I pulled the door open to the Portage Avenue building I had been visiting every Wednesday for my free Family of Alcoholics meetings. In front of me were the concrete steps that led to the bare and unfriendly room with the exasperated and exhausted people. I was one of these people. Each and every one of us were here because we had a loved one who was an alcoholic. When I started the program I was seeking some kind of salvation from the rubble my boyfriend was in, but as the weeks went by I learnt I was the one I needed to truly save.
I walked to my usual chair, grabbed a name tag and opened my binder to today’s topic. It read: Adult Children. Now, we’re children? I thought with slight annoyance. These meetings were helpful, but sometimes they felt unfair. The weeks prior we learnt about the term codependance and how many of us exhibited these traits, we were anxious, controlling, fixers and often ended up in relationships with alcoholics. These meetings felt unfair because it felt like they were waving a big finger at us and saying “You are part of the problem!” Which of course we were, but it is hard to feel that way when you are picking up the pieces of someone else’s life, making sure they get up for work and don’t kill themselves. Of course, we had to be controlling! Haven’t you dealt with an unpredictable, irresponsible, manipulative and lying alcoholic before? And now, we are being labelled “Adult Children.” Oh, brother. Us? WE were the children? It was hard not to let the resentment get to you.
Our counsellor walked over to the board, pulled down a screen and once everyone was settled she went to her laptop to start today’s film.
“Characteristics of Adult Children” the screen read. The narrator’s voice began over washed out images of families from the 80’s. Tacky wardrobes, terrible hairstyles and thick framed glasses.
“If you grew up in a home with a parent who abused alcohol, you’re probably familiar with the uneasy feeling of never knowing what to expect when you walked through your front door. These homes were predictably unpredictable. Often filled with arguments, inconsistency, unreliability and chaos.
Children of alcoholics don’t get all of their emotional needs met due to the alcoholics emotions and behaviours taking priority. The emotional needs of the children were therefore not given the attention and emotional support you need during key developmental time in your youth and instead were preoccupied with the dysfunctional behavior of a parent. This could lead to unbalanced behaviours and difficulty recognizing and caring for their feelings and their needs.
Children of alcoholics were not modelled how to properly process sadness, fear and anger and suppressed these emotions in order to survive. These unresolved feelings surface as adults and often these adults have to soothe themselves like you would a child. Fortunately if you recognize this you can separate yourself from the “helpless child” you feel like and can learn to process these emotions normally.
Many children who lived in homes like this develop similar characteristics and behaviours. In 1978 a list was formulated called “The Laundry List” and was adopted as part of the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization.”
The narrator began to read out the list of characteristics and one by one I began to discover that what I thought was my inherent identity of a strong, responsible woman was only a facade.
“Here are the characteristics of ‘The Laundry List’,” the narrator continued.
“We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures. We became approval seekers and lose our identity in the process. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism. We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfil our sick abandonment needs. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others. We become addicted to excitement. We confuse love and pity and tend to love people we can pity and rescue. We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us. Alcoholism is a family disease; and we became para-alcoholics and take on the characteristics of that disease even though we did not pick up the drink.”
The narrator’s voice began to drift off as I reflected on what she was saying. I thought the name “Laundry List” was hilariously ironic. My codependency was apparent as soon as you walked into my apartment. Clothes were sporadically scattered around, layering every inch of available floor. Each uncared piece of laundry represented the lack of care I had towards myself. I struggled with the mundane routine of basic survival, as embarrassed as I was to admit it. My anger and annoyance of being a part of this family disease diffused into sadness. I related to most items on this list.
Every time there was a knock on my apartment door I would have a surge of panic as if I was about to get evicted. The feeling of “getting in trouble” was ingrained with every teacher, boss or parent. Anxiety pulsed through me when it came to upsetting people or saying NO. I was a victim who always cried “Why me?” I was the fixer who solved everyone’s problems because everyone’s issues felt like my responsibility. Every partner I could think of had an addiction issue. I had entirely missed out on discovering who I was because accommodating was easier than speaking my truth and discovering my identity.
I walked home from the meeting that night with a familiar pain that moved from my chest to the pit of my stomach. Shame. I was ashamed of how much I deceived myself. I was ashamed of how broken I actually was. I was part of the problem and I wasn’t helping anyone. Opening the door to my apartment, I looked around. Dirty dishes covered my counter, unopened mail piled on my kitchen table, towels huddled together in front of my bathroom door and, just where I left them, my dirty laundry coated my living room floor. Instead of giving into the immense guilt I had for self-abandoning, I let out a long, heavy sign. Your “laundry” can be cleaned, I thought. Bending down I picked up an article of clothing and then another, and then another.
Jessica Jones is a teacher living in the Manitoba prairies. For the past year she has been actively writing and sharing her experiences with co-dependency, alcoholism, and the impact it’s had on her and her relationships. Her interests include psychology, photography, and her brand-new podcast called Mulch. For more stories and articles by Jessica follow her on Instagram @from.mulch, listen to her podcast Mulch or visit her website frommulch.com.