The shortest and probably the most concise book about why children of alcoholics have the problems they do is The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome: A Step-by-Step Guide to Discovery and Recovery by Wayne Kritsberg. (It’s $8 on Amazon.com)
You’ll see yourself written in this book — you’ll see your whole family. The book answers the essential, “How do I know if I’m from an alcoholic family?” questions immediately, then goes on to show how, why, and what now. Of course, like most self-help books, the words ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS is written in large, upper-case letters across the front cover, so that everyone can see that you’re reading a self-help book with one glance. (I got very good at making homemade book covers out of wrapping paper when I used to ride the subway…)
The book is a great first text to read when you’re just getting into finding out about why it’s hard to be the child of alcoholics. A first book because it’s short (155 pages) and because it cuts to the point, describing the heart of the matter: the types of alcoholic families that exist (4 types) and the roles that kids in those families play (6 roles). For me, it was an eye-opening book. It’s the kind you underline and make notes in as you read, something you truly identify with.
“Adult children of alcoholics can and do recover. Thousands of ACoAs are in the recovery process right now, and thousands more will be joining that process as more and more information about alcoholism and its effects on the family becomes available to the public. It must be remembered, however, that recovery is a process, not an event.”
4 Family Types. According to the author, a counselor, there are 4 types of alcoholic families:
If you’re from family Type 1, your family line is riddled with alcoholism, your parent(s) is drinking and there are drinking aunts or uncles and grandparents and there are rumors of great-grandparents having had issues with “the bottle.”
If you’re from family Type 2, the alcoholic(s) has stopped drinking, and gotten sober, but their behavior and the dynamics in the family are still very much in line with that of an active, drinking alcoholic. So it’s a dry but sick family.
With family Type 3 , there hasn’t been active, alcoholic drinking for a generation, or more. This family type is fascinating! This means that your parents don’t drink and don’t have drinking problems, but they still act like they do because they’re inherited the emotional characteristics and behavioral handicaps from previous generations.
Type 4 is the kind of family that doesn’t have an alcoholic history and nobody is an alcoholic, but then someone becomes one. This is a brand new alcoholic family.
The family I grew up in was family Type 1, my father being the alcoholic, until it became Type 2 when I was in Junior High and my father became a sober, recovering alcoholic. There wasn’t much difference between the two.
“ACoAs are full of repressed emotions. They have carried these emotions around with them for years, and these must find a way out. They must be felt in order for the ACoA to let go and be free.”
The 6 Roles We Take On. The author also talks about the 6 roles that we grow up embodying — the Hero, the Scapegoat, the Lost One, the Clown, the Placater, and the Enabler. You might guess which roles your played just by their titles.
The Hero makes the family look good, and like everything is OK, by being successful in school or, later, work. TheScapegoat gets into trouble, which takes the focus off the family and onto them. The Lost One hides, doesn’t ‘make waves,’ and has a non-presence (invisible). The Clown is obvious, it’s the child who tries to keep everyone laughing and is always cracking jokes. The Placater’s role is making everything “better” by smoothing over conflict (the human resources person). The Enabler works to protect the alcoholic from experiencing the consequences of his or her behavior.
I played the role of a Lost One for many years — quiet, polite, asking for nothing, making no demands, and sometimes played the Hero — going off to work in the Big City, being independent, and definitely played the Placater role from time to time, too — helping my siblings pretend everything was normal so that we could get through the day, so that my siblings could feel less pain and confusion. Placaters can’t say “no.”
“Letting go of the chains of the past and finding forgiveness for both themselves and their families is an integral part of the recovery process for ACoAs. To do this takes many hours of work that is both painful and at times frightening. The question asked over and over by ACoAs is “Is it worth it?” The only answer can come from within.”
Written by a Counselor. Where the book is weak is that it’s not particularly warm or talkative, and it reads like it’s written for psychology professionals more than for children of alcoholics themselves. It’s about “them,” not about you and I, if you know what I mean. (That’s typical of these types of books.)
Worth it for the Charts. There are some superior charts in the book. I love this book’s charts because I can see, “Yes, that’s my experience!” with a short glance. That was my reaction to the Chronic Shock Flowchart which illustrates how children raised in alcoholic homes deal with shock versus how children of “functional” families do. You’ll look at this chart and within 30 seconds have a much greater understanding of why your mind gets fuzzy when you have decision to make or your emotions are out of reach.
The chart shows that when a serious, upsetting event occurs (divorce, for example) that “functional” families (a) talk about the event, (b) put the event in context, (c) support and love one another, (d) allow one another’s various reactions to the event to play out, (e) and integrate the event into their lives, and (f) then it becomes a resolved event. I’m sure you can predict what the “dysfunctional” family’s process is, right? (a) the family is silent about the event, (b) there is no support of one another, (c) there is generalized emotional shut-down among family members, (d) and the shock is never resolved – there is memory loss and disassociation and a state of chronic shock stays active in us. Sound familiar?
“There are two general types of family myths. The first is the myth of how the family perceives itself. The second type consists of those unsubstantiated stories that exist in every family that are not necessarily fact but add richness and a certain color to the family history. Alcoholic families abound with family myths.”
Not Just Emotional Characteristics. The book also talks about the various characteristics of children of alcoholics, and talks about the physical characteristics, too, which I think are so very important (some of the physical characteristics are lower back pain, tense shoulders, gastro-intestinal disorders, sexual dysfunction, and allergies). The author divides the characteristics into Emotional (fear), Mental (confusion), Physical (back pain), and Behavioral (manipulative behaviors).
Suggestions for Writing & Thinking. In the second part of the book, there are some writing and thinking exercises for getting a sense of your own personal history in the context of the characteristics and ideas outlined in the book. This part of the book is extremely worthwhile — one of the exercises is writing an honest letter from yourself as a child to your adult self, reporting on what that child saw and heard at that time in childhood. Ow, right?
I also reviewed this book on Amazon.com and you can read that review here.