Sharing My ACOA Recovery with My Cousin Helped Both of Us

By Erica Troiani 03/22/17

She told me about the ways she considered herself bad, describing that feeling of shame that so many children from alcoholic families have. These were secrets eerily similar to mine.

Women embrace in support of one another.
She kept thanking me for opening up to her. What she didn’t know was that she had helped me just as much.

My cousin Adriana looked at me in my kitchen, eyes pooling with tears.

“I hide things. There are things I’ve always kept secret and I don’t even know why.” She was describing that feeling of shame that so many children from alcoholic families have, one I knew well. I was overwhelmed with empathy, but I didn’t know how to tell her. My dad is an alcoholic, but this was a well-hidden secret, something the rest of our family did not know. My cousin’s parents aren’t drinkers, but our grandfather was. And even though she knew that, I didn’t quite know how to approach the idea that the ghost of this man neither of us had ever met had deeply affected us both. Where do you even start with that? Toss in that Adriana had never taken kindly to other people telling her who she was and I felt flat out terrified.

I wanted to wrap her in a protective blanket and also to hightail it away at light speed. What if I told her about my dad, my recovery work, my most vulnerable terrifying feelings, and she judged me? Or had no empathy? Or said I was lying? But, she was suffering. She told me about the ways she considered herself bad, describing how she found herself doing things whether she wanted to or not, telling me of habits that felt more like compulsions than choices. These were secrets eerily similar to mine. In fact, many of them were on the laundry list of adult children of alcoholics. So I took a risk.

I looked her in the eyes and I put my hands on her shoulders.

“Number one, you’re not alone,” I told her. “You’re describing the inside of my brain.” She seemed bewildered, but, so was I. I never heard anyone describe their mental experience in a way that sounded so close to mine.

We’d initially planned her five-day visit joking that on day four we’d take a break and just spend time alone, noting that day four was when we usually started to fight. I’d suspected for a long time that we triggered each other, because Adriana made me snippy the way my parents did and by this time, that was rare behavior for me. This trip, though, we had a fight in the first 36 hours. Two nights before our conversation in my kitchen, Adriana had been upset with a friend of hers we’d gone out with, but she didn’t express this with her friend. Instead her feelings came out at me. I was hurt, but thanks to my recovery work I resisted the urge to blow up at her. I took responsibility for my own actions and apologized for saying something that might have upset her and then wrote in my journal instead. I reminded myself that the rest didn’t have a whole lot to do with me.

The next morning, as my cousin was drying her hair she asked me, “So, are we okay?” I thought about lying and brushing it under the rug. But that was the old me. Instead I was honest that she’d hurt my feelings.

“But I wasn’t mad at you, I was just mad at my friend,” she told me, then asked in honest introspection, “when something like that happens, what do I do?”

I suggested in the future it might be better to tell the other person she needed time alone and apologize if she’d been hurtful. Her face went ghostly.

“I literally don’t know how to do that,” she said. She was already in an introspective place, so she spent the next day while I was at work asking herself questions about why she behaved certain ways. And that’s how I ended up telling her about my dad’s alcoholism in my kitchen.

Many of the habits she described were the character defects ACOAs struggle with — ones I also had — but this was a difficult connection to make, largely because my aunt and uncle don’t drink. My cousin’s the adult grandchild of an alcoholic, something I didn’t even know existed until I started my own recovery. But when I told her about my dad and my own self-improvement work, she didn’t judge. She just listened.

So I took another chance.

“I don’t know if you’ll relate to this at all and you might not,” I told her. “But I have something I want you to read and if it’s helpful to you, we can talk about it. And if it isn’t, we don’t ever have to mention it again.” I pulled up the ACOA Laundry List on my computer and watched her read it.

“Yeah, I do all of these,” she confirmed.

We went to an ACOA meeting that night, with my strict instruction that if at any point she didn’t want to stay, she’d tell me and we would leave.

The rest of her visit was an intense blur of talking about our family, having realizations, and mutual exclamations of, “Is that why your mom (or my dad) is so controlling?” By the time I dropped her off at the airport we laughed about how the trip had started. She smiled and said, “I’m so glad we had that fight.”

We were bonded in a new way. Adriana kept thanking me for opening up to her. What she didn’t know was that she had helped me just as much. Having someone else who understood my family from the inside made me feel saner and soon became an aid in my continued recovery.

When Adriana returned home, she started her own journey. It didn’t surprise me that she’d be so dedicated to making her life better, but what did come as a shock was how much better having her to talk to made mine. As I’d said, her description of her mental process felt like someone was describing my inner-most feared secret thoughts, right down to the belief that I was somehow inherently bad. Being able to talk to her about reparenting ourselves and learning to express emotions and draw boundaries made me feel less alone. Before, I’d had my therapist, my ACOA fellowship, and other friends from similar backgrounds. They had certainly helped me feel like less of a crazy person, but having a member of my own family confirm overarching patterns, like that neither of us was taught how to accept and feel our emotions, went a huge way toward reinforcing and supporting my recovery. But more than anything, it’s given me a support system from someone whose nervous system is eerily similar to mine.

Since that visit, Adriana and I call or text each other more often, getting the other’s insight into interpersonal conflicts and whether one of us has been poor at drawing boundaries or falling into old behavior patterns. When I was in the midst of a panic attack after a fight with my fiancé last year, Adriana was the one who talked me through it.

When the anniversary of that life-changing argument rolled around, Adriana sent me a card. I was in a funk when I opened it. It was the day Prince died, and I’d just gotten home from a particularly intense hour of therapy. But when I read her card, a happier tear variety streamed down my face. Inside, she’d sent me a small token of her own journey with a thank you, followed by, “I’m so glad we had that fight.”

I am, too.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix