Today I did an assignment for an ACOA course I am taking. ACOA stands for Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. Not sure if I have mentioned this before, but learning about this 12-step program opened the door to what I personally have needed to take my recovery one step deeper towards healing.
According to ACOA, here’s The Problem (bolded items resonate the most with me):
Many of us found that we had several characteristics in common as a result of being brought up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional household. We had come to feel isolated and uneasy with other people, especially authority figures. To protect ourselves, we became people-pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat. We either became alcoholics (or practiced other addictive behavior) ourselves, or married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.
We lived life from the standpoint of victims. Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, we preferred to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We got guilt feelings when we stood up for ourselves rather than giving in to others. Thus, we became reactors, rather than actors, letting others take the initiative. We were dependent personalities, terrified of abandonment, willing to do almost anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to be abandoned emotionally. Yet we kept choosing insecure relationships because they matched our childhood relationship with alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.
These symptoms of the family disease of alcoholism or other dysfunction made us “co-victims”, those who take on the characteristics of the disease without necessarily ever taking a drink. We learned to keep our feelings down as children and kept them buried as adults. As a result of this conditioning, we confused love with pity, tending to love those we could rescue. Even more self-defeating, we became addicted to excitement in all our affairs, preferring constant upset to workable relationships.
This is a description, not an indictment.
Adult Child of a Dysfunctional Family
What I’ve learned, is that people who identify themselves as Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (I take out the alcoholic here because there was no alcoholism in my family, just dysfunction) get triggered due to trauma in their childhood. The definition of trauma in this instance is “anything less than nurturing.”
If, at any time when we were growing up, we had situations that were less than nurturing, we experience trauma. Our brains are still developing when we’re young. We don’t have the tools to manage the various emotions that flow through us. We find ways of coping that become imprinted in our brains at an early age.
As an adult, when situations occur that trigger the experience as a child, we regress, we react, just as we would when we were that child. We become an adult child.
As my girls would tell me, “Dad, you are lecturing again. We’re not listening.”
The following story might be easier to understand. I heard this in a teleconference from Dawn Clancy. Thank you Dawn!
A man was passing a herd of elephants. He stopped and stared in awe. These huge creatures were being held together only by a small rope attached to their front legs. There were no chains. There were no cages. It was obvious that these elephants could, at any time, break free from the bonds that held them. Yet for some reason they did not.
He saw a trainer nearby. “Sir, why is it that these elephants don’t break away from the rope? Why do they just stand there and make no attempt to get away? It’s hard to believe that such a small rope can keep such a large animal enslaved.”
The trainer smirked, “When they were very young and much smaller, we used the same size rope to tie them. At that age, it’s enough to hold them. Then, as they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.”
The man was amazed. These animals could, at any time, easily break free from their bonds, but because they believed that they couldn’t, they were stuck right where they were.
The Gift of ACOA
Here’s the gift of ACOA. In ACOA, we look closely at those small ropes that bind us. By becoming aware of how the sensations in our bodies physically tells us we’re triggered, we learn tools to manage the emotions that used to either overwhelm us and cause us to become reactive towards others or caused us to find an addiction to medicate those emotions so we wouldn’t have to feel them.
By acknowledging that these physical ailments are deep childhood wounds that need to be healed, not the cause of what is happening to us in the present, we can work towards breaking the patterns of our childhood that plague us as adults.
We can break the ropes that bind us.
This is not something that will happen overnight. It will probably take years of hard work to break the emotional ties that keeps us stuck in our childhood trauma. But this is something we need to do so we don’t keep recreating the patterns of our past.
Finding the rope that binds us will shine a light on why we do things that continually hurt others.
I want to transform! I want you to transform.
Let’s go on the greatest adventure of our lives and do whatever it takes to shed that old skin!
The Greatest Adventure (from The Hobbit)
We Need to Come Together
Our adult and our inner child need to come together to transform and be the best version of ourselves. That’s the key to happiness.
I was listening to Andy Stanley after doing my ACOA work. One of the questions that came up is, “Where are you stuck?”
I know where I’ve been stuck for two plus years. It’s where all my emotional energy has been moving towards. I struggle to stay present because my mind holds on to denial and will not accept “what is.” I dream about it, I wake up at night, many times I’m not motivated to do anything, I don’t even have the desire to eat. I talk to myself, I argue, I scream, I plead, I cry, I understand, I love, then I start the cycle all over again. Good thing I’m not being videotaped in my hotel rooms.
I’m stuck trying to prove my love to my ex. I’m stuck not accepting that she’s moving on and I want to salvage our marriage. I’m stuck because I want things to go MY way, the little child that never got what he wanted. I’m stuck believing that my worth is only attached to her loving me.
My parents loved me. My mother loved me. My step father loved me the best that he could. But they didn’t know how to nurture me.
I think more than love, it’s that I long to be nurtured. I have no idea what that feels like.
However, the only one who can nurture me, is me. I need to learn how to parent my little boy. Just me.
No One Came
While doing the first journal assignment of my ACOA class this morning, a memory popped up that I haven’t had in my six years of recovery. It’s amazing how we repress stuff and new things come around.
I saw myself on my bed. I was lying sideways on my back. My feet faced the wall. And I kicked and screamed and kicked and screamed. No one came. In fact, my step-father closed the door. So, I kicked and screamed louder, longer. No matter how loud I got, no matter how hard I kicked, no one came. I’d do this till I wore myself out, probably a couple of hours. And still, no one came.
I’ve had other memories about wanting connection with my parents, but they were too involved with each other, TV, or reading a book to take just ten minutes to spend time me. Seeing both these memories together, I realized that even when I was hurting, no matter how loud I screamed, no one seemed to care.
No wonder I flip things and make it about me.
No wonder I’ve had the underlying belief that I am not worthy of love.
No wonder I am always so anxious when it comes to relationships.
No wonder I obsess over the death of my marriage.
No wonder I think in black and white and struggle with the gray.
No wonder I believe the only way to be free of my connection with my ex is to completely sever the cord that binds us.
Turn it Off, Like a Light Switch
I have joked this past month with my ex about the song “Turn it Off” from the Broadway play, The Book of Mormon. I tell her my feeling of love towards her is like a light switch. I can turn down the dimmer switch when I have spent time away, but the minute she walks into the room, it’s like a motion detector turns the light instantly on at full brightness. I can’t seem to keep the fucking thing off!
My belief has been, if I could turn off the light, then I would be free from the pain of distance I feel and the abandonment emotions that sprout up after I spend time with her.
If I could turn off the light, then I wouldn’t keep hurting her.
If I could turn off the light, I will heal.
If I could turn off the light, she could heal.
But it has nothing to do with turning off the light!
It has to do with those small threads that bind my feet. It’s what my spider web is attached to.
It’s that childhood belief that I need to take care of someone else to receive love. It’s that childhood belief that no matter what I do, it will never be enough. It’s that childhood belief that someone I love will always leave me.
My internal struggle has nothing to do with my ex.
It has everything to do with healing from my childhood.
If I can heal from the past, I don’t need to turn off the light. Turning off the light will leave me in the dark.
I need to see in gray, not black and white.
I need to not try and turn the light off, but embrace that I have been able to keep growing stronger these past six plus years.
I need to love my ex for the beautiful woman she is.
I need to love that she has finally found her way towards happiness.
I need to love me so I can love her without expectations of love back.
That’s true love. And that’s my wish for her.
PS: As I finally post this blog in May, written three months ago, I realize I have come a long way in healing from my divorce. And yet, as I look back at the analogy of “Turn it Off” and I can feel myself finally starting to detach from my ex, talking with her for over an hour on the phone tonight about our girls and I need to put on sunglasses because the motion detector still turns that light back on at full intensity.
The sunglasses keep the pain from the glare down, and yet the longing still hasn’t subsided.