Children of Alcoholics Have Really Great Masks
It is so, so hard to be the kid of an alcoholic.
At first, you only have a really vague sense that all isn't quite right with your parent. For instance, you know they're often absent late into the evening, and sometimes you might find them in the corner of your kitchen, sprawled on the floor and snoring their heads off. If you haven't seen them for a few days, either because they've gone on a bender or you're an adult feeling obligated to visit, they might be shaky and try to tell you that they've been fighting the flu. You become an expert at playing pretend - imagining that everything is okay when it really isn't, or scrambling to make other parts of your life so perfect that perhaps your alcoholic parent will be impressed enough to stop drinking and go back to "normal."
The thing is, your sense of normal changes so dramatically when you're the child of an alcoholic.
Where other people might say "no" to something, you might worry that if you say no, the person you said no to will no longer like you, and that somehow makes you imperfect.
At school, getting a score of 60 when you usually get 90s feels like the end of the world. I recognize that for those who make 90s regularly this would seem devastating even if everything was "normal," but if you're the child of an alcoholic, you're convinced that things will be even worse.
Where others might fight back against a parent who rages when intoxicated, you hide. The problem is, it's something you do in all contexts.
When you live like that your whole life, you don't know anything different.
You also don't know what effect that ultimately has on your mental health in the long run, either. You just learn to paste a smile on, and go about your day.
That's all you know.
As adult children of alcoholics, we forget that we have boundaries and that it's okay to reinforce those boundaries. We've had to come to the rescue too often, pretend like everything is perfect in our lives too often, and smile when we're completely crushed so that no one can tell what's really happening.
There comes a time, though, when your body can't carry the stress anymore. Mental health begins to crumble, and you start feeling less safe. You begin to question your self-worth, and wonder whether you actually deserve respect and good treatment from other people in your life.
We don't know that people care enough to lift us up when we're low, or that if we can't do something it's okay to say no. Even as adults, there is that twinge of fear that someone will freak out if you say no. You're quickly taken back to those days when you were little, wondering why Mom or Dad are mad, or why they're in tears again, and how you can make it better.
Eventually, we learn that it's going to be okay, and that we are safe, but it takes patience from those we have in our lives, and a willingness to seek help when we realize that it's all too much - that we're only human and there's only so much stress we can actually take.
It's true that alcoholism is an illness, just as any addiction is. But there's a caveat with this illness: it affects everyone who knows the person who has the disease, and it changes them in some respects. As children of alcoholics, we learn how to survive. Trust, on the other hand, comes a little too easily with those who show us the slightest kindnesses. It's what we've learned, and what we've always known. In many respects, we are as affected by the illness as our family member, except we don't always understand why we respond the way we do.
The characteristics are so common among adult children of alcoholics; in fact, that there's actually a laundry list of common traits. While not all apply to each child of an alcoholic, we have to learn that we do share common bonds in that we are all profoundly impacted by the scope of our parent's illness.
We need reinforcement of our personal boundaries, but we need more than that, too. Children of alcoholics, and of all addicts, need to know that regardless of what's happened with us, we are still okay, we are still good people, and we are worth far more than we might have otherwise been told.
Children of alcoholics forget that people can be reliable and that we can actually put our faith in someone and not be consistently disappointed. We are, however, used to that mask we've cultivated so well over the years, so it's really hard for us to drop the mask and let people in. We'll be incredibly friendly and foster good relationships, but there's always that one area in our lives that we keep in the shadows, and it may take a lot for us to disclose that darkness in our lives.
It's like you're part of a unique club that no one should be a part of, but once you're a part of it, you get how everyone else feels without saying a word. For the relatively "normal" people in the world (because what is normal, really?), I know it's hard to really "get" how we're acting and reacting in certain contexts. It's hard to understand that we need reassurance that everything - including our relationship with you, if not ourselves in general - is okay. Be patient. This is a years-long journey we've been on, and we're only now realizing the brightness in our lives. I promise that it will be worth it - and that's a promise I make for those embarking on relationships with children of alcoholics and for the children of alcoholics themselves.
If we fall, and we will (a lot, just like every human on the planet), keep catching us. We may act like we're incompetent fools, but that's what we've come to believe over time through our experiences as children of alcoholics. We somehow never quite measure up to an impossible - and unknown - standard.
Just catch us. We still need you.