7 Things I Learned as the Child of an Alcoholic

By Jessie Monreal 02/07/18

We internalized so much blame for the chaotic emotions and actions of our parents that it became second nature for us to take responsibility for other people's pain and suffering.

A little girl with her hand out in front of her, on which is written "stop"
Children internalize mantras like “not enough,” “something’s wrong with you,” “this is all your fault.”
  1. I do not have to take ownership of someone else’s pain.

Children are egocentric. Their nature leaves them quick to assign themselves the responsibility of many things that are completely out of their hands.

As a little girl, I did not understand that my mother’s pain, her anger, her depression, her excessive absences, her crying, her screaming, her drunkenness, any of it, was in no way preventable—nor was it caused—by me.

We internalized so much blame for the chaotic emotions and actions of our parents that it becomes second nature for us to take responsibility for other people’s pain and suffering. We often grow up perpetually unable to not take everything personally. We may find ourselves reacting disproportionately and often mistakenly when we so much as sense someone may be upset, angry, or disappointed with us. We get so lost in worrying about the emotions and circumstances of those around us, we completely neglect our own.

In understanding where this tendency in me comes from, I was able to recognize it as a result of my circumstances, and not my permanent reality. I have learned that my empathy is a strength, but that I must care for myself as well. I have learned that everyone has bad days, shitty situations, backgrounds, and a million other variables that may affect how they interact with me that has zero to do with me. And I have learned that I don’t have to jump in and try to “fix it” every time someone is upset. Because I have learned that for myself, and others, sometimes sitting with our pain is the only way to heal.

  1. A bad start does not mean a bad life.

The trauma, chaos, and instability we thrashed around in as children was out of our control. Whatever the consequences of our parent or parents using was for us, whether that was neglect, abuse, abandonment, grief, or something else, we were innocent bystanders to their demons.

We were taught that life happens to us, that we will be hurt, that we cannot trust, that we have zero control. We are crafted into victims from the very beginning. And many of us remain frozen in that place, continuously seeking out more relationships that mimic those very unhealthy ones we were first exposed to. We chase alcoholics, codependents, workaholics, abusers, narcissists, and emotionally unavailable people. The misery of our early life perpetually haunts us, and we feel we will never be “normal.”

My descent into addiction and victimhood lead me to bottom out so badly that I had to get sober or die. The more I learned about myself, the more I realized that I DO have a say in the way my life goes, if in no other way than in the way I choose to respond to the situations I am faced with. I have learned to let go of control as well as to take it back. This is the beauty of both acceptance and personal responsibility, two things that we have the ultimate say in. I cannot go back and change the first part of my story…but I do not have to live that part over and over. It is my journey today, and I decide the path I take.

  1. It’s okay to be alone.

I have been hard-pressed to find the child of a parent who struggled with addiction or alcoholism who is not at least somewhat codependent and devastated by any perceived abandonment or rejection. As we grow up and are repeatedly denied the love, attention, and nurturing we so badly need, we are left with self-worth that is in tatters, if it exists at all.

No matter what we do, we cannot compete with the greedy needs of our parent’s addictions, and therefore we push forward through life with a pervasive, underlying message of “not good enough” pulsing in our minds and hearts. This, combined with our need to seek the love we never got, as well as our unhealthy ideas of what affection, love, and communication look like, often send us running into toxic relationships. We may even recognize the toxicity, but our terror of being left, of not being enough, holds us hostage, unable to find the power to choose ourselves for once. This is furthered by our low self-esteem telling us we don’t deserve any better.

After I continued to throw myself into the arms of men who were no good for me even after getting sober, I had to begin looking at why I would allow myself to stay in situations I would have advised anyone to run far and fast from. I learned that something not working out does not mean I am defective. I learned that turning people down doesn’t make me a terrible person. And I learned that being happy on my own is attainable, and certainly much better than being miserable with someone. My worth is innate; it is not dependent upon my relationship status.

  1. There is beauty in being different.

It is a painful realization that something is not right in our family. We start to recognize that our house is different from our friends’, that our parents behave differently than others. We don’t have anyone at our ball games or plays, or maybe we have a parent who shows up drunk, humiliating us.

We may become pariahs, by our own choosing or others’, feeling alienated and misunderstood. We develop social anxiety, or are overly outgoing to compensate. We throw ourselves into our sports or studies, drugs and alcohol, or anything else that provides us with the ability to finally feel as though we “fit in.” We people please, say yes when we want to say no, and stay in situations that are no good for us, as long as it makes us feel more liked and accepted. More normal.

As time has gone on, I have learned that my experiences make me who I am, that each painful situation I fought through has shaped me, and that the miserable hurt and pain I endured allowed me to be someone who can understand others who may be struggling with the same. I no longer constantly apologize for existing, because I know that my uniqueness is something to be proud of.

  1. I am patient with myself.

Often, children of people with addiction become over-responsible. They are forced to grow up too fast to take over the role that the adult is not playing. These children skip from childhood to adulthood, making lunches, cleaning up messes, caring for younger siblings, and caring for the family member (or members) who has the substance use disorder. They are constantly trying to process adult emotions and make sense of the instability they live in.

The parent or parents with the substance use problems are often unhappy, which spills out onto the children in the form of impatience, yelling, blaming, shaming, withholding affection, and neglect. The words in the child’s head become harsh and critical. They internalize mantras like “not enough,” “something’s wrong with you,” “you better not fuck up,” “this is all your fault.” We become perfectionists, constantly tearing ourselves down, judging ourselves, and agonizing over any mistake, real or perceived.

I began realizing that I afforded so much compassion to others and zero to myself. That I held myself to some insane set of standards of never messing up that I would expect no one else to live up to. I realized that my efforts were just as worthwhile and my mistakes just as forgivable as anyone else’s, as long as I continued to try to do better each day. I learned that I am more likely to succeed when I cut myself some slack, and that I tend to feel more confident to try things when I don’t set out needing some weird, unrealistic guarantee I’ll be good at it before I’ll even consider trying.

  1. I found my voice.

Many an addicted home shares a common thread, a mantra that was laid out in many well-known writings about the topic. That is the message “DON’T TALK, DON’T TRUST, DON’T FEEL.” We learn before we even know what it means to lie, to hide, to omit, to manipulate, to sweep under the rug, to pretend, to stifle, to avoid, to misinform, and to not ask. We learn to stuff our feelings, we learn that questions are met with rage or cold silence, we learn that our emotions are bothersome, inconvenient, and unimportant. We are lied to, told we will get in trouble if we tell the truth, that we will get taken away, or that they will.

That well-known mantra rings in our head as we grow up; we may feel suspicious of others, we may be afraid if we speak up about how we feel that we might be judged or left, we may be terrified of our feelings because we spent so much time being taught that they were a problem.

When I began to use my voice, to speak about my experiences, and to own what I had been through, I found that it not only helped me, but that I had the ability to help others. My voice has been my savior (as long as I am not singing with it), it has been my healing, my confidence, and my passion. I have used my voice to open doors for myself, and to inspire others. My voice was never meant to remain unheard, I just had to find it in myself to believe that.

  1. Self-love is not an end point, it is a journey.

We who grew up with alcoholic or addicted parents often find ourselves spending a large amount of our later life trying to recover from our childhoods.

I spent years chasing the ever elusive self-esteem I had never possessed. I fell into my own addiction to alcohol and drugs, and began taking the all too familiar path that my own mother had taken, which then lead me to the intense pain I was in. I struggled daily with the demons of my past as the addiction sunk its teeth deeper into me. My mind screamed non-stop at me about my failures and my lack of worth. The pain was intense, unrelenting, and seemingly endless. The people I saw appeared confident, together, “normal”—some sort of mythical creature that I dared never hope to be. I realized in my descent into self-destruction that I was never going have a chance at escaping the fate my mother had if I didn’t try to do something different, no matter how difficult that may be.

So I got sober. I began facing down the pain that had held me captive for so long. I owned my secrets, no matter how shameful I had been telling myself they were. I accepted the fact that my mother was a sick person who had done the best that she could, and I let her rest. I work every day at being the mother to my son that I had needed her to be for me. I have bad days, I get anxious, I get in my own way, I backslide, I second guess myself. I am a work in progress. I know that I will never be “cured,” and that my past can never be changed, but I can put the work in to be better. I do not have to be another statistic. I do not have to live my life a prisoner of someone else’s demons…or my own. And I don’t ever have to be “normal.”

And I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

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Jessie Monreal currently works at a treatment facility as a clinical case manager. She holds a degree in addiction studies as well as a CADC. She has experience and education in both the mental health and substance abuse field. Jessie has been in recovery for over four years, and is passionate about reaching out to others who may be struggling, as well as educating the public and breaking stigmas. She currently writes a blog on these topics at www.wontstaydown.com. You can also learn more about her at https://www.facebook.com/Jessierosewriter.