Fear of Intimacy
Frederick A. Levy LCSW
Behind the appearance of calm and success, Adult Children of
Alcoholics (ACA) often bear a sad and haunted look that betrays
their quietest confidence. In the chilling silence of the darkest
nights of their souls, they yearn for intimacy: their greatest
longing, and deepest fear.
Their creeping terror lives on as the step-child of years of
emotional, and sometimes physical, family violence. Normally,
children learn about intimate relationships through both loving
interactions with parents, and effective parental modeling.
In alcoholic homes, all relating filters through "the bottle,"
with the alcoholic addicted to the alcohol and the spouse addicted
to the alcoholic. Their marriage hovers menacingly in the center
of the family as a black hole, drawing all available love and
energy cataclysmically to its center, until all are swept away.
For ACAs, surviving their families becomes the point of existence.
The fortunate may be able to draw support from a supportive adult,
and may emerge with fewer difficulties than their brothers and
The majority, however, have to "make do." Some spend
lonely hours in their rooms wishing only to vanish behind the
woodwork. Others attempt to rescue the foundering victims in
When a Child of an Alcoholic's father threatens his family during
a drunken rage, he may stand between them, putting himself at
great risk. He wins the peace, but only at the cost of the emotional
vulnerability he must develop in order to form mutually nurturing
relationships. Instead, he builds a wall of mortar and brick
which protects him from all forms of human touching, no matter
how harsh or soft.
There are many approaches Children of Alcoholics may take to
handle their stress. Some, sensing their family's need for relief,
provide humor, distraction; anything to attract attention. Ironically,
the more attention this child receives, the less of them anyone
sees. Their clown mask sits permanently in place, until even
they feel oblivious to their own pain.
The raging child, the family sacrifice, absorbs the family's
suffering. Unheard, she lashes out, hoping someone will hear
her screams of desparation and help. Instead, authorities muffle
her cries as they cart her away: to the principal's office; to
detention; and generally someplace out of ear shot. Powerless,
she sinks into despair or drugs, sometimes finding solace in
Romantic relationships may promise a sense of renewal to the
lonely and depressed Adult Child. Aglow, she basks in the rush
of excitement that springs from mutual attraction and discovery.
But when she needs to work out problems and issues, she feels
frightened and lost, flooded with childhood memories of hatred
and destruction. Without the tools to work out disagreements,
she sits alone with the agony of separation from her loved one.
Reunion brings relief from longing and loss, but only until the
next problem emerges from their gunny sack of unresolved grievances.
Eventually, her relationships burn out, leaving her with an overwhelming
sense of bewilderment and grief.
With diminishing energy, she doggedly searches. Fearful of conflict,
she withdraws her love from relationships at the first sign of
imperfection. Disillusioned, she withdraws, with deepening depression.
ACAs cling to self defeating patterns of connecting and communicating,
for behaviors learned in terror do not easily change. Finally,
they feel stuck, surrendering any hope of getting off the merry-go-round
of despair and disillusionment.
Yet, ACAs can change. Drawing from the same courage and creativity
they used to survive their families, they can gain the tools
to drive out the fear that drives their lives. Having struggled
to survive, they can learn to thrive. And thriving continues
with the willingness to grow.
Copyright Fred Levy, LCSW all rights reserved