I’m reading a book entitled “Adult Children of Alcoholics” by Janet Woititz (which, as my therapist points out, is a rather unfortunate name for a woman.)
She recommended I read it – in particular the list of 13 characteristics of adult children of alcoholics to see if I could relate to any of them.
I’ve always thought “burst into tears” an overused and unrealistic phrase, but that’s what I did while I read that list. One second I was fine, the next I was crying. Answers that question.
I don’t want to overdramatize this. I have a great family, and there was a lot of love in our household growing up. I didn’t have a terrible childhood.
But the fact is that one of my parents is overly dependent on alcohol – a situation that grew worse only after I was already an adult – and the other is codependent (a natural thing to become when you’re the spouse of an alcoholic).
I can look objectively back on my childhood and see how our family dysfunction has affected my patterns of behavior as an adult. Those patterns affect everything in my life – my personal relationships, my sense of identity, my work, my mood, my outlook on life, my ability to get out of bed in the morning, my decision making. Those effects are often negative, self-degrading, even paralyzing.
Something happened recently that drove this point home for me, an incident that made me feel very much like the quiet, solitary, terrified 16-year-old who wanted desperately to be liked by a guy but found herself always passed over for the tall, skinny, blond with the cheerleading outfit and the reputation for being an amazing lay (as if anyone anywhere is ever an amazing lay when they’re 16. Bitch, please.)
I could feel the physical reaction coming on – the shrinking in on myself, the flushed face, the desire to run and hide, the clamming up. And I sat there, poised on the edge of flight like a rabbit in a spotlight, and … told myself to stop.
“Just stop,” I said (in my head). “You’re not 16. You’re a 37-year-old woman with an amazing brain, a wicked sense of humor and a good heart. You’re fit, beautiful and possess a confident sense of your own sexuality. You’re physically and emotionally strong. You work hard and treat people with care. You’re worthy. Just stop.”
And I did. I pushed through my desire to flee and said what I wanted to say instead of clamming up and then went on with my life. A life that is unfortunately never entirely absent of that critical, nagging, grating voice telling me that I’m not pretty enough or interesting enough, that I’m too intense, too serious, too much of a mess for anyone to ever love me.
Over the last few days, that feeling has persistently tried to return, and I continue to push through it, forcing myself to think clearly about who I am – who I really am here and now, not the terrified mouse I used to be.
I’m 37 years old and have quite a lot of people who love me, and I still have to actively remind myself of my worth. That’s part of what being the child of an alcoholic is. There are people in the world who don’t have to do continually do that. I want to be one of them.
British writer Caitlin Moran gave an interview recently in which she reads an exerpt of a book she wrote. I haven’t read the book, but I will after seeing this interview. She’s addressing girls with eating disorders specifically, but the advice she gives is relevant for any mental health struggle. Here are a few of things she said that resonated with me:
“Panic and anxiety will lie to you. They are gonzo-maligned commentators on the events in your life. Their counsel is wrong. Panic and anxiety are mad drugged fools. You must not listen to their grinding-toothed sweaty bullshit.”
“You will never in your life ever have to deal with anything for more than the next minute … the minutes always come one at a time, inside hours that come one at a time, inside days that come one at a time … do the calm, right thing that needs to be done in that minute, the work or the breathing or the smile. You can do that for one minute. And if you can do one minute, you can do the next.”
“The most important thing is to know that you were not born like this. You were not born scared and self-loathing and overwhelmed. Things have been done, which means things can be undone. And that’s hard work. But you are not scared of hard work.”
I’m not scared of hard work. I thrive on hard work.
I’ll be thinking and writing and possibly talking about this for awhile, but the point for now is that I have a lot of work to do, and I’m doing it. Because I want to change and have healthy relationships with friends and lovers and family where the tiniest details won’t send me (even temporarily) heart first into a downward spiral of self-loathing, fear-induced envy of strangers, and late-night binges on Chinese food (ugh, that was disgusting. Don’t do that.)