When Our Brothers and Sisters Grow Up Addicts: The Sibling Project

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We want to break the family inheritance chain: our parents were narcissists, alcoholics, or emotionally abusive and we want the problems connected to that to Stop. With. Us.  We live our lives alongside the mantra. ‘Not going to marry an addict’ or ‘Not going to become an addict.’

No one wants to repeat mistakes, particularly when we know what the fallout feels like. Some of us achieve that change and others of us struggle to shake free. What about our sisters and brothers, our siblings? What is it like when you grew up alongside your siblings sharing an alcoholic parent…and then one of your siblings grows up to be an alcoholic or addict?  The irony is an incredibly painful one. We might wish that we could be so repulsed by what growing up in an alcoholic family system does that becoming a slave to substances would be the last thing we’d ever do. In practice, in living life, it’s just not so simple.

The Interviews:  The Sibling Project

Dawn Clancy is working on a project that addresses the question of how do we think about and feel about our siblings’ addictions?

In this interview is with Nicole Spivey, whose older brother is addicted to heroin, she and Dawn talk about the reality of being a witness to heroin addiction.

In this interview with Ginny Atwood, she and Dawn discuss Ginny’s loss of her younger brother to a heroin overdose back in 2013.

It’s hard to listen to these two conversations and not notice how much we share with one another and how very complicated the web of addiction is. Please listen, and share these voices. You can follow the Project and listen to more at Dawn’s site, The Sibling ProjectExploring How The Lives Of Siblings Are Impacted By Addiction. 

About the Project -
The Sibling Project is a series of podcasts in which Dawn talks one-on-one with a group whose voice we rarely if ever get to hear, the siblings of addicts and alcoholics. Dawn’s hope is that this series will spark a new conversation that focuses on the countless number of siblings living alongside an addicted loved one.
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Dawn Clancy’s Growing Up Chaotic - 
If you don’t know about Dawn’s site and resources, be sure to find her on Facebook and explore her site (did I say resources?) right here: Growing Up Chaotic.
-Be kind to yourself.



Being in a Relationship with an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

I wrote the following article about what it’s like to be in a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic for the Love & Life Toolbox (here’s the article). Sharing here as well!

Being in a relationship with an adult child of an alcoholic

Have you heard the one about the confused man whose girlfriend of a year and a half suddenly got mad and left him? Just up and left. They’d never fought, not once. The relationship seemed perfectly fine. He’d introduced her to his friends and his whole family. They were engaged. They were going to get married. Then she split.

Haven’t heard that one? Well, I have. Time and again. Loving someone whose parents are alcoholics is challenging and often unpredictable territory.

How can anyone really know if their partner, potential husband or wife, came from an alcoholic household? It’s rarely clear. Sometimes it’s not known that someone’s parents are alcoholics — plenty of people have alcoholic parents without realizing it. Other times a person can have alcoholic parents and know it, but not understand the extent to which growing up in that environment affected them.

While the confused man stands shell shocked, we can examine his fiancee’s perspective. She met and fell for a wonderful man. He had his life together, treated her kindly, and wanted a future with her. It was love (it must be)! Everything seemed to be going well, and although she’d never had a healthy relationship modeled for her, this seemed good. She didn’t know that she was supposed to just be herself, be vulnerable, honest, and imperfect as well as expect to be loved for all that. One day after being and doing what she intuited her boyfriend expected of her, she finally broke. It was too much to continue faking a perfect self, being pleasing, affable, not having needs, or sour moods. The skills that had served her so well in childhood weren’t working. She felt imprisoned and false. She had to get out, to flee, to breathe.

For people who grow up with an alcoholic parent, getting into relationships is like getting on a fast ride with a one-way ticket. We commit to someone who’s interested in us because we’re the ever-loyal children of dysfunctional, rigid parents, and then we buckle up and enjoy (or something) the feeling of rushing along, fast, on a course to…wherever. The sensation of beginning relationships is much like being swallowed whole and re-wiring one’s self for a new identity — the identity of our new love, whatever he or she needs us to be. With that kind of beginning, it’s easier to understand the hallmark get close-pull away pattern that often gets established in relationships in which one partner grew up around addiction.

The Survivalist Approach to Childhood Works, Yet It Doesn’t Stop

Children of alcoholics are survivalists by nurture. We do quite well in crisis and seem most calm during chaos. We are not very at ease when things are calm and ordinary because in our world calm always meant a storm was around the bend. The ability to survive an emotionally and often times physically abusive childhood environment was essential. The ability to survive required a tough exterior or a polished one (we’re often called “well-wrapped”), our armor. It required a hyper-vigilant awareness of impending danger: bad moods, yelling, or violent outbursts, all of which could strike at any time. We came to expect the unexpected and predict the unpredictable behavior or our volatile parents.

Unfortunately, we continue to live in survival mode after we leave home and set up our own lives. There’s no national agency that visits the apartments and condos of newly sprung children of alcoholics to present them with a certificate of completion. If they did, it would read: This Certifies that You Survived Childhood and Must Now Learn to Thrive in Life. The fine print would read: It’s time for a paradigm shift, so surround yourself with uplifting people, stop trying to be what you’re not, tame your true inner self, and spend the rest of your life coaxing that person out into the open and experimenting with loving yourself unconditionally.

The Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics

Two important individuals in the awareness-raising of the issues adult children of alcoholics were Tony A, author of The Laundry List and founder of the original twelve-step group for adult children of alcoholics (now ACoA) and Janet Woititz, author and psychologist. Each developed a list of characteristics and common traits that children of alcoholics struggle with. Those include:

We judge ourselves mercilessly (we considered ourselves unlovable as children)
We don’t easily relax and have fun (chaos is more comfortable)
We feel somehow different from other people (sensing deep down that something is wrong)
We have a tendency to isolate (because we feel like freaks)
We have a tendency to be afraid of authority figures (because our original ones were volatile)
We seek approval (because our self-esteem is under-developed)
We feel guilty about our needs and shame about our true feelings (needs and feelings were unwelcome in childhood)
We get addicted to excitement (like a moth to the flame that is chaos)
We react to others rather than act from our desires (because being our own self was risky if not deadly)
We tend to be very serious (we’re not sure it’s okay to let our guard down)
There are more ACA traits and characteristics on Janet and Tony’s lists.

Thanks to a reader who scanned Tony’s book, you can read Tony A’s book The Laundry List online - here.

Watch out for the Trespasser Known as Transference

If your partner hasn’t yet done the work to distinguish between their past and their present, they may be subconsciously reacting to you as if you are their parent or as if current struggles are actually past struggles. This can be very confusing for both of you.

How might you know if your partner is transferring feelings from childhood onto a present-day situation, or onto you? Their reaction may be much bigger than the situation calls for, but not only that — their reaction will also have a feeling of intense or deep emotion and they won’t quickly recover from the upset. You might sense that something else is going on, something deeper or complex, given the level of hurt your partner is showing. You may feel that a great misdeed is being attributed to you, and that despite your apology and explanation, noting seems to lessen the hurt for your partner. They are stuck in the hurt.

When someone reacts to you, or your actions, based from their feelings about another person from the past, that’s known as transference. This happens when a person transfers their thoughts or feelings about one person onto another. (Transference is different from projection, which is when another person accuses you of embodying their own thoughts, feelings, or traits.) Because children of alcoholics grow up with so much unprocessed emotional trauma, it’s easy to understand why they would transfer their hurt feelings onto someone who resembles the original source of upset — they are yearning to have the reaction and process that was never allowed and was tamped down for years.

A transference dynamic can be wearing on a relationship; it puts one partner in the position of role-playing the childhood of the other partner with no knowledge of what’s going on. It means that one partner is having the other’s feelings and possibly accusations directed at them from another time and place, not based in the present situation. This makes it hard to learn the other person’s emotional landscape. Part of getting to know a partner involves coming to understand what they like and don’t, what pushes their buttons, and what brings them joy or causes them sadness. It’s hard to get an accurate reading on a partner’s emotional landscape if they are living in the past, still wrestling with old wounds.

And from the perspective of the person who grew up with emotional trauma, it’s confusing to be unable to differentiate the amount of hurt that comes from past wounds and what amount of hurt is coming from a present scenario. By relating to a partner as if they’re the ghost of our past, like a hitching post for us to tie our hurts to, we’re unsuccessfully resolving past issues as well as distorting what’s occurring in the present. This can bring anguish when what we most desire is to be truly present and participate in the relationship in an authentic and productive way.

Seeking to Understand, Resisting Fix-It Solutions

It can feel like walking on eggshells at times with someone sensitive, who has been emotionally traumatized, and who seeks approval. Tiptoe-living is an exhausting life. If your partner had childhood trauma, they have some self-healing work to do. It’s important for you to internalize the distinction between what “understanding” looks like for you and what “fixing” looks like. As a partner, you show love through listening (especially active listening) and by learning about and understanding the person you love, where they come from. That’s all. In terms of helping, fixing, and changing your partner and their resolution of a difficult past — that is not your terrain to adventure through. If your partner is ready and willing to do the work of helping and healing themselves, they’ll do it. It cannot be rushed and you cannot do that work for them.

Be sure that you understand where the line is between understanding and fixing, and remember the simple truth that to love is to listen and to understand. (The fix-it work is the work for a therapist and your loved one.) What does that leave you with? That leaves you with the responsibility of loving your partner as he or she is, for who he or she is, rather than who they will become or what you can shape them into.

When a partner has emotional work to do, it’s easy to make a habit of focusing on their issues. It’s incredibly common — many of the emails I receive from readers of my blog include exasperated pleas for helping their boyfriend or girlfriend get un-damaged. I can only tell them that when their partner is ready to do the work, they’ll do the work. It’s fine to share a book or forward a link to someone and let them know you think they’d be well-served by reading it, but the work cannot be forced and it cannot be done by proxy.

Turning your focus to your own personal work crowds-out the habitual wondering and worrying you’ve been doing about your partner’s problems.

What might you do with the newfound time you no longer spend attempting to fix your partner’s problems? Why, taking a look at yourself of course! It’s worth considering whether there is something about this person’s history that drew you in, that clicked-into some issues or emotional habits of your own that need to be understood. If you’ve been focused on your partner’s shortcomings, create a new habit around looking into your part in the relationship dynamics. Indulge in a self-inquiry and see what you might uncover about the assumptions, expectations, and perceptions you bring to the partnership.

Upholding Responsibility and Accountability in a Partnership

Each of us wants and deserves a partner who is responsible and respectful to himself, to us, and to the relationship. Regardless of what one’s background of emotional struggles are, meeting one another at the point of shared self-respect is how relationships maintain balance and thrive.

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Another post I wrote on the topic of loving an adult child is this one, “If You Love Someone with Alcoholic Parents…”  Enjoy!

Visit and read more about relationship skills at Lisa Kift’s Love & Life Toolbox.

Sneak Peek Video of my Upcoming Book, “The Kind Self-Healing Book”

I have news of my book, The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion. The launch date for the book is coming very soon, May 2015! I wanted to give readers an update as well as a sneak peek of the insides.

I have dedicated the book to you, the readers of guesswhatnormalis.com.

Book Sneak Peek Video:

Pages from inside the book:

big list of feelingsglossary first proofa pledge to your healingflaws first proof page

And here are some creative ideas I’ve been playing around with (book marks, bags, etc.) now that I have a big ‘The Kind Self-Healing Book’ stamp.

testing the stamp

I spent the weekend inputting corrections from the first proof:

corrections to first proof

There’s more:

You can keep track of the book and related happenings on the Facebook page for The Kind Self-Healing Book.

You can pre-order the book here, on the pre-order and book info page.

- be kind to yourself

Food Cleanse as Mystical Experience: Less Food, Greater Intuition



My 21 Day Cleanse

Week before last I ended a twenty-one day gentle food cleanse. The experience was transformative, and I wanted to write about it. And while I want to share my experience and reflect on it through writing, what I don’t want to do is suggest that you should do a cleanse. If the timing is right for you, great. Just know that this isn’t a pro-cleanse, go-cleanse post. But it is very much a report on what my cleanse experience was like. (Results may vary!)

An Unplanned Cleanse

I had been battling some deep fatigue for about a week, and mentioned it to my acupuncturist. We had been talking about the fact that my book is going to be coming out in a couple months, and that I’m going to want to be wholly ready to focus much spirit and energy on that. She wants me to be feeling great — and energetic — by May. My deep fatigue was the opposite of where I want to be. “Have you ever considered a cleanse?” she asked. My first thought was “I can’t pull that off,” and I felt dread and fear; I recalled a friend who was on a cleanse and how difficult I imagined it was for her to fend off cravings. I was doubtful. My acupuncturist then pulled down a can of pea-protein based vitamin and mineral powder, a pack of fermented cod oil capsules, and a pack of probiotic powder pills, and presented them to me. There was also a packet of info, the guidelines.

I flipped to the page with the list of what I had to cut out for twenty-one days (listed here in the order of how horrifying it would be to give up):



gluten (I omitted most grain, with the exception of some rice and quinoa)



meat (weeks two and three)



I looked at the cleanse calendar, and slowly sensed–to my surprise–that I was up for it. Truth was, two months prior I had hurt my back and had made a decision to follow various healing paths wherever they may lead, and would be willing to try what might work. This healer was suggesting a cleanse. So I said, “Let’s do it.”

If I had given it thought, I’m certain that I wouldn’t have agreed to it. If I had said, “I’ll think about it,” I wouldn’t have done it. The fact that I hadn’t eaten much yet that day, that it was early in the day, and I could count that very day as Day 1, helped me feel that the cleanse had already begun. I felt like I could do it.

In my acupuncturist, I would have a guide, a witness. That lent me confidence, too.

The First Three Days are Tough

Not only are the first three days rough, but my acupuncturist told me that not everyone gets past that initial hurdle. My guess is that because I was generally seeking a spiritual experience, rather than weight-loss, that helped me stay on the ride. Or I’m just remarkably stubborn. I wanted to “observe” the experience, I wanted to have and explore the experience of…detoxing. For detoxing is what the first three days are. And detox is painful and confusing and frustrating.

Feelings on Days 1, 2 and 3

The first days are a real test. They are difficult days. I wondered if my body would shut down from the shock of it all, if the sudden dietary change would cause a heart attack, stroke, or worst of all:  a psychotic episode. I felt such fear. I felt the fear that I wouldn’t get enough food, that I’d become depleted. I feared nameless fears about being vulnerable, fundamentally vulnerable. I feared exposure — the feeling of fundamental exposure to nameless, faceless dangers. More concretely, I experienced a new kind of headache that I’d not felt before (center of my forehead and top of my head), I felt disoriented and cranky, too.

fear - cleanse day 2

That all passed. Those feelings returned here and there–wafted through–but were uncommon occurrences and became way more manageable.

By day five, a kind of balance and sense of euphoria arrived. I went from feeling afraid without food as armor and comfort to feeling strong, centered, and with greater sight. I’ll try to explain that last one, sight. One way to explain it is that I felt less self-conscious and anxious, so nicely balanced energy-wise, that when I was around people I was looking at and into them, seeing and hearing them, and not distracted by my own nerves. That blew me away. Another way to explain the increased sight was that I somehow felt that my perception, or intuition, was heightened when I wasn’t filled with food.

With my recent lower back issues, I’ve been getting therapeutic massages. I went for one during the midpoint of my cleanse. It was a day when I had eaten very little (even for a cleanse!) During the massage, I had a waking dream, or vision. I saw a man standing on the edge of a plateau. He was standing at an angle, with mostly his back to me. He was looking out at the expanse below him. I sensed that he was sad, proud, and weary from battle — he was wearing what was left of his buckskin pants, no feathers, though he was native american — while he surveyed…the battlefield? It was hard to know what he was looking at. But the vision was truly extraordinary.

I mentioned all this to another massage therapist I know, who is very intuitive and generous about sharing what she knows about different types of healing. I said, “For some reason I feel more intuitive and able to “see” when I don’t have a lot of food in my system.” She said, “Oh, yeah. That’s a thing. A teacher once told me that keeping food to a minimum is a method for connecting with intuition.” What a remarkable insight, and lesson.

What I Ate

Now for the practical bits. I want to have a record of this, for next time.

I ate a lot of the same things. At first I thought, “Same things all the time? Boring.” But then I realized that everyone eats pretty much the same things most days of the week. Think about it. Don’t you? Most days I ate:  hummus, an apple, an avocado, trail mix (theirs), and a mango-red quinoa salad that I bought weekly from Whole Foods. I ate that mango-quinoa salad with garbanzo beans, black beans, cashews, and avocado, depending on the day. I drank a lot of tea, organic herbal tea.

Foods to eat.

Foods to eat.









At one point, I realized that the food I was making was rather beautiful. Colorful. Apples and berries are vibrant reds, purples, and pinks. Carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, squash are vibrant greens, oranges, and reds. Each salad I made, mushroom and carrot soup I simmered, or coconut curry I stirred were gorgeous to look at.

What I ate on day eleven.

What I ate on day eleven.






What I ate on day fifteen.

What I ate on day fifteen.











The key was to eat just enough, but not more than that.


Some of my new favorite snacks are chia seed pudding, apple slices with sun or almond butter and cinnamon, hummus with carrots, cucumber, or radishes, and a sweet treat is majool dates stuffed with almond butter.

Pink lady slices dredged in sunbutter spiced with cinnamon is delicious.

Pink lady slices dredged in sunbutter spiced with cinnamon is delicious.


Chia pudding:  chia seeds soaked overnight in almond milk and coconut milk with vanilla.

Chia pudding: chia seeds soaked overnight in almond milk and coconut milk with vanilla.












Was it Worth It?

Yes. The spiritual, or mystical, aspect wasn’t my only reward during the cleanse. The other was that I got to observe my food cravings and how I use food. Yes, use. I was able to notice that when faced with a task I wasn’t excited about, paying bills or writing a difficult email, that the thought “EAT” would flash across my brain like a banner ad. I noticed that I wanted a “reward” when the day was particularly skewed towards work that was void of personal connections or meaning; after a day like that, I’d crave a sweet reward that would help turn-off my brain. All of that was very interesting to observe, and breathe through. I was committed to the cleanse, so I had only the option to breathe (or growl at strangers) as a coping mechanism. That was not easy. Apparently I hold my breath a lot.

Why I’m Still Eating in A Cleanse-Like Way  

I feel so, so good. Simple as that.

Thank you, Erin Wilkins, L.Ac.!

-be kind to yourself.



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Did you know that my book is coming out in May? Whooo! You can find our more right here: about The Kind Self-Healing Book. You can even pre-order it!

Please consider liking the Facebook page for The Kind Self Healing Book:  Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion.


Act Three: Making Peace with Criticism

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You now know about the ninja-level tool of breathing to slow down and try to be present in the face of criticism (that was Part II Knowing Good Criticism from Bad) as well as how to evaluate whether the criticism is real or an apparition from childhood (that was Part I How Well Do You Handle Criticism?).

It’s now time to look beyond criticism, to get big and powerful in spirit, and a bit abstract:  imagine yourself in a place in which you’re not intimidated or affected by criticism — where you can be with it peacefully in a room, without fearing it. For example — imagine how you might notice a book sitting on a table in a hotel lobby and see that the book is labeled “criticism.” Just notice it, notice the criticism hanging in the air like a balloon with its string dangling before you. The balloon is there. You’re there. It’s not “attacking” you and it’s not after you. And the person who has blown up the balloon and tried to hand it to you — the person “criticizing” you — is there, too, but not at war with you. They’re standing there, too.

Once you can get to a place where those entities (you, the criticism, and the other person) are separate, but present, and you’re breathing in and out while solid with your worth, flaws, and self (all!), then you can take the next step.

That next step is truly a leap. Think about what will be there in the room between you and the other person once the criticism departs – the balloon goes out the window. Just you and that person in a room. You are there, vulnerable. The other person is there, having expressed something clumsily – also vulnerable. What remains? I will tell you:  intimacy.

Intimacy and vulnerability are at the core of human existence. And just like distractions and addictions, criticism works as a barrier to intimacy — when we misunderstand its message.

Say that I’m sitting on the couch with a lover, who is trying to express to me his yearning for intellectual conversation about art and literature. My first thought is, “I don’t give him that. I lack something.” And I react from that assumption, that vulnerability and fear. I might say to him, “I could say the same about you — where’s the discussion of philosophy, Kant, Nitetzsche, etc.?” And we’d be distanced from one another by our swords and shields. However, instead imagine that once he began to express to me his yearning for intellectual conversation and I imagined it as the balloon hanging there — him, me, and his comment (the balloon) in a room — and I said, “What does that mean for you, intellectual conversation?” A conversation can then begin; I can listen rather be deaf with fear, and I can focus on understanding another person. The focus shifts to Love/Listening away from criticism and fear.


I have failed in that kind of situation — the lover, the couch, the opportunity for verbal intimacy — and yet learned big lessons through getting it painfully wrong. In the moment that we can disengage from criticism, we can apply the lesson of breathing and disengaging from the specter of criticism. We learn step one, then step two, and then we can learn to lean into Intimacy. It takes time, and the time is well worth taking.

In a moment in which you might recoil from your partner in defensiveness, rather, you take a step closer to your partner in vulnerability, in curiosity, and love.

Consider this:

Can you think of an instance in which you got derailed by reacting to criticism and might have missed an opportunity for deeper understanding, vulnerability, and intimacy? Could you have shared your innermost self then, but threw up your shield instead? Could you have shown compassion for someone attempting to express himself who got it clumsily wrong? Could benefit of the doubt have played a greater role?

-be kind to yourself.

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Act 1: How Well Do You Handle Criticism?

Act 2: Knowing Good Criticism from Bad

Act: 3 Making Peace with Criticism