Once we become aware of the effects that trauma has had our lives, at what point do we progress from being victims of our circumstances to being accountable for our choices? This is a question I ask myself a lot, particularly identifying as an ACoA (adult child of alcoholic). This two part article series will focus on how being a ACoA has influenced my personality and thinking patterns, and the steps I take to challenge some of the traits common with this group in order to be a happier person. In reflecting upon if and how much I still identify today as an ACoA, I write this piece as a progress report of sorts. So let’s see how I’ve been doing…
Even splashing around in the shallow waters of the research online, I found that most resources agree that ACoAs share common characteristics because of the circumstances of their upbringing and household. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following are traits that I certainly identify with, which I have divided into two categories: Relationship with Self and Relationship with Others. Some ACoAs find that they identify with at least some of the following traits:
Relationship with Self:
- Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws
- Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time
- Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep
Relationship with Others:
- People-pleasing: sometimes at the expense of one’s personal comfort or dignity
- Emotional regulation difficulties: struggles with having an appropriate emotional reaction to circumstances – can be an over-or under-reaction to life events.
- Hypervigilance: very sensitive fight or flight stress response
- Seek unavailable people (emotionally or otherwise) in relationships
- Fear of abandonment/rejection
- Little understanding of how trust works: can be overly trusting or distrusting
Relationship with Self
Guilt and shame associated with perceived flaws
Growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent, it became very important to maintain the appearance of normalcy, not only to preserve the secret of the ill person from people outside the family, but to avoid adding fuel to the fire in an already stressful environment. When a child or teenager is unable to express their worry or feelings in an effort to avoid rocking the boat, much of that negative energy gets turned inward and manifests as personal shame. I remember feeling like I couldn’t ever make a mistake because I was fearful that any mistake could incite another conflict, and any criticism, no matter how constructive or well-intended, felt like a personal attack.
And now? Grade: B
As I continue to learn more about myself, appreciating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses and seeking to uncover the blind spots in my skill set, mistakes and personal deficits feel more neutral to me. Maturity and confidence help me accept that more and more of my mistakes and fumbles can be chalked up as yet another learning opportunity instead of an indictment of my character.
Both overly responsible and irresponsible at the same time
Many children in alcoholic families find themselves taking on much more responsibility and worry than their childhood peers, because they’re exposed to very adult problems, like the safety of their parent or the state of their parents’ relationship. I felt responsible for the well-being of my family and shouldered that worry in my day-to-day. At the same time, I could be wildly irresponsible with my money and my time – to illustrate: my dignity has still not completely recovered from having my car towed on more than one occasion by ignoring parking tickets and signs.
And now? Grade: B+
I’m still prone to feeling overly responsible for other peoples’ feelings, and will sometimes still wonder if I am the cause of someone’s poor behaviour or bad mood. However, I have become much more responsible for myself – taking more ownership over my finances, commitments, and chores – a facet of adulthood I was slow to adopt. I have become more aware that other people are struggling through their days too, and their bad moods and behaviour could be caused by a hundred different things that have nothing to do with me.
Self-medicating: with food, alcohol, drugs, sleep
It should come as no surprise that ACoAs can turn to substances as well, as a way to manage feelings- we might recall basic social learning theory and role modelling from our Psych 100 class. I’ve certainly been known to manage my feelings by diluting their sting with cocktails, binge eating, or taking what I like to call a “depression nap” – can’t feel bad when you’re asleep!
And now? Grade: A-
I’ve become more aware of when my body needs actual nourishment and when I require emotional nourishment. If I’m suddenly craving a drink or a carnitas burrito out of the blue, I now know to ask the right questions – am I upset? Am I avoiding something? Am I looking for comfort? These questions help me avoid misusing substances or becoming reliant on this kind of superficial support.
As far as this progress report goes, I feel like I’ve done fairly well so far. Stay tuned for my next piece where I discuss how ACoA traits have influenced my relationships, and how I’ve tried to counterbalance these effects.
About Victoria Bain
Hi! I work in Ontario Corrections and I'm thrilled to be writing for Healthy Minds Canada. I have always been passionate about mental health and learning how we can better help one another feel a little less alone in all of this. Thanks for reading!