I’d been getting blamed for things that weren’t my fault my whole life. I constantly scanned for danger signs in other people’s faces. But one day I looked up “adult children of alcoholics” on Google and saw I wasn’t alone.
When Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall came to my city to perform his one-man show Hammy and the Kids a few years ago, I jumped to buy a ticket. Not just because I was a fan of KITH as a kid and McDonald’s show was about his time with them, but because it was also about his alcoholic father. As it happens, my dad is an alcoholic, too. So I figured I’d find McDonald’s performance hilariously relatable, no matter how dark. But I really had no idea what a giant effect the show was about to have on me.
McDonald, of course, delivered. The show was honest while still being silly and funny. But as it went on, he described some of the difficulties he’d experienced as the adult child of an alcoholic. He talked about his time in therapy, struggling with his passive aggressive behavior. He described how in the KITH office, he couldn’t ask for what he needed and he’d boil with resentment instead. When it came to something as simple as wanting a window closed, he’d put his desire on someone else, saying, “Hey, you wanna close that?” Which I found hysterical, because I had just said those same words the day before. As I watched and laughed, I lowered my guard, and then the realization slowly came to me: McDonald sounded a lot like me. For a while, I’d been catching myself doing similar things, and despite my awareness of my habits, I couldn’t seem to stop them.
McDonald’s father, however, did not sound like my dad. His was vicious and sometimes violent; mine was mostly absent and easily irritated. But then McDonald acted out his final confrontation with his dad, when his father recognized he was wrong but still couldn’t apologize or admit it. That’s what my dad does. Seeing myself in McDonald and a bit of my dad in his was a giant revelation. I’d never before connected growing up in an alcoholic home to my difficulties and character defects as an adult. Suddenly, everything came together. Was this something I needed help with, too?
After growing up with a brain that often felt like a foreign invader reacting to things before I could fully grasp them, it was like someone finally handed me a map to understanding myself. I’m glad I was sitting in the dark and that the show was a comedy, because I openly bawled through the end of it, and no one heard me over the audience laughter.
I grew up an only child with a mom just trying to hold everything together and a dad who was a functional alcoholic. He was often-absent, easily irritated, and inconsistent. He still held down a job, but often wouldn’t come home until after I’d gone to bed. We lived in the same house, but sometimes I’d go weeks only seeing him on weekends. Sometimes, I’d imagine he had a secret family somewhere else because that felt preferable to the reality. When he was home, I had the distinct sense he was two different people. One version was my loving dad who spent time with me and made me laugh, the other was a monster who snapped at every move I made. I never knew which one would be walking in the front door every evening. I didn’t know what might set him off, either, so I compensated by taking up as little space as possible. The goal was complete invisibility. If there had been a competition for making yourself unseen and unheard, I’d have been Michael Phelps. (Even now, standing out brings up a bit of inexplicable terror that I have to fight.)
Until I was well into my teens, I had never talked to anyone—not my extended family, not my best friend—about my family life because I was ashamed. Secretly, I believed my father’s drinking was my fault, and I’d internalized this so deeply that I didn’t even realize I thought it. But underneath, I felt that if I’d been better, more perfect, more charming, more lovable, then maybe my dad wouldn’t need to drink.
It wasn’t as if I’d blocked this out in my adult life, but I had been more than happy to never think about that time again. Sure, I had walked on eggshells at home, afraid of setting my dad off, but he’d never hit us or touched anyone inappropriately. So as an adult, I minimized the detrimental effects of living with his disease and insisted it wasn’t that bad. My biggest concern growing up had been avoiding becoming an alcoholic myself, and I’d dodged that by not drinking at all.
When I moved out, I was finally free. Except that I wasn’t. Because the interior of my own mind had become a prison, but I didn’t know why. I had internalized a voice that was forever cutting me down, criticizing me, and telling me I didn’t deserve anything good. For years, I’d struggled with being unable to identify my own feelings when I wasn’t desperately hiding all evidence that I had feelings at all. I was forever running from commitment to commitment, whether or not it was something I wanted to do. I lived in terror of being abandoned if I dared say no to anyone, and the rare times I did, I felt such tremendous guilt I’d apologize.
I had been getting blamed for things that weren’t my fault my whole life, so I’d developed a lightning fast ability to read and respond to other people’s emotions. I constantly scanned my environment looking for danger signs in other people’s faces. As an adult, this gave me a paralyzing self-consciousness that probably looked narcissistic. I’d read into other people’s emotions too much, always assuming if they were unhappy, I was responsible and I’d done something wrong. Moreover, I had a constant need for approval and validation even from people with whom I had an only passing acquaintance and experienced incredible shame if I suspected someone didn’t like me.
It felt like I had a hole in my heart that could never be filled.
That night after McDonald’s show, my life was cracked open, and suddenly I could see it clearly for the very first time. So naturally, I went home and cried for a long, long time. Maybe these things I’d spent my life unconsciously blaming myself for were not, in fact, my fault. The next day I finally mustered the energy to type “adult children of alcoholics” into Google. And there it was: a list of every trait I’d ever tried to change, every single thing about myself that I’d been ashamed of and tried to keep hidden. There were 14 personality traits on the list, and I identified with all of them. The shock of recognition felt both liberating and terrifying. It suggested that my compulsive perfectionism and approval seeking weren’t in-born tendencies I’d just have to struggle through. They were survival mechanisms I’d outgrown. The list’s existence also meant I wasn’t alone: there were other people who also suffered from the same seemingly unstoppable behaviors.
It hadn’t occurred to me that some of my frustrating personality traits weren’t in-born, unchangeable qualities but survival mechanisms from growing up in a home without a consistent set of rules. For the first time, I recognized that I could change, but reading through the ACA laundry list brought another disturbing recognition: I didn’t know who I was. I’d been a chameleon people pleaser and I’d let that habit define my self image for so long that without it, I wasn’t sure what was left. Starting the recovery process also meant admitting that though I’d never been addicted to a substance, I had other addictive behaviors and had used work instead of alcohol as my numbing agent of choice.
For the first time, I saw that I could change these habits, but it would take me a lot of time, hard work, and some pain. Read more “the fix”…