Move Over Para-Alcoholism, A Loving Parent is Moving In

Paraalcoholism and catch yourself iStock_000005012679XSmall
Trust yourself to catch youself.

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.


  1. Kes says:

    Interesting article. I’ve always been driven to do everything “right”, and I never questioned who wrote these “right rules”.
    I thought I got “away” too, people who know my history have always been amazed at how normal and healthy?;) I am.
    I like what you said here, about living IN the mess, not just as observers. I always believed I was the latter, I escaped unscathed! It took an episode in my life after all these years to bring the effects of my beginnings to light. I’m not happy about that :-) but I think its for the better.
    Keep writing, we’re reading, and it really helps.
    Best, Kes

  2. Angie says:

    Thanks for the breakdown of what para-alcoholism is. It helps put some things into perspective for me.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks for the comment. It was eye-opening for me, too, to think through the para-alcoholism idea. Getting the concept down was helpful to me. It helps enormously to remove (to an extent) the “blame.” Although, it’s somewhat off-putting to understand that we can be “like” alcoholics in some ways, even if we didn’t actually become alcoholics per se. It was sure off-putting for me, because it was like, “Oh, great?! Raised by an alcoholic, and now I’m also like him?!” Ha. I once attended an AA meeting with my dad, and was surprised how easily I identified with them…a population I’d considered The Enemy. But, honestly, if someone is interested in exploring the 12 step formula for understanding the problem, I think that if an ACA meeting can’t be found, then AA is way better than Alanon for that reason.
      Again, thanks for the note!

  3. EllenV says:

    This has really helped me understand “para-alcoholism” and gives me some insight into my own behavior. Until now, I have never had a therapist who really took seriously the effects that my parents alcoholism had on me. I had been aware of the terms, but never had the help I needed.

    “The para-alcoholic becomes dependent on the fear and distorted thinking for survival.” This is exactly where I was at. I have been self-injuring for years and afraid to stop, afraid to stop blaming myself for everything.

    I have started my own blog as I begin, at last, a path of healing and hope, away from fear and distorted thinking.

    Thank you for your willingness to share your journey.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Great that you’re blogging!
      It’s shocking how many therapists will say, sure, of course they are familiar with ACA issues, but don’t really use it as a lens or framework in the process…I don’t get it. But, it’s great when you can get one that works that way.

  4. [...] Move Over Para-Alcoholism, A Loving Parent is Moving In … – Move Over Para-Alcoholism, A Loving Parent is Moving In. Trust yourself to catch youself. You know how it works when people parachute? [...]

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