You know how it works when people parachute? They’re harnessed to a device that facilitates their chute — their gentle drift down, down, down? (Chute is French for “fall.”)
A quick linguistics course: the prefix Para- is attached to words we’ve taken from Greek (mostly, but there are some French ones too) and it means “at the side of” or “side by side” (as in paralell), or “beyond or past” (as in paradox – beyond belief or reason), and more recently para- is used for “support role” (as in paramedic or paralegal).
So you can imagine what para-alcoholic means. Those who grew up “at the side of” an alcoholic.
We weren’t just exposed to alcoholism and raised in a house where it took place in a vacuum. We were side-by-side with the alcoholic. Every interaction we had with the alcoholic and our larger family was tinged with dysfunction. And the alcoholic held us close, tight, whether he or she was physically present or not, by demanding that we stuff our feelings and mirror what they wanted from us. From day one, they trained us like young recruits in exactly how to become an alcoholic — they were our behavioral road maps. (They accused us of not loving them; we accuse people of not loving us. We have commitment issues or try to love people with commitment issues because we are used to chaos and, as Tony put it, driven by our sick abandonment needs as described by Tony A in his famous Laundry List.)
It’s not our fault. It’s just — what happened to happen.
I used to always get relief from the fact that I didn’t become an alcoholic or addicted to drugs. It was like, “Phew! Got away safely!” I’d come out free of addictions and had thereby broken the chain. Add to that the relief that I’d succeeded in avoiding relationships with alcoholics! That was a must, always, for me — to not lack such insight that I’d repeat the past by choosing someone enslaved to habit like both my parents.
Hip. Hip. Hooray.
Oh, boy, but it’s not so simple. It’s not a simple matter of not becoming an alcoholic and avoiding them in relationships. It’s not about a particular substance — alcohol. Nope. I’ve learned that true growth and freedom is about breaking free from addictive and compulsive behaviors and choosing people who can love and be loved and who aren’t enslaved by compulsive behaviors and habits. It’s about believing and acting as if you’re worth the love you want. And you should never apologize for the love you want.
So, what’s para-alcoholism in action? Are you a para-alcoholic, or a Mini Addict? Do you binge on sugar? Do you use sugar, food, shopping, the Internet, etc. to avoid feeling your feelings or facing reality? Sugar consumption, spending, sexual compulsion or sexual behaviors that result in shame, work-aholism — are all para-alcoholic “highs.” There’s also technology–Internet–addictions now, the newest, modernist option for people wanting to escape feeling their feelings in a socially acceptable mode.
Again, it’s not our fault. It makes complete sense why we’d behave like alcoholics, even though we’re not ones — and why the recovering alcoholics among us find out that other habits or escapes or compulsive habits create problems for them despite their sobriety.
Oh, what we will do to escape our feelings!
I wrote about my addiction culture conversation with Stephanie Brown, Ph.D. a couple years back — she had smart, important insights about the times in which we live and how rampant addiction is. (Is the Internet one of your escape routes?)
Here’s the ACA explanation of para-alcoholism, from the big red book of ACA:
“Para-alcoholism involves the stored fear, abuse, and distorted thinking acquired by growing up in an alcoholic or other dysfunctional family. The stored fear and distorted thinking take on a “drug” form within. The para-alcoholic becomes dependent on the fear and distorted thinking for survival.”
It’s the distorted thinking part that is propagated as we grow up and start our own relationships and possibly families, too, that makes it an “alcoholic-like” family environment. So, if you’ve ever wondered why you relate so much to adult children of alcoholics even though your parents didn’t drink — that’s why! Para-alcoholism is the crux of the issue, it’s the behavioral-mindset that’s the issue. Not the substance of alcohol alone.
So, there’s another layer of the problem, unveiled. There are ways out. Putting healing into action is part of the solution. Being a kind, consistent, and loving advocate of yourself–your own loving parent–is where it’s at.
Trust yourself to catch yourself.