There are many adults among us — many of whom you might not recognize — with intimate knowledge of what it’s like to grow up with an addicted parent. Sadly, there are also many people who love those adults and don’t know what it is like to have become an adult who was once a child raised amongst chaos. For many of us, our entire childhood was swathed in dysfunction. As development goes, the severe dysfunction of our childhood probably resulted in severely delayed or stunted emotional growth.
Being the child of an addict is complicated, and we can’t always verbalize how so. Even if we’ve had enough therapy to buy our psychiatrist a boat, we still may not even know we are dysfunctional. Bear with us as we continue the work of figuring it all out.
Here are the 10 things we’d like you to know — even if we can’t articulate them:
1. We don’t know “normal.” Normal is a relative term, yes. But our normal is not on the relativity scale. Normal for us can include instability, fear, even abuse. Normal might be a parent passed out in their own vomit. Normal might be taking care of your household, your siblings, your parent(s), and very rarely yourself. This profound lack of understanding leads us to the conclusion that normal = perfect, and less than perfect is unacceptable. Perfect is a non-negotiable term — there are no blurred lines. It’s all or nothing.
2. We are afraid. A lot of the time. And the fear is hidden — sometimes very deeply. We are afraid of the future, specifically the unknown. The unknown was our reality for many years. We may not have known where our parents were, or when they’d return. We might not have known if there would be dinner or drunkenness. While we may know now that those things aren’t likely to happen, that doesn’t make life any less terrifying. This fear may express itself in a number of ways, everything from anger to tears. We probably won’t recognize it as fear.
3. We are afraid (part 2: children). We are afraid to have children and when we do, we are afraid to wreck them, like we are wrecked. If we can acknowledge our own damage, we definitely don’t want to inflict it on anyone else. We don’t really know how to be a parent. It’s actually panic inducing. We will second-guess everything we do and may over-parent for fear of under-parenting.
4. We feel guilty. About everything. We don’t understand self-care. We don’t have clear-cut boundaries. If we stand up for ourselves, we feel guilty. If we take care of ourselves, we feel guilty. Our life is built on a foundation of I give to you and receive nothing. We don’t know how to receive.
5. We are controlling. Because we don’t know normal, and because we are afraid, we may often seek to exert control over anything and everything around us. This can manifest itself in our homes, our work, or our relationships. We may often be inflexible. We don’t usually see this as dysfunction. We will likely frame this as a strength.
6. We are perfectionists. We are terribly critical of ourselves — of every detail. Because of this internal dialogue of self-loathing, we are often sensitive to criticism from others. This is deeply-seated fear of rejection. Please pause, if you are able, and choose your words with compassion. We may have lacked for love. We need it.
7. We had no peace in our childhood. We don’t know peace. This is ironic, because we believe only in perfection and yet we create chaos. Chaos, stress, unrest: these are comfortable for us. We feel at home in these circumstances, not because they are healthy, but because they feel normal.
8. We are in charge of everything — even if we don’t want to be (but we always want to be). This manifests itself mostly in female daughters and especially the oldest female daughters of an addict mother (we have our own books, even). Because these women — like myself — have been forced to take on the responsibilities of the incapable parent(s), they will be the first person to take on everything — to their own detriment. Responsibility is the name of the game. And we will take responsibility for everyone; their emotions, their needs, their lives. In fact, it’s easier to take responsibility for everyone else than even ourselves.
9. We seek approval. Constantly. Our self-esteem is exceptionally low. Our addicted parents were unable to provide the love and nurturing we required to form secure attachment. As such, we will seek that in all our relationships going forward. All of them. This need for approval manifests itself in generally self-sacrificing behavior. We will give to our own detriment. Please remind us to take care of ourselves, too.
10. We live in conflict. We want to be perfect, but we can’t because we are paralyzed by fear. We want to control our surroundings, but we desperately want to be taken care of. We desperately want to be self-assured, because we know that’s the key to the control we seek, but we can’t be self-assured because we grew up believing we had no worth.
If we have chosen you as a partner, or even a dear friend, we may see either a situation that requires our keen ability to pick up the mess, or we may see someone who can love us back to health. Neither of these is a particularly sound choice. We don’t know. We don’t care.
While intellectually we may know that it is our responsibility to manage our feelings, our intellect doesn’t always align itself with our emotions. We may be frail, frightened, scared, lonely, angry, or clingy. We may be all of those things at once.
We don’t mean to be, we probably don’t even know we are.