Life in the Shadows: PTSD and Adult Children of Alcoholics

Updated on October 17, 2017

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

People typically only associate post-traumatic stress disorder with soldiers coming home from war or victims of violent crimes. However, PTSD is also something very common in children of alcoholic homes who often carry it into adulthood, where it unfolds in many different ways—often so that the person experiencing it does not realize what it is. When soldiers come home from war, the pain that they could not allow themselves to feel during combat comes crashing in—sometimes weeks, months, or years later—after they have lived through the terrifying events. Their feelings of being trapped, terrified, and vulnerable are only a portion of what is considered to be PTSD.

Children who grow up in homes where a parent or both parents are alcoholics also suffer from P.T.S.D. The children are disempowered because the alcoholic parent is their gateway to food, shelter, etc. The person who is supposed to be giving them solace is hurting them and causing them pain. When these children reach adulthood and are away from the alcoholic, they are individually referred to as an adult child of an alcoholic, often abbreviated as ACoA. When they try to form relationships later in life, they often find that those relationships trigger memories of past psychological trauma. For example, if a man whose mother was an alcoholic is being ignored by his girlfriend, he remembers the time his mother forgot his birthday, the day she forgot to pick him up from school and he thought he was abandoned, or the day she missed his high school graduation because she was at the local bar drinking. He becomes enraged and tries to fix everything wrong with his girlfriend, all the while, not understanding the problem is within him.

The natural response of a terrifying or overwhelming event is to try and protect yourself by either running away (the flight stage of fight-or-flight response), retaliate (the fight stage of flight-or-fight response), or all together shutting down and trying to become invisible. Typically, when something traumatic happens, like being yelled at or being called a bad name by a drunk person, people try to process the event with a caring person, try to intellectually make sense of what happened, and eventually return to a normal state. However, very often with traumatic stress, the pain is hidden and forms a kind of mass of unprocessed emotion. Then, the pain is usually triggered by something in adulthood and causes a reaction like a volcano erupting.

Usually, PTSD, as defined in the DSM-IV, is a response to a single event such as took place in war, rape, a violent crime, or a natural disaster. Complex PTSD is altogether not listed in the D.S.M.-IV. Some clinicians believe that cumulative, prolonged, and repeated trauma such as being a Holocaust survivor, a prisoner of war, etc. should have its own separate category.

A flashback is when the person has recurrent and intrusive images and recollections of the event. While the soldier has a flashback to an event in war, the person who has complex P.T.S.D. will have emotional flashbacks or emotional and intrusive recollections of overwhelming emotions usually experienced in childhood like fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and/or depression. Some refer to the regression to certain emotional states as "amygdala hijackings". The amygdala plays a role in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. It is sometimes referred to as fear conditioning or prolonging someone in trauma and having them always in a stressful mode.

Symptoms of Complex PTSD

  • alterations in regulating emotions
  • changes in perception of self
  • changes in perception of relations with others
  • self-blame

There Is Hope

Some refer to someone dealing with hard emotions of the past as someone dealing with his or her "shadow self" or a shadow of past emotions and memories which are hard to deal with. There is hope for someone with this type of PTSD. There are many support groups like Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, or the National Alliance of Mental Illness that can help people deal with past trauma. If people are able to identify the cause of such an emotional reaction, they will learn how to teach themselves ways to soothe themselves or work past it so it does not interfere with their everyday functioning and life.

I assessed these resources on October 15, 2017:

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