t, and shouldn’t, try to fix. Because let me tell you, I am going to try to fix it all. My broken childhood turned me into a Fixer, and I’m going to fix you, and them, and work, and the house. And then, if I can’t (because, let’s face it, I can’t), I am going to be self-deprecating. I’m going to feel like I am failing. Because, as far as I know, I am.
I’ve been fixing my whole life.
I am going to try to be perfect. I’m going to try really hard because I don’t know what normal looks like. And I am going to fail. And then I am going to feel like a worthless human being. Can you remind me that no one can fix it all? Can you remind me that brokenness is part of life? Can you tell me it’s OK to be broken? Can you tell me that normal is relative? Because I don’t know this. Can you create a space for me where it’s OK to fall apart? Can you be there when I do? Because I will.
Please don’t tell me I’m crazy.
I already know. I know this is hard because I sometimes act completely irrational. But I am afraid. I know it is not your job to make me feel secure, but you can help. Can you remain rational and help me to rationalize? Can you have a calm and honest conversation with me? Relationships are so hard. And I know I am a challenge. I know this.
But if you stay, if you give yourself to me and hold my hand while I figure this shit out, it will pay in dividends. I will love you fiercely. I will be loyal. I will be worth it. I am an amalgam of the things I have been subjected to, the dysfunction, the pain, the things children shouldn't see, have combined to create an individual that has so much love to give — if I can learn to love myself.
I am fiercely independent — at least the me you see. I am a ruthless perfectionist. I am going to care for everyone and everything I come into contact with, to my own detriment. I’m the straight-A kid and the overachiever adult. I’m probably very successful. And probably very troubled. No one knows what lies beneath. The truth is, that independence and perfectionism covers real pain and fear.
I’m going to be devastated if I don’t succeed at something. (So...a lot.)
I’m going to push you away. I’m probably going to yell at you. I’m probably going to shut down. I’m probably going to tell you I am just fine.
I am not fine.
You are one of a few people who have been able to really know me. That is hard and frightening. Please wrap me in your embrace. Please tell me that I am safe, and love me, and show me that you care. Please be there.
I need you.
Underneath everything, I am just afraid. I am afraid that how I grew up is how life ends up. I’m afraid that I don’t deserve happiness. I’m afraid that everyone is watching, and watching me fail. I am afraid that any weakness on my part will drive people away, especially you. I am afraid of being alone. I am afraid of being with someone. I am afraid of failing. I am afraid of succeeding. I am afraid of you. I am afraid of myself.
Please remember, I am afraid.