A piece on what we pick up when our parents suffer from addiction (and how we begin to recover).
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.)
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.
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 consistent 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.
We 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.
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.
Now 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.
- 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. ↩
- Or lack thereof. ↩
- 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. ↩
- And everyone else. ↩
- “My existence is a nuisance.” ↩
- “I’ll make people pay attention to me, goddamnit.” ↩
- “If I try hard enough, they’ll love me.” ↩