8 Books that Helped Me in ACOA Recovery

By Erica Troiani 06/19/15

When I started recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic, I loathed self-help books thinking they were cheesy and saccharine. Now I own my totally corny love for them.


Starting recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic brought along a lot of changes, but the least expected was a newfound love of self-help books. Prior to this, I’d had disdain for them, feeling they were full of cheesy, saccharine talk, but that attitude changed fast. Before going to therapy or to ACOA meetings, I sought answers in books specializing in overcoming the things I suffered from: extreme lack of confidence, a tendency to self-isolate, and a severe sense of over-responsibility paired with a lack of boundaries.

One of the warnings when you first start ACOA recovery is the tendency to intellectualize your life experience rather than dealing with those messy underlying emotions. But before I could get that far, I did need to make sense of what I’d been through (and how my brain worked) on an intellectual level. Reading descriptions of other people’s lives helped me see that mine wasn’t unique, and helped me understand that my upbringing couldn’t be brushed off as no big deal. 

Now I own my totally corny love for self-help books. If there’s a book cover with a corny cover graphic of a woman holding her arms wide to welcome the world, I probably own a dog-eared, heavily underlined copy. Here’s a list of books (and a couple videos) that I still turn to that helped me in ACOA recovery. Many of these deal expressly with adult children of alcoholics, and the rest, while more general, tackle one specific pertinent issue.

1. The Complete ACOA Sourcebook by Janet Geringer Woititz

As a general overview, Woititz’s book is a great place to start. It offers a good rundown of characteristics of ACOAs and gives insight into how to calm ourselves in order to face the outside world. And it walks the reader through the step-by-step cause-effect analysis of alcoholic homes and the survival traits they create in children raised in them. When I was questioning whether my upbringing was really the cause of my people pleasing and constant simmering resentment, this was the book that kindly took my hand and walked me through the painful realization that, yes, I did need help.

2. After the tears:  Helping Adult Children of Alcoholics Heal their Childhood Trauma by Jane Middelton-Moz and Lorie L. Dwinell

Dwinell and Middelton-Moz have put together an excellent list that explains the characteristics of the varying family roles that children in alcoholic homes often fall into, and addresses how siblings may have vastly differing perspectives on the same situations. Their explanations helped me connect my childhood patterns to my current ones and finally admit that, yeah, maybe I overwork myself to avoid the terror I feel in stillness. In addition, it offers an entire chapter on validating the trauma of our households and breaking out of the denial many of us live in.

3. Transformations for Life by Roland Petit

Petit’s rundown of ACOA issues covers a lot of the same territory as the two books above, but with a particularly helpful twist: he ends each chapter with a list of biographical questions to use in “self-interviews,” and encourages you to speak your answers out loud and tape them. In addition, Petit goes beyond acknowledging and explaining the traits of ACOAs, he lists actionable items on how to work through difficult patterns step-by-step, including recommendations for reducing anxiety and tips for those struggling with social interaction.

4. The ACOA Trauma Syndrome by Tian Dayton

If there’s one book that helped me forgive myself and stop feeling like I was out of my mind, it was this one. The ACOA Trauma Syndrome covers the neurobiology that results from growing up in an inconsistent, possibly dangerous home, and it explains some of the trauma-like brain activity of ACOAs, i.e., symptoms of PTSD. For years, I’d struggled with my mind going blank and freezing up in stressful situations, and I couldn’t explain it to myself, much less others. Dayton’s research explained that I’m not dumb, I’m just getting flooded with fight-or-flight signals and my brain and body can’t choose which one to listen to, so it freezes as I try to make myself invisible.

6. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Brene Brown wrote the book on shame. Literally. Even though she’s not necessarily focused on the shame felt as a result of growing up in an addictive family, her research explains the effects that staying silent about shame can have on people, and she shares the best strategies for developing resilience to it. First steps: accepting our emotions, reaching out instead of silencing our shame, and feeling empathy for others’ shame. Brown’s first book is really just the first in her small canon of related books, including her book for recovering perfectionists like myself, The Art of Imperfection. In addition, Brown has a couple of insightful TED talks that serve as strong introductions to her work and how it’s helpful to ACOAs. Brown’s research and insights were the foundation for the resilience I was able to build in recovery.

7. Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff

About a year into recovery, my therapist recommended I start a self-compassion ritual. Despite all the work I’d done, I still had plenty of negative self-talk. I tried, but it was surprisingly hard, and I could barely tell myself something kind without rolling my eyes. But Neff’s book broke me of my resistance. Her research dives into the dangers of self-criticism (higher suicide rates, depression), where it often starts (critical family members or weak attachment bonds, which many ACOAs know well), and what can be done to combat this pattern and change. Neff ends each chapter with a series of self-compassion exercises to help build the muscle of being more understanding with ourselves, and she demonstrates how much we can improve the landscape of our minds by having the same compassion for ourselves that we find so easy to give to other people.

8. The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron

One of the results of my upbringing is being extremely closed off to new people and new experiences, which can make personal growth pretty glacial, if there’s any movement at all. Chodron uses Buddhist teachings to discuss and combat the defenses our egos put up when facing uncertainty, recommends practices like meditation to work on letting our egos go, and advocates for a “compassionate understanding” of our destructive habits. This book helped me be more open to new people, experiences, and risks by working to be more open and (scary as it is) vulnerable. 

Erica Troiani is a pseudonym for a writer in Austin, Texas. She last wrote about what led her to ACOA.

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