Tag Archives: Adult Children of Alcoholics

Black Sheep

A wise person whom I very much respect once said that writers should write what scares us. Right now, I’m terrified. Because I have never in my life done what I’m about to do.

Oh Lord, here we go...
Oh Lord, here we go…

Being the black sheep of the family, in and of itself, is not a big deal. Many people feel as if they have fallen far from the proverbial tree, but still feel loved and appreciated (even accepted) for their differences. Unless, of course, they are summarily and shamefully cast out.

Some, myself included, are deemed too subversive to be allowed a pass. In certain circles, there are some who are simply too different to escape scrutiny. They are so egregiously in conflict with their kin’s time honored traditions and values, that they are simply removed from the picture. Sometimes the cataclysm comes with a whisper rather than a roar. One day, you look around and realize that your roots have pruned themselves back and disappeared. Some are flung out more dramatically, of course.

The fear of abandonment robbed me of the courage to speak the truth about my family and how in efforts to appease them, I have capitulated time and time again to their tacit demands for obeisance and silence.

No more.

To be fair, they started it:

Seriously, look at this chucklefuck.
Seriously, look at this chucklefuck.

Okay, so let me give you a little background. I posted a link to this article on my Facebook page, and added a comment that I know women who have experienced this kind of treatment. In response, some member of my family — I will tell you only that he is male — felt it was his personal responsibility (nay, his duty!) to come around and knock me down a peg.

How far? How many pegs do I need to be knocked down before I am worthy of my family’s love and acceptance?

This time, I have opted to get good and mad, and thus I have been driven to a point of hatred and malice previously unknown to me.

First of all, me “stop it”? YOU STOP IT. Who the hell do you think you are to try and put me in my place? I don’t need to shrink and make myself smaller so you will feel bigger around me. I don’t need to compromise my ideals, my morals, just on the off chance that you might find my words offensive. And I do not have to dumb myself down, be less articulate, or think less just so I can fit in with this “family”.

Why put me down? Why seek with every word to belittle me? Why does making me feel small fulfill you? Yes, ours is a family that likes to fuck with each other. And fuck each other over. And fuck each other up. Ours is a legacy of hurt.

I reject the notion that to be intelligent, articulate, and well-educated is a sin. I refuse to align myself with your white-trash morality. Intelligent, free-thinking, even feminist are not swear words, except among simple-minded, misogynistic sheeple.

Baaaaaaa.
Baaaaaaa.

My soul is not for sale, and I’ve compromised for too long, allowing my affection and loyalty to be bought and sold like a commodity. In the interest of maintaining ties with individuals who will only love me on certain conditions, I’ve offered up everything. But still, I have lost.

I’m done.


I am no longer a disaffected youth, though I remain a product of my upbringing. As a result, I am chronically maladjusted.

I always knew that I didn’t fit in. I was never thin and athletic – I was bookish and articulate. And I was always tapped into something greater than myself, something that the people around me had no concept of. I have been perpetually aware of my separateness.

I don’t mean to be divisive: I love my family, but I’m not like them. I’m not sorry about that, though I used to be. I used to feel sad that I couldn’t be the same. I made choices that were engineered to try and make me blend, each with disastrous consequences.

Because when your cool, older cousin asks you to do drugs with him, ya do it. Duh.
Because when your cool, older cousin asks you to do drugs with him, ya do it. Duh.

I feel as if I have never been congratulated without being simultaneously mocked for having achieved anything in the first place. When I was a latch-key teenager out drinking, having sex, and stirring up mayhem, the family shrugged and wrote me off. One such matriarch attended my high school graduation after having offered the following sentiment on the occasion: “What’s the point? She’s just going to move in with that boyfriend of hers and get knocked up.”

I can't exactly accuse my family of having high expectations for me.
I can’t exactly accuse my family of having unrealistically high expectations for me.

But when I started to alter my course, rather than inspiring pride, each action I took seemed to cause anger and paranoia. I left California and moved to Hawaii to go to college — no, I “abandoned by family and moved to paradise.” Never mind the hardship that I faced once I was here. Never mind how hard I worked to succeed despite my circumstances. Never mind that I did everything “right”: went to college, met a nice man, got married, started a career, bought a house, had a baby, and all in that order. When it was all said and done, the sum of my achievements is tantamount to looking down my nose at anyone who didn’t achieve in the same way that I did. I’m the only person I know with such critically low self-esteem to have been so regularly accused of being arrogant, even narcissistic.

I think the primary motivation behind those accusations is the fear of my potential. The fear that, once I realized that I was better than the muck that I came from, I actually would condescend to them. That I would disappear and never come back.

This isn’t to say that my family didn’t celebrate my successes alongside of me. Simply that their inferiority complex dictated that in order to be proud of me, they must also remind me to be small: Don’t you forget where you came from! To which I respond: How could I? How could I forget when the legacy of this booze-soaked, drug-addled, emotionally retarded family hangs around my neck like an anchor? My achievements become cannon fodder and I a laughing stock, when I have done nothing — nothing — but try and mold myself into the kind of person that would be worthy of love and respect.

It has become resoundingly clear that I will never get to that point. And what I stand to gain from giving up the fight is so much greater than what I will lose from letting go.

I just want the freedom to be and to live the way that I see fit, without judgment or scorn. I’m exhausted by the accusations of arrogance and selfishness. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else based on my smarts or my success. But I will say this: I have more compassion, more love, and more understanding than was ever granted to me by that family, and for that reason alone, yes, I am better. Better than my origins, better than my history, and I am not ashamed to admit it.

I’m not sorry that I’m smart. That I maintain informed opinions. I’m not sorry that I kicked up the courage to dream up a different kind of life. That I went to school and toiled for six years to get three degrees. I’m not sorry that this cost me relationships with people who are supposed to love me unconditionally, but instead focus all of that energy on the fear of their own inferiority. If I must be excommunicated from the family for defying these values, I will accept my fate. I own everything that has ever happened to me, and if someone feels incriminated by my story-telling, they should have behaved better in the first place. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s your values that are corrupt. Not me.

So yeah, I’ll be the Black Sheep. I’ll wrap myself up in this thick, black wool. It’s so cozy and warm, I can hardly feel the cold shoulder you’ve been giving me.

But I'll be damned if I don't make this look good.
But I’ll be damned if I don’t make this look good.
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Mawwage…

Mawwage

Being in a long term relationship isn’t easy, even for the well-adjusted. Being in a long term relationship when you’re chronically maladjusted, however, often feels like an exercise in futility. Not only are you fighting against a myriad of insecurities that have nothing to do with your partner, but you are constantly grappling with a feeling of impending doom — one that only seems to get worse the longer you’re together and the happier you become, because the bottom always falls out.

It’s especially challenging because I have no idea what “normal” or “functional” look like. All of the adult relationships I observed growing up had fundamental character flaws stemming from one or both parties being batshit crazy. Little Me saw a lot of “this is what not to do” and very little positive role modelling. Such is life. The thing that sucks, though, is that I somehow managed to marry a guy whose childhood was pleasant, and whose parents were involved and positive and not under the influence.Try as I might,  I just don’t know how to interface with people who have that cavalier “the world is not about to end” sort of mentality. Though it’s gotten better in the last few years (read: recently, there have been no major personal disasters), I simply cannot cultivate that sort of serenity in myself. But William is an anti-anxiety force field. He is the null element. He makes Zen gardening look frenzied. And often times, in my efforts to make my outsides match my insides, I will subconsciously inject turbulence into an otherwise average scenario, thus making my surroundings more familiar.

The man puts up with a lot of my mania and overreacting, is what I’m trying to say.

Like that time that I called him, frantic, in the middle of the day to check on the baby. My shitty Android phone was freezing up on me and I was a little frustrated:

Him: Hey babe, what’s up?

Me: OhmygodIcan’tstandthisfuckingphoneIneedanewonerightfuckingnow!

Him: Say that again?

Me: (channeling Glenn Close, ala Fatal Attraction): I need. A new phone. Right. Now.

Him: We talked about this. We have to wait until we pay the old ones off, and then have enough money in hand for the new ones.

Me: (angry panting)

Him: Seriously. Just wait until after St. Patrick’s Day and we can afford it.

Me: Fine!

And then I hang up the phone before remembering to ask him about the baby, the original reason for my call.

While his indefatigable nonchalance can be an asset in times like those, it also means that my manic get-up-and-go-ness often clashes with his why-do-today-what-I-can-do-next-week-ness. I love my husband, but God-damn if I don’t want to bash his head in after he leaves the dishes in the sink for a week. His Honey-Do list never seems to get any shorter, as he frequently spends his free-time getting lost on the internet, rather than finishing a single project. This is a never-ending source of friction for us: me pulling, him resisting, until I blow up and he gives in. He ends up disappointed in himself for disappointing me, and I end up with an increasingly matted ball of feelings that becomes harder and harder to pull apart and resolve. I’m mad because he let me down, I’m guilty because I’m mad, I’m ashamed for losing my temper, I’m depressed that we’re fighting, and on and on.

Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOAs, struggle with an understanding of what is normal. That’s one of the reasons it is likely to find an ACOA in a relationship with an alcoholic or an addict: we’re hardwired to seek out those relationships that fit into the pattern we are already familiar with. That being said, my husband is not an alcoholic, but I do see certain similarities between my home environment now and my home environment growing up: I often don’t know what to expect, I am often disappointed in the outcome, I am often put in the position of trying to salvage a situation that I did not cause, I often feel like I cannot trust those around me. The real question for me, though, is how much of this is my reaction to external factors and how much of this is my applying a familiar pattern to an unfamiliar situation? William is caring, hard-working, attentive, and non-abusive, if also sometimes forgetful and short-sighted. Certainly, those meager transgressions do not warrant my distrust. But here I am, struggling to believe him when he says that he’ll get the dishes done in the morning.

All relationships have problems, even the good ones. Ours is no different. I think that I have long since made peace with the fact that the things that have been upsetting to me for the past eight years (the single-minded focus, the general forgetfulness, or his occasional inconsiderateness) are the things that will still upset me for the next 50 years. And the things that bother him, (my low self-esteem, tendency toward self-harm, my shifting moods, my temper) aren’t going to change much either. What rejuvenates and strengthens my resolve, though, is that 1. these “problems” are blessedly minor in the grand scheme of things, and 2. we are masters of the perfect antidote: open, honest, and sometimes overwhelming communication. For all of our “issues”, we aren’t scared of scary conversations. As my good friend Nicole recently said (I’m paraphrasing here), “The key to a successful relationship is both parties knowing that they are safe — you can put anything out there on the table, be perfectly honest, and there’s no fear of reprisal.”

I’ll admit, though, that I have at one time or another heard something or said something that gave me pause: “Can a relationship really survive that much honesty?” But again, I think my ACOA hard-wiring is to blame. Lying, even when it is just as easy to tell the truth, is a hallmark of alcoholic family systems — you lie to defer, to cover-up, to disguise, and to dissuade. I’m guessing again, but I think that truth-telling in a relationship is probably a lot more normal and a lot less scary to people that don’t grow up in alcoholic/addict homes. I consider it no small triumph, then, that we’ve got this going for us. Go team!

So, in the end, I don’t know “normal” from “abnormal”, and I am often distrustful without reason, and sometimes with good reason, and shit gets a little complicated. I spend an inordinate amount of time questioning the root causes of my emotions and trying to pull apart the snarled hairball of emotion in my mind, so I can figure out if I have justification to feel what I do (that’s a another post altogether). All of that takes a lot of energy, and makes me a real space cadet, and a pretty difficult person to live with, especially when minor things which I have no control over go wrong and turn me into a crazy person who barks at inanimate objects like phones.

But I have a partner-in-crime, someone to bring me back down to Earth. Someone who finds delightful and surprising ways to make me really believe again.

paperphone

That, my friends, is a phone made out of cardstock, an anniversary gift from my long-suffering husband who not only wants to stop receiving calls in the middle of the day about non-functioning electronics, but more importantly, wants to grant me whatever measure of serenity a replacement could provide. There was a card, too:

card

“At my best, at my worst, at my side… loving me always. I’m so lucky to be married to you.”

“I’m glad that

Thank you for everything you do. You are a caring wife and a loving mother, and I am blessed and lucky to be married to you. You put up with so much to be with me — I know I can disappoint you — have done so. I hope I can do better, give you more in the future. In the now. This card wasn’t planned, a bit like us. For all our imperfections, our fights, recurring problems — I’d do it all again. (Though I’d like to think I’d do a better job of it the second time around.)”

Now, that is something worth writing about.

So, there you go, Babe, I told ya I’d put it on my blog. Probably not what you were expecting, but it’s hard to argue: I’m definitely bragging about you. I love you because you have given me the world — that, and the paper-craft promise of an iPhone — and I would absolutely do it all again.