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 sisters.

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 their midst.

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 the streets.

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