Imagine, for a moment, the home of a child of an alcoholic. It’s a place where the unknown is always waiting, a place that can be seemingly happy at one moment, but filled with anger, yelling and upheaval in the blink of an eye. It’s also likely that the angry, chaotic moments far outweigh the calm ones, so when the child finds themselves in the midst of those times when everything does seem to be going alright, they still can’t shake the tension because in any second, it could change. That child is always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Those that grew up in such an environment, myself included, have a tendency to carry this into adulthood. Moving through childhood with extreme caution and walking on eggshells became a means for survival, and it isn’t something that you just grow out of. You may be well aware that things are different now, that you are no longer forced to live within chaos, but there is a tremendous difference between what you are able to process in your brain and what is deeply rooted in your body and heart.
It’s possible this shows up in your relationships. When you fall in love, are you just waiting for the heartbreak to come? I can honestly say that it was like this for me for a very long time. Despite meeting and falling in love with the best person that I’ve ever known, I was filled with negative self-doubt. I wanted to believe that it was going to stay just as good as it felt, but deep inside I continued to think that something would most certainly go wrong to change it all. Nothing could really be this consistently good, could it? I’m glad to say that after years of work, and now over 11 years in a beautiful marriage with a patient husband, yes, things really can be this good.
How about at work? If you grew up in a home of addiction, I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t show up in some way in the workplace. I’ve only recently come to fully recognize how my childhood environment has impacted me there. In fact, it has probably affected me in far more ways at work than in some other areas of my life. Think about it, you usually have people in positions of authority that you are dealing with and perhaps it’s even a high stress job already. These can be challenging on their own, and when you add an ACoA to the mix, it can get pretty interesting. For me, I spent years tip-toeing around and doing whatever I could to make everyone else happy. I was a “yes man” (or woman, in this case), I never wanted to be one to rock the boat. If something went wrong, no matter how insignificant, I beat myself up for it relentlessly. Why? Because certainly they were going to lose faith in me and my abilities if everything I did wasn’t perfect, right? They might praise me highly one day, but the next everything could change. I was sure of it. Knowing that the other shoe would drop is all that I had ever been sure of.
What is the cost of constantly moving through life this way? Anxiety, lack of sleep, back pain, internal turmoil, these were just a few for me. The worst part was, I was mostly doing this to myself. My therapist is the one who hit me with the question that has helped me to really start turning this around. She asked, “If you don’t do everything perfectly, if you don’t give so much of yourself that you are compromising your well-being, what is really the worst that is going to happen? Are you going to die?”. That question hit me like a ton of bricks. I hadn’t actually thought of it in those terms before, in fact, I hadn’t actually thought at all about what might really happen. I just constantly carried around an overwhelming sense that something bad was waiting. While I am still very much in the midst of the work that it takes to overcome and grow through so much of the behavior that has been so deeply rooted within me, this one question brought about a great shift for me in my workplace. Of course I’m not going to die. Talk about putting things into perspective.
Recognizing that other people do have faith in you, and that the world isn’t going to suddenly come crashing down if you aren’t perfect, isn’t always an easy pill to swallow. It’s one of the hardest parts of the work for an ACoA to recognize and fully appreciate that the other shoe isn’t always waiting to drop. There are a number of therapists who specialize in ACoAs, there are coaches and books available, and there are some good resources at AdultChildren.org. The important thing is to find a space that you can feel safe, breathe, and enjoy freedom from your past. Things in life can just truly be good. I promise.