Why It Sucks To Be Raised By People With Addictions

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A piece on what we pick up when our parents suffer from addiction (and how we begin to recover).

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I am the child of alcoholics and addicts. BFD, right? You are, too, huh? Great. We should hang out. 1

I learned fairly young what alcoholism was, and that it was bad to be an alcoholic. Exactly why it was bad was never discussed. I assumed, and up until very recently never questioned, that the problem was the drinking itself. If I could go back and ask small Coffey, she’d probably say that the problem with alcoholism was that people got drunk. Before she crossed the line into alcoholism herself, pre-teen Coffey probably would’ve said that the main problem with alcoholism was that people drove drunk.

“Big deal,” she would’ve said.

Young Coffey could usually walk away from a messy parent. Turn on the TV. Hang out somewhere. Eat. Smoke. Why bother making a stink about the drinking? Or the driving drunk? It would only make things even more uncomfortable, and no one needed that.

Plus, it was normal. So normal, it hardly affected me at all.

(Hold for two beats.)

Riiight.

A lot that can go wrong doesn't, but what does happen to most of us rarely gets discussed.

When you’re raised by addiction, a lot that can go wrong doesn’t, but what does happen to most of us rarely gets discussed.


 

It wasn’t until I started seeing common themes and feelings 2 emerge in my work with other types of addicts that I began to realize exactly WHY it can be so damaging to be raised by active addicts and alcoholics, even when there’s no acute abuse or 10-car pile-ups. I’ve come to believe that some of addiction’s damage is universal, whether the parent is hooked on opiates or fast food, and anything – or, in some special cases, everything – in between. 3

Parents 4 in active addiction live in one of three states: anxious craving, the brief experience of the absence of that craving, and regret. Almost every moment of every day fits under one of these three headings, leaving little room for giving much thought to what’s happening in their lives or in the lives of their kids.

Anxious craving obliterates the ability to be present. The addict is pressed to get through the day so she can binge on whatever will stop her desperate cravings. For her, the workday is an obstacle, and small talk can be torture. Checking the mail, doing the dishes, saying hello to a loved one – to most active addicts, it’s all just shit they need to get through so they can finally “relax.”

If the addict is a parent, the child is often treated like an item on a to-do list, a nagging responsibility, an obstacle.

Often that child develops correspondingly low self esteem, 5  behavior issues, 6 and/or Type-A perfectionism. 7

Having only ever gotten the barest minimum of our caretakers’ attention (at best), by the time we reach adulthood nothing feels more unnatural than taking consistently good care of ourselves and our bodies.

And maybe the term self-love makes us want to beat people up.


 

After the binge, regret hits like a truck. The parent comes to in a tiny prison of self-hatred. She can’t believe she did it again.

She feels shame – the emotional oil on addiction’s wheel. She promises to stop using. She promises to stop yelling. She promises to be around more. She promises to be a better mother.

Watching, we learn to make resolutions. We learn that shame  – the idea that there is something wrong with us – is a strong motivator. We begin, if we haven’t already, to make our own resolutions; to vow to fix the already long and growing list of all the things we believe are wrong with us.

We watch. She tries. It’s hard. Relief is easy to get. She falls.

We see that a shame-based resolution isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, but think surely we’ll turn out differently if we try hard enough. If we hate on ourselves loud enough – if we want to be different badly enough.

We try. It’s hard. Relief is easy to get. We fall. For many of us, somewhere in there, our own addictions erupt.

The problem with being a child of addiction isn’t the drinking or the drugs; it’s the shame and the self-hatred it breeds.

Why It Sucks to be raised by people with addictionsWe watch, learning how to be adults. We sense the deep relief Dad gets from the first hit, the first drink, the first drag. He’s really there with us in that one moment, free of both craving and regret, and finally able to breathe, so we cozy up. We get involved. We fetch the beer. We light the cigarette.

And so we learn to associate the brief relief of craving with love.


 

Is it any wonder so many of us default to addiction and self-abuse? How could it be any other way?

It couldn’t. So let’s put the bat down.

That hot fury we ride all day long – we watched and learned that that’s how a day feels.

That constant , desperate ache – that’s the legacy we were given.

That moment when the wait is over – that’s the closest some of us ever get to the experience of love.


Click HERE to see the schedule for Coffey’s ALL NEW, FREE online workshop,
‘Why We Sabotage Ourselves (with Food) (and What We Can Do About It)


For many of us, shame and addiction are our defaults. But anywhere there’s a default setting there are also other options.

Care is one option – to practice taking care of ourselves and our bodies as adults in ways we may never have been cared for in childhood. This is NOT achieved by saying “I love myself” or “I love my body” in the mirror. Though a nice step in the right direction, affirmations are just so many empty promises unless they’re backed by consistent, caring actions:

  • Sitting with ourselves, even when it’s boring.
  • Doing right by ourselves and our bodies, even when it’s hard.
  • Acting like we’re important, like our needs aren’t just items to be checked off a damn list.
  • Acting like pain is a sign that more care should be taken, not like it’s proof that there’s something wrong with us.
  • Believing that there’s more to the experience of love than the brief relief of craving.

The only way acting with care is ever going to feel natural is if we practice.  And even if we practice, it may never feel completely natural to act with care, and that’s OK. The more unnatural it feels, the more we owe it to our younger selves to act with care when we have a choice.

kcoNow that I have children of my own, I’m aware that there are little eyes watching me,  learning what it means to be an adult. I hope to give them healthier default settings, and if somehow I fail, I hope at least to demonstrate by my actions that our defaults need not define us.

 

 

Notes:

  1. This is not an original idea. Everyone’s heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but fewer have heard of ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) or CoDA (Co-Dependents Anonymous) or Al-Anon. Most folks who grew up like I did would fit in like butter in either of these rooms. Then again, folks like me break into hives to think of being within 10 city blocks of such a meeting. Eh. Whatever.
  2. Or lack thereof.
  3. How we’re parented tends to be very different for those of us raised by meth addicts versus those of us raised by food addicts. In the former, the likelihood of trauma and acute abusive episodes is higher. I am not suggesting that all addictions are created equal, or that all households run by addicts are equally detrimental. I’m suggesting that there are universal mental and emotional defaults that kids in addicted households come into adulthood with, regardless of the details of their parents’ addictions.
  4. And everyone else.
  5. ”My existence is a nuisance.”
  6. ”I’ll make people pay attention to me, goddamnit.”
  7. ”If I try hard enough, they’ll love me.”

Comments

  1. Laurie says

    Thanks for this: “Care is one option – to practice taking care of ourselves and our bodies as adults in ways we may never have been cared for in childhood. This is NOT achieved by saying “I love myself” or “I love my body” in the mirror. Though a nice step in the right direction, affirmations are just so many empty promises unless they’re backed by consistent, caring actions”

    Now Do Everything helps me with this every day. Stay strong!

  2. bETH says

    “Believing that there’s more to the experience of love than the brief relief of craving.”
    Well this explains a lot about my teens and twenties!

  3. Charlotte says

    My Dad was an alcoholic until I was seventeen and my mother struggled with it briefly when I was around nine till fourteen. I don’t think I’ve read anything that’s so perfectly summed up my experience of living with addicts. I definitely took on the Type-A-perfectionism. Now that both my parents are sober it’s strange. Neither ever said sorry for what they put my sister and I through, the apology, they always said, was in the giving up the drink. We were to be grateful that they were sober. Which we were but you can’t live in the present if you don’t acknowledge the past. And now that they’re sober, I don’t have an excuse to be the best. Because even when they were falling over drunk they’d pay attention to my grades, my extra curricular achievements but that was about it. I’ve got their full attention now and I have no motivation to spend hours upon hours studying. Which isn’t great when you’re in your second year of Uni and your GPA is barely a 6. I guess I’d always hoped all my problems would go away when they were both sober, and some have, but mostly there is a whole new stack of issues. Thank you for what you wrote though, even though I’ve lived through it, it was extremely enlightening.

    • Kelly Coffey says

      Thank you for taking the time to write, Charlotte. I’m pulling for you as you make your way through college. Take good care of you.

    • Erin says

      Charlotte, you hit such a great point that I wanted to share my experience too. Just because the alcoholism is “gone” from your life now and your parents are sober (WOW such an accomplishment!!) doesn’t mean all the damage from your past is now magically fixed. My dad was an alcoholic and committed suicide when I was 11. So alcoholism was also “gone” from my life at a young age. But it took 20 years (ie until now) to understand I have self-hatred… and everything Kelly talks about (I love this article!!!). I had no clue I hated myself! I blamed it on my inner jerk voice. But now I see believing my inner jerk voice is self-hatred. I felt I needed to “earn love” (just like you with the studying) because I didn’t think just being me was enough. But now I realize… drum roll … that I am enough!! Yes that whole self-love hippie stuff! So long story short, the article is true!!!! Learn to LOVE and care for yourself! Congratulations for having a courage and caring for yourself enough to go to university. Be proud of what you have accomplished!! Follow your passion and study for you, not anyone else!! You can do it! Thank you for sharing your story and giving me insights! :)

      • Charlotte says

        Erin I’m so glad you’ve learned that you are enough, because I think once we realise that the rest is so much easier. I’m so sorry about your Dad, it was a suicide attempt that landed my Dad in rehab for the first time (he had a relapse 6 weeks later and has since been sober) so I can somewhat empathise with you. I’m very lucky that I’ve got two parents who are now sober and though they’re nowhere near perfect neither am I. It’s just sometimes frustrating that this thing you’d had as such a huge part of your childhood and adolescence can be ‘gone’ but still be causing just as many problems because of what you went through and how hard it is to move on. Good luck with your new self love hippie stuff haha, I think it sounds excellent.

  4. Catherine says

    thank you for this article. It speaks volumes. I had 2 alcoholic parents and a brother. “Affirmations are empty promises.” It’s nice to finally hear that. I am not a firm believer in cognitive therapy. The concept that positive thoughts bring positive emotions is great but there is so much more needed. I say “healing takes dealing.” Addressing the past and how addiction has affected our present is so important.

    • Kelly Coffey says

      Healing takes dealing! Catherine! I thought I’d heard it all, but that one’s new. I love it. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  5. Michelle Lanham says

    This can certainly transfer over to other abusive environments children grow up in! It is so painful and confusing when you learn your “normal” was actually improper.

    Then you find yourself at a “Y” intersection, although you do not even realize it: a path to healing creating a new proper normal or a path to carrying on the “normal” as you have always known it to be. I think my intersection was a u-turn made of quick sand and an exit that led to black holes! Haha I have had no hope! No care! My life is the hand I was dealt, or so I have always believed.

    You are a very wise woman Ms. Coffey! My husband, for years now, has said to me that I need to learn to care about myself. If he only knew how hard it is; I always think. Such a simple thing, right!?!

    What you have said here is going to be very helpful! I have printed out the care option and will read it as often as necessary as a reminder and that “…it may never feel completely natural to act with care, and that’s OK.” Thank you!

    @ Charlotte
    Look at your education as being the ONE thing that NO ONE can take away from you. It is all yours! You are the only one that will benefit from it, too! Be proud of that!! Own it, girl! Education can take you places no human being can (much less the parental types)!!

    So…..the next time you pick up a book to study, remember that it is for YOU – no one else! Read! Learn! Grow! Bask! Run with it as far as you can, while you can (taking care of yourself along the way, of course :D)!

    Let’s all look in the mirror and CARE!

  6. Sara says

    Everything, Yes!! I’m in my thirties and just learning to love myself. I had been living with my mother, an adict recently in treatment, to care for her and I’m moving out this weekend.
    Thank you for writing this.

  7. Monique says

    Coffey,

    This was a perfect pairing to tonight’s pleasure principle – and a perfect way to explain WHY you might not feel like you are worthy of being cared for. Or – to state it another way – “Damn girl, have we met?” Thanks for your commitment and your passion.

    M

  8. Krysti says

    This fits my life more then j could ever begin to explain. With my dad an alcoholic from the day I was born and still currently (I’m 25) and my mother a meth addict since the time I was 8( at least that’s when I can remember it starting) I’ve lived with some many demons I couldn’t put in to words. But I’ve over come every single obstacle put in my way and now realize that when I do have a family I will ALWAYS put my children first. They are never second best and should never feel like they are. Thank you for this from the bottom of my heart I am truly grateful I had the chance to read this.

  9. Jenn says

    “In addicted homes, kids learn to associate the brief relief of craving w/ love”.

    Holy Crap-ola!! I’m not going to ask you where you’ve been all my life… you’re here now.
    Thank you Sensei for continuing to help me make sense of my FU thought patterns and get healthy!

  10. Linda says

    Wow! This brought me to tears…we have much in common though I am much older than you are. From the alcoholic parent to WLS to then becoming an alcoholic myself after surgery (11 months sober today!!) I may stay up all night reading everything you have written! How often do you offer the Pleasure Principle course as I would love to take it!

    Thank you again reading this means more than you can imagine

    • Kelly Coffey says

      I’m glad you found me, Linda! The course’ll run again soon – make sure you’re on the list at bit.ly/strongcoffey

  11. Kelley says

    You’re remarkable! Thank you for your insights and brilliant thoughts! I’m amazed how well you tell so many people’s stories (including my own) and to help me understand all the crazy shit I’ve felt for so long. Thank you Kelly! Bless you for wanting to help others heal and doing it in such a real and caring way.

  12. Joanna says

    My story is a bit different in that my father was the child of an alcoholic and many of my family members suffer or have suffered from substance abuse. The dangers of substance abuse and “AA-speak” were common in our household. Evenso, my father was a very compulsive person. When he smoked, he smoked 4 packs of cigarettes a day. It eventually translated into a food addiction, a more acceptable and oftentimes unrecognized form of substance abuse. I actually recognize, “If the addict is a parent, the child is often treated like an item on a to-do list, a nagging responsibility, an obstacle.” It is the way I was parented and it resulted in my picking up my own addiction to food.

    The revelation for me (and I must say that I am very ashamed to admit it) is that I recognize elements of MY parenting style here as well. My biggest fear is that I will pass along this “curse” to my daughters and I have been searching for a way to end the cycle. I cannot thank you enough for the work you are doing. You have the ability to articulate something that I have struggled to define my entire life. For the first time in a very long time, I feel like there is hope and substance to the work I am doing on my behalf. Thank you. Thank you . Thank you.

    • Kelly Coffey says

      Joanna, thank you for taking the time to write this. You know what? I think probably there’s some piece of this showing up in absolutely everyone’s parenting experience. Everyone’s. But when you’re us, and you grew up with it all the damn time, you can’t help but be hyper-aware in those moments when we feel like we’re just acting with a mind toward gettin it done so we can relax, you know?
      Sending you love and patience and some slack.
      Coffey

  13. mixy says

    holy mo, that’s it nailed so beautifully. I’m almost a year into shaking off my addictions (well, the obvious ones), and 40-some years into untangling the chaos wrought by two addicted parents. I’m still battling with the ghosts. But am finally recognising them as such. Happy to have found your blog, another ray of light, thank you X

  14. Stephanie says

    Your words hit me so hard today… I couldn’t get through this without crying and at first I wasn’t sure why. I had to re-read this a few times.
    “Acting like pain is a sign that more care should be taken, not like it’s proof that there’s something wrong with us”.
    This is where i need to learn as I am still in the mindset that “I am broken”…. trying to give care but still feel the pain.
    thank you for writing and posting this today.
    Stephanie

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