Depressed or Just the Child of Childlike Parents?

Post nov 19 2010 iStock_000003795965XSmall 
It turns out it’s not so simple to distinguish between depression and plain old adult child of alcoholics syndrome. (Throw in anxiety disorder, and the differentiation is even murkier.)  If you’re trying to diagnose yourself this dark, cold, depressive season, as I know a lot of us are, there’s a lot to consider.  And once you’ve considered it all, you may just need a brain vacation, not medication!


Adult Children share these characteristics with one another, or symptoms, caused by the chaotic, anti-nurture environment in which we grew up (I say ‘grew up’ not ‘raised,’ because raised implies someone else did something, it implies participation and forethought. Growing up just happens.):

  • Lower Back Problems
  • Anxiety, Fearful Thinking
  • Fuzzy Brain, Confused Brain
  • Difficulty Making Decisions
  • Guilt Feelings
  • Shame Feelings
  • Sadness – Persistent Feelings of Grief and Loss
  • Isolation, Loneliness & A General Sense of Not Being Normal
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • OCD – Obsessive and Compulsive Behaviors

Here's the longer, "standard" list of characteristics.

Check out this great list too, by Dr. Tian Dayton, whom I just discovered this week and has written wonderfully insightful—and accessible—posts about ACs.

There's also my list of the good qualities of ACs.



Depressed people (mildly depressed, like with Dysthymia) share these symptoms in common:

  • Difficulty Making Decisions
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Can’t Stay Asleep (Insomnia)
  • Eating and Appetite Changes (Eating A Lot, or Too Little)
  • Sadness That We Cannot Shake
  • Recurring, Persistent Aches & Pains
  • Loneliness and Isolation
  • OCD – Obsessive and Compulsive Behaviors

A list of additional symptoms may be of interest to you (from Harvard).


Right, these are, by and large, the same lists! The question I’m asking myself is, is depression isolated, or the result of a chaotic and sad, sad, sad childhood?  Where did it begin?  You might be asking, “Are all children of alcoholics and people from chaotic childhoods depressed?!” I have to wonder of myself, “Is it possible that I’ve been depressed for a long, long time and for so long that it is just a part of my personality to have “down” moments and days?”  Is it me at the helm, or a ghost of my girl-self?  Maybe the girl, maybe the woman.  Maybe both. 


We grew up to mimic and/or seek out the same kind of chaotic lifestyle that we grew up within, whether consciously or not.  We were raised by sick people, and we’re easily drawn to them or to being sick ourselves.  It’s what we have known.  (This is para-alcoholism, which is important to understand if you’re going to disengage from the life blueprint you were given.  This is my post about para-alcoholism.) 

It’s possible that we aren’t truly depressed, but are wearing a “cloak” of depression that we inherited from our family.  That is, one or both of our parents was very likely depressed (alcoholism and depression are often one thing medicated by another), and we were raised within a depressive environment—which trains us to behave like depressed people:  inconsistent, moody, and distanced.   


It’s also possible we’re depressed because we had sad childhoods, inconsistent childhoods, childhoods with hot-and-cold emotionally unavailable parents, and we’re just plain bummed.  Who can blame us? 


It’s also possible that there’s so little distinction between our symptoms from growing up as children of alcoholics and depression, that it’s pointless to differentiate the two—and that treating one/both is best, whatever the original problem may be. 

Where does that, then, leave us?  No matter what the cause, it's important to understand the symptoms.  The symptoms are what we can learn from, learn about, and work on. The cause of the symptoms is what we have no control over.  The sooner we tackle the symptoms and let go of the blame for the cause, the sooner we can actually, truly, be free–and happier.  If you're not seeing a therapist (a good one, that is) try it.

As always, keep on with the basics:  eat healthy food (whole food, fresh food, organic food), learn about being healthy, care about you, exercise (even if only a brisk 15 minute walk), and continue getting to know yourself.  What actually makes you happy (not them, but you)?

Be good to yourself.  


On Building A Strong Emotional Architecture:

How to Unwind at the End of the Day:

I Am the Garbage and the Jewel:  


  1. I don’t think I ever felt not normal, just a bit different it was a sense but nothing i could ever put my finger on. I know I’m hyper sensitive to moods and emotions of others not surprisingly they tend to be to the negative, go figure!If you want to know if something is wrong in a room i’m your women, i can feel it. I have some dsythymic characteristics according to my therapist; how that tracks back to my parents or genetics isn’t clear. My guess is they drank to self medicate sadness and i just became what i like to call sad sensitive from being in that environment.

  2. amy eden says:

    Exactly. It is so very chicken and the egg. I think a lot of my sad moments are actually the sad moments of the little girl I was. From an original cause long ago. They feel different from the sad moments I have in adulthood, which I can more precisely pinpoint the cause of. It feels less eternal too.
    Sent from my iPhone

  3. We need to start embracing/celebrating the positives our troubled pasts have produced….US! I may be sensitive to the negative, but that’s not all bad when a friends in need of a caring ear or a shoulder to cry on, since i’m usually the first to figure out somethings amiss. Heaven knows i’m independent, responsible, organized- things that make me feel safe and more in control- things that compensate for the chaos of my childhood even now in adulthood .I am considered to be loving sympathetic and understanding. I appreciate these qualities, and consider them strengths-maybe even gifts.I’ve often wondered how much of the “good me” is because of them or is it in spite of them?!

  4. Lisajns says:

    Good post but it is my understanding that we are depressed as adults because we repeat the same scenarios from childhood – we find the same partners, we keep trying to rectify our childhood woes in adulthood which of course until recovery are always failures. The failures in our lives as adults depress us – of course! I was depressed as a child – I remember it (well, not the feeling) and of course I am depressed now BUT thanks to 12 Steps I am happier than I’ve ever been. I can now focus on changing my dysfunctional behaviours which in turn will keep me safe, sane and happy (most of the time!).

  5. amy eden says:

    Lisa -
    So glad to konw that you’re finding a way to be happier – yeay!
    Well, it’s very chicken-and-the-egg, of course, but I would argue that we’re not depressed “because we repeat the same scenarios” from childhood, but that our inherited depression is why we’re half-awake and repeat the same scenarios. To break the cycle, we can first treat the underlying depression (with food, exercise, talk-therapy/meetings…) and then it’s less and less likely that we’ll repeat the scenarios. You know what I mean?
    Amy Eden

  6. Lisajns says:

    Hmm just say I had “minor” depression in childhood and came from an ACOA family, I would still repeat the same scenario as an adult for I knew no better. What’s to say that I might find a partner who is not dysfunctional and live happily ever after? My serious depression didn’t come until I hit 30. I never had depression like that in my teens. I feel with me that it’s all about behaviours. It’s the behaviours that made me sad in childhood and it’s my behaviours/way of thinking as an adult and the behaviours of others I associate with that caused my depression. Depression (inherited) had nothing to do with my choices as an adult IMHO, my choices were destined, they were all I ever knew & made me feel comfortable. Change the behaviours as an adult and the depression from being an unmanageable adult can lift.
    I’m probably not making any sense! I have fuzzy brain syndrome!! Can you write about that? Last two – three years it’s come about. God I want it gone!!
    Good blog :)

  7. Amanda1313 says:

    I just wanted to say thanks Amy for making this blog. I have been dealing with a mix of emotions, trying to figure out if I am “truly” depressed or just a young adult child of alcoholism. Even trying to find my true self has been such a struggle. I have been reading the blog for about twenty minutes and everything I can relate to. It is amazing how this disease can affect everyone and everything. I know there is a better life out there and keep up the blogging!!

  8. How do I go about having a normal adult life with a significant other if I’m depressed a lot and have all these issues from growing up in an environment like an alcoholic home? It just seems quite impossible and hopeless at times. :(

  9. [...] and a tendency to isolate, and “coping” type behaviors, like overeating or compulsions. Here’s where I compared being an ACA to being depressed.  Here’s where I wrote about chronic [...]

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