The Compulsive Adult Child
Frederick A. Levy LCSW

Time stalked Terri like restless prey. Each night, after washing the clothes, scrubbing the floors, racing to work - late -tackling deadlines, fighting rush hour, cooking meals, spending "quality time" with the kids, and loving her husband to ecstasy, she would stare at the ceiling, sleepless and senseless, alone with her pounding heart.

Terri saved time as a miser savors money. People envied her success, but Terri just grew older and more tired, spinning like a tottering top dreading her final fall.

Terri, an adult child of an alcoholic, had learned to run past her pain to avoid feeling helpless when dealing with her alcoholic family. Like many adult children, she had thrown herself into her family's suffering to help her non-alcoholic parent contain the spiraling chaos.

In so doing, she gained the non-drinking parent's love, numbed her fears, and jump-started her heart with the adrenalin running through her veins. But survival came at a cost: she still races on, but never wins the roses.

Compulsive patterns - automatic, repetitive behaviors that arise outside of conscious awareness - appear as a response to confusion and fear. In order to survive, an adult child finds habitual means of coping that provide consistency and a sense of control.

As she rushes through numerous crises, life brings perpetual misery. But with this predictability comes relative safety and calm: knowing what to expect, she never suffers a surprise.

Within the walls of endless repetition, she may replay the same scenes forever. Faces and names might change, but the characters remain the same. And when the curtain falls on her latest love, she may numbly recall that she has been there before.

Lacking trust, the adult child desperately desires to share the intimacy that eludes her. Yet, receiving love requires staying in one spot; like the gingerbread man of the nursery rhyme, she can't have her gingerbread and eat it too.

But deep down, the drinking she couldn't cure still haunts her. Even being the best little girl in the world could not keep her family from sinking.

And today, to atone for her shame, she scrubs floors with the passion of a pilgrim seeking absolution, trying hopelessly to remove the stains from her soul. No star in the sky could shine as brightly as her kitchen floor, but she continues to polish, averting her eyes from her reflection.

She longs to feel joy without guilt and responsibility. But each moment seems as programmed as a military march, as she helplessly steps in time to the drinker's distant drum.

So making her escape, she nervously finds fun, like a child on the run stealing cookies from a jar. Overeating, joking at a feverish clip, risking her safety with dangerous sports, or binging on mood changing drugs, she nervously takes her pleasures, until duty drags her home.

But an adult child can find a way to release the chains that bind her. Slowing down, feeling the fear, and beginning to treat herself well begin the road to recovery.

As her feelings unfold, she may experience the grief that signifies years of abuse. Comfort may come from family and friends; Adult Children of Alcoholic groups through Al-Anon can provide support and direction as well.

Now, she no longer needs to face her pain alone. For the adult child, the road back to health can begin with an honest look inward, and a simple request for help.

Copyright Fred Levy, LCSW all rights reserved