Jennifer couldn't sleep. Her boss' announcement of his leaving echoed through her wakefulness like pounding, distant drums. She tossed, dreading the loss of her job; she turned, seeing herself homeless, and out on the street. As the long night lengthened and faded into light, her head throbbed between sobs. Alone and abandoned, she clutched her pillow soaking in despair.
Jennifer, an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, was overreacting to changes beyond her control. Her panic stemmed from her alcoholic home, where the drunken disruptions in her daily life had produced disastrous results.
Nervously awaiting their alcoholic parent's arrival at day's end, young Children of Alcoholics like Jennifer stand watch. Has daddy been drinking? What kind of mood is he in? Did he kiss mommy, or roar past her? Trembling, they scan daddy's mood to head off another drunken explosion.
Frantic and confused, the child watches the non-alcoholic family members for cues, feeling the tension as the others try to contain the rage. Taking notes, she learns to "walk on eggshells," perfect her mind reading skills, and avoid any behavior that could trigger the next blast.
So the Child faces a double whammy: the alcoholic's wrath and retaliation, as well as the family's blaming and shaming if she somehow "sets him off." In effect, the family provides the child with a recipe for insanity: control the alcoholic's uncontrollable behavior, and when she fails, be responsible for the results of his drinking.
Seeking safety at any cost, she learns to manipulate the people around her. As she grows older, her relationships suffer, her self esteem sinks, insecurity builds, and her fear and frustration mount as she pursues her quest without a chance of success.
The compulsion to control pervades her life. On the job, she demands perfection from herself and everyone around her; the slightest problem may evoke her sense of doom. For an Adult Child, a simple mistake can be a like a crack in a seawall restraining the rising water. At any moment, the wall could collapse, and her world wash to the sea.
Intimacy becomes enticing and intolerable. She longs for closeness, but her need to mold others drives friends and lovers away. Secretly scared of the love that eludes her, she masks her fear with contempt towards the people who leave her.
Sometimes, she finds "a project" to sculpt into a monument of perfect love. Usually the proverbial "diamond in the rough," he lives forever outside the pale of her hopes and expectations. And like her alcoholic parent, these lovers are often addicted or in need of chronic caretaking.
Having failed to "fix daddy," she now embraces her new love with all the fervor of a missionary. But eventually, he disappoints her. Feeling robbed and weakened, she withdraws into a deepening depression.
The Adult Child lives on a merry-go-round, but falsely believes she is firmly planted on the ground. Blaming people for her pain, she perpetuates her misery with the same fruitless strategies for coping.
But feelings are critical markers on the map of recovery. Looking within, pain can point to deeper truths that can melt the misery inside all of us who are Adult Children.
We tried to control other people, and gave up our grip on our lives. We expected no less than perfection, and ended up perfectly miserable. We manipulated our lovers to love us, and ended up worthlessly alone.
We discovered that controlling others is impossible. But positive change is inevitable when we confront the self defeating behavior we have learned that binds us to our suffering.