Book of Note – “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” by Wayne Kritsberg

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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.

–ae.

Comments

  1. Ryan says:

    Yup, the book the started my journey on this subject. Definitely a must read, we even had the 6 role players in my family and some people played multiple roles…

  2. EW says:

    This was one of the first books I purchased on my own about ACOA’s, after I read “It Will Never Happen to Me”
    I’m glad you’re writing about it because it truly is an awesome book.

  3. amyeden says:

    EW – How is It Will Never Happen to Me? (Sounds like I should read it.)
    Ryan – All 6 roles?! My goodness. Multiple roles? Oh, yes, me too.
    ae

  4. Angela says:

    This was the first ACOA book I read. It gave me the courage to find Al-Anon.

  5. EW says:

    “It will never happen to me” is very similar to Wayne Kritsbergs book but it goes a little more in depth (I think) about the different roles people play. Overall, they are very similar books – you aren’t really missing much since you’ve read Kritsbergs book. It’s a pretty good book for people who have just gotten into reading ACOA literature. My therapist let me borrow it and it was very, very insightful for my first piece of ACOA literature.

  6. When I first read this – I couldn’t believe it – “What -other people like me?” I’ve always felt like an alien living in secret – and suddenly – I stumble upon this collection to discover I’m not alone… Hooray! I’m not crazy!

  7. amy eden says:

    Ha ha, thanks. Youre not crazy! Youre normal! I have to remind myself of that a lot, but it works. And the brain eventually begins to accept it, too…and self-esteem follows. :-) ae

  8. marina says:

    Thank you, I cant tell you how grateful I am to find this post. Ever since I was 5 Ive thought of suicide. I was the only one in the family speaking up, eldest daughter, and boy did I get punished and told I was difficult, mad etc, while witnessing them setting themselves on fire, falling through panes of glass,breaking limbs,screaming, stumbling and slurring etc. Never could understand my emotional numbness and shock, started self harming young,which frankly I think protected me from suicide. Now Ive developed MS, I feel as a result of so many shocks, Im learning to detatch myself, but still dont know how to handle all the rage and grief, nor how to get their hideous drunken insults out of my head! Im doing an MA in animation now after years away from the school system and struggling with the authority figures there, which is how I got to this post. So truly, thank you this has made me feel sane.

  9. amy eden says:

    Im so glad this was helpful. It sounds like youve witnessed a lot of painful times – painful for them, painful for you. Its great that despite the pain you carry that youve moved on and are trying to figure out how to keep growing up, year by year.

  10. marina says:

    Honestly Im not sure how painful for them, besides the injuries they appear to be in complete denial
    about it {oo I hate that word but it best describes it}
    This is kind of funny in a sick way, once when my , mother, drunk set her hair on fire with her lit cigarette, and i panicking, I was about 9, blew it out in tears of fright, she yelled at me that I was being ridiculous and I was imagining it! Her head was like a torch ,the room stank of her burned hair and she had a bald patch, she never acknowledged it. Presumably the alcohol numbed her.
    This kind of occurrence was standard and its the disavowal of what you witness that makes you distrust your sanity.

  11. thanks for sharing the book.

  12. It Will Never Happen To Me was one the first books that I read when I started looking at my incest issues back in the 1970′s. It was many years later that I found Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al-Anon meetings.
    I had forgotten about Wayne Kritsberg’s book. Thanks for reminding me. I learned a lot about myself and my family from that book. Today I realize that my family of origin is full of alcoholics who don’t even realize that they are alcoholics.

  13. Charles Whitcomb says:

    I am glad that some of the great books for us resurface again and again. The early books by Claudia Black, Sharon Wegscheider Cruse,Janet Woititz, and Charlie Whitfield all helped me so much. And then there were the add on books- The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck, If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him by Sheldon B. Kopp, Becoming Naturally Therapeutic by Jacquelyn Small added the components of what to do. I was blessed to be there as the ACOA movement blossomed. Probably the most useful thing after the identification of the problem was finding out that the 12 Steps, EXACTLY as written in AA, worked beautifully and allowed us all to use the other therapeutic offerings without being further damaged. Janet Woititz hit it when she said “I have never been scared for the safety of an adult child client unless they have had years of conventional therapy.” And Claudia Black was pretty sharp when she pointed out that a large percentage of Rehabs function like Alcoholic Families.
    Your site is great and I have had a great time reading about your discoveries. As an uplift, remember that Should is Sh*t, Stuffing is for Turkeys, Tears don’t mean you are falling apart – they mean you are coming together, and “Understanding” is the booby prize!

  14. amy eden says:

    Hi Charles -
    Thanks. It amazes me how relevant today the old books on adult children of alcoholics are – they are quite timeless.
    Ive read The Road Less Traveled, which was helpful, but I didnt know about the If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him book – what a title. Once Ive reviewed all the old classics, Ill move into the 90s, then the 2010s.
    Stuffing is for Turkeys – now, that I love. Ha! :-) amy

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  16. David says:

    I was totally aca’d out and wanted something different, but on a similar theme.
    I actually googled ‘random’. But this site filled the Bill. Didn’t feel like a ‘I had come
    home’. I didn’t come here expecting that. But felt like I had wandered through the
    park around the corner, smelt the daisies.

    I managed to get a copy of Tony A.’s book ‘The Laundry List’ earlier this year. It
    was a smallish hip-pocket thang. It was great because I get jaded by the endless lists
    adult child writers seem to concoct.

    I wish there was a simple answer. Well yes, there is a simple answer… what would I do with out my hang-ups?

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks. Happy to offer some daisies.
      I know what you mean about the…typical acoa stuff. That’s the Why behind this site, or at least was in the beginning.
      Glad you wandered in.

      You Googled “random” — now that is terribly funny.

  17. Keith Q. Schenck says:

    Thank you,
    as much as I would lead anyone to wander into newness,
    these classic roles; conditions; and life reactions don’t stray that far
    away when in an attempt to grasp what happened to life during and after alcohol
    so here we pick up some more insights.
    The very next time I purchase this book like for the 5th time it’s a no loaner!

  18. Jay Roberts says:

    Wandered into your book review and will continue to read your work. I find it clear, grounded and rational, with a touch of irony. You have made my night.

  19. [...] Wayne Kritsberg’s book “The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome” before, here.  Now I’m circling back to Chapter 8 of his book, where he discusses the Recovery [...]

  20. Could Only Try says:

    long story short…I took a chance and bought the Janet Woititz Adult Child of an Alcoholic for the man i love/d, the man that, from the second he took my hand on our first date where for the first time in my life i felt that I could marry and be with till we were old and wrinkly. I realised he fit the characteristics pf an ACOA like a glove. He had tried conventional therapy over time to no avail, no psych had ever realised that he is an ACOA. I bought him the book as a present and wrote a dedication in it for him, something like “i hope this helps you start off your journey”. I loved him too much to just sit back and watch him wonder aimlessly asking why he was the way he was, saying he didnt know why he did the things he did etc. I did not diagnose him, just through research I wanted to show him another possibility, another explanation that he keeps seeking. He got very angry at me. He let the relationship end. I just stood back and he didnt say anything, he just went silent for months. I didnt talk to him till I sought him out at Christmas last year. He replied, admitted he was angry but understood I just wanted to help. He said he still had the book but hadnt read it. We stayed in touch a while longer, till I couldnt wait anymore…total of 4 patient years. Earlier this year I wrote him again, I confessed how much I loved him and that I missed him. he wrote back, he apologised for “always ruining relationships when he has feelings for someone”… so I took the chance to try to lead the horse to water, and asked him to please read the book..that i wasnt blaiming anyone or criticising him, that I just hoped the book might help him in the right direction. Never heard back from him.

    Its now been 7 months since our last email exchange described above and 2 years since we were together. My life is moving on, im forcing my heart to try to let him go, and its very hard because i love/d him so much. Yet it is probably the best for me. I hope one day he reads the book and it helps him get to the place a lot of people who comment here are. Recognising the reality of what happened in his childhook life, not to lay blame on themselves, to understand, forgive and to start healing but this time with the RIGHT context and RIGHT ACOA help available.

    I hope i wasnt wrong in giving him the book to read, but he was just wondering alone not knowing which way was up, and worst of all believing he had given up…and I just wanted to help him…to just hopefully point him in the right direction because i love him so much. And I also know, i can only lead the horse to water but cant make it drink. I took the chance, I hoped he wouldnt hate me for it, but I guess he does hate me now or is angry at me for sending him the book. But i hope he reads it, if it helps him in time to get his wonderful self to a happier place, then the hate will be worth it because it hurt me more to see him trapped in his traits.

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