Loss of Childhood
Frederick A. Levy LCSW

If anything, growing up as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA) signals an early end to childhood. I will never forget Melinda, the child-woman sitting across from my office chair, absently playing with her tussled blond hair. Haltingly, she recounted the memory of her mother leaving her alcoholic dad. The other kids would be living with mom, but Melinda had decided she couldn't leave her daddy; who would be there to take care of him? Big decision for a kid, and Melinda was four years old.

When a child takes on that level of responsibility, childhood ends. In alcoholic homes, parents are either physically or emotionally absent, often making it necessary for very young children to take on adult tasks. These children learn that to be safe, much less loved, they must often parent the parents who are supposedly providing them care.

Living in constant fear kills the freedom to feel. Many ACAs have survived intervening between a weapon wielding alcoholic father and their battered mother, even though the threatening parent might have been twice their size. To the child, there was no choice. The compulsion to rescue regardless of personal cost was literally learned at daddy's knee.

ACAs also learn the pain of anonymity and isolation. Terrified of public humiliation and exposure, the parents instill in their young captives never to discuss with anyone the family's alcohol related problems.

More importantly, these children are cut off from any adult source of help, since asking for assistance is treated by the family as an act of betrayal. With this daily pressure for survival, the true self, sometimes called the inner child, must go underground. Numb, the child learns to bury their true feelings behind the masonry of a public facade.

This survival self masquerades as a people pleaser, feeling worth only through their accomplishments. They may seem "all together" on the outside, but feel horribly insecure on the inside. They may win every school prize, but rescuing the family, their primary goal, is the one prize that eludes them.

To effect the rescue, they serve the non-alcoholic spouse faithfully in providing order and stability for the family. They spare no expense of time and energy, but pay dearly in a lack of recognition of who they are as individuals, losing themselves in the process.

Deprived of spontaneity, the natural byproduct of appropriate parental protection and affirmation, ACAs frequently enter relationships oblivious of their own feelings and needs. They may develop compulsive life patterns, become workaholics, never knowing how to relax and have fun.

Sometimes, ACAs careen through life, finding an unending supply of wounded to rescue. Adult Children don't count friends, they carry caseloads. Sometimes, their number one patient becomes their spouse, giving the ACA a lifetime job, with few, if any, benefits.

A lifetime of accumulated pain, stuffed feelings, and a burn-out lifestyle conspire to propel the Adult Child to "hit bottom." Yet, this crisis can present rich opportunities, when an Adult Child can find self help books, ACA meetings sponsored by Al-Anon, or begin therapy. Freedom emerges with recognition; if you have seen yourself here, change can begin with the simple awareness that your issues are real, and you really are not alone.

Copyright Fred Levy, LCSW all rights reserved