Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Home

Growing up to be a "normie"

Whenever I Saw Something
I Didn't have...
I decided that must be normal...

This is from the book "Hope", by: Emily Marlin: This information is provided to help us in our growth in recovery. It is very important for us to be able to let new information come in. If you have resistance to this, it means you are "normal": It is very important to remember that we are not just talking about alcohol. We are talking about anything that can cause a family to be dysfunctional. Be open, have hope.


My family was normal. "I grew up in a normal household." "My childhood was pretty normal."

This is how typical adult children of alcoholics begin describing their families. We would like very much to believe that our parents weren't alcoholic, that our families were just like all the others in the neighborhood.

Yet, while clinging to the concept of normal-or typical, average, or ordinary-adult children of alcoholics usually also talk about having felt different." Our families weren't at all like the ones we saw on television-they weren't the Cleavers or the Brady Bunch or the Cosbys. How were we to know, as children, that things were far from normal when everyone in the family was trying so hard to keep up the pretense of being typically all-American? How were we to know that feeling different had a great deal to do with the big family secret-the one that everyone kept and never told? Family alcoholism is the secret that everyone knows-and pretends not to know.

Every member of the family masks the secret of alcoholism with the illusion of normality. In alcoholic households, each person-from the youngest child to the most senior member-works very hard to keep up the image that everything is all right, that they are just like other families. And, as the disease progresses and life becomes more unmanageable, the impulse to disguise it becomes even stronger. The perception of normality-of not being different-can act as a reassuring and stabilizing force in any child's life. And to the child who is denied this reassurance this "normal" image seems even more important.

"All my life I wanted to believe my family was normal. But I didn't know what normal was," admitted Susan, a young woman who wants to stop feeling so self-critical and negative. "All I knew was that everyone else had it, and I didn't. The best I could do was to try to imitate the families that seemed normal to me. I would visit other kids' homes and take in every detail. Whenever I saw something that I didn't have, I decided that must be normal: kids who had their own room, clean clothes in every drawer, team pennants hanging from their walls. I never had any of these things. In fact, I slept in the same room with my grandmother until I was thirteen, and when I finally did get my own room, it was no bigger than a closet-and it didn't even have a door, so I never had any privacy at all.

Perfectly Normal

"I still don't know what normal is, and I still have to fight the feeling that whatever I have isn't enough. I live with this battle all the time. I feel that I have to work twice as hard as anyone else because I'm only half as good.

"I always think people will think I'm strange. If people like me, my first reaction is to think there must be something wrong with them, they pity me, or they're humoring me. I'm afraid to get close to people because I know that when they find out who I really am, they'll be appalled and run away. "I've spent my whole life trying to figure out what normal really is, and I'm starting to realize that almost everyone else is looking for the same thing. Ultimately, I think we'll discover that the whole concept is false. There is no such thing as 'normal.' And what I think is normal may not be at all normal for you.

"All the same, it still keeps coming up. Tomorrow night, for instance, my co-op board is meeting in my studio apartment-you know, I still don't have a bedroom. Anyway, I started looking around the apartment this afternoon and I suddenly felt that my home wasn't good enough, that everyone else must have a better place than I do. Before I knew it, I'd put myself in the position of an outcast, just the way I felt growing up with my mother's alcoholism. I spent my childhood trying to be like everyone else and here I am still doing it.

"I have to keep reminding myself that I don't have to imitate other people the way I used to. Everyone in my family always tried to act normal' -to be like someone else-but I'm trying not to do that anymore. I know that looking outward for what's normal isn't important; I have to look inward. I've learned that those 'things' I used to think everyone else had won't make me happy."

Like many of us, Susan feels puzzled and troubled when dealing with questions of normality. Children in alcoholic homes grow up having little or no idea what is normal and are only certain that they aren't. It is easy to become preoccupied with the notion, and envious of others who seem normal in comparison.

What is Normal

"Normal" is not a very helpful word in describing a family background particularly that of an alcoholic family. It makes more sense to describe families as either functional or dysfunctional. However, it is important for us—as ACOAs—to remember that no family is perfectly normal, functional, or healthy, just as no family is totally abnormal, dysfunctional, or unhealthy. Alcoholic families are by no means the only kind of dysfunctional family. Families shattered by divorce, mental illness, suicide, chronic diseases other than alcoholism, or the sudden death of a family member often interact and behave in ways similar to alcoholic families.

"I can really relate to my friends who grew up in alcoholic homes," Tess told me. "Talk about guilt and shame. My sister, who is mentally retarded, lived at home and I never wanted to bring school friends by. She was such an embarrassment-drooling, talking gibberish. And I felt so guilty for not being more sympathetic. My mother took care of her around the clock and my father, brother, and I got very little of her attention. Poor martyred woman, she didn't have any energy left after looking after Ginnie. We stood in awe and fear of my mother; she directed us all.

"She was too tired to ever go out, and the rest of us were too mortified to be seen with Ginnie, so we stayed home all the time. My mother wouldn't hear of getting a baby-sitter. All of our lives centered around Ginnie's condition, but no one ever complained. She was the poor little princess. We didn't have much of a family life at home and we didn't have a life outside either. We never went anywhere or did anything."

Like Tess, many non-ACOAs identify with the characteristics attributed to children of alcoholics. Problems common among ACOAs are not necessarily unique to ACOAs. Others may share these difficulties and they too can benefit from this book and from the self-help groups and various therapies that we as ACOAs find helpful.

Although Tess had no alcoholism in her family, the patterns of behavior that arose around her sister are strikingly similar to those that develop in an alcoholic family. And patterns of behavior-healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunction emerge in every family. Each individual family, whether alcoholic or not, lies somewhere along a continuum from severely dysfunctional to highly functional. Two families, each of which has an alcoholic parent with similar drinking patterns, may differ significantly in other respects. One family might band together with a certain degree of warmth and nurturing, while the other might withdraw into a cold remoteness. These patterns of behavior within a specific family determine where it lies on the continuum.

Dr. Wayne Kritsberg has set forth the characteristics of the extremes of this continuum in The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome: From Discovery to Recovery:

Unhealthy Family

1. Rigid rules.

2. Rigid roles.

3. Family secrets.

4. Resists outsiders from entering the system.

5. Is very serious.

6. No personal privacy, unclear personal boundaries.

7. False loyalty to the family, members are never free to leave the system.

8. Conflict between members is denied and ignored.

9. The family resists change.

10. There is no unity, the family is fragmented.

Healthy Family

1. No rigid rules.

2. No rigid roles.

3. No family secrets.

4. Allows outsiders into the system.

5. Has a sense of humor.

6. Members have right to personal privacy, develop a sense of self

7. Members have a "sense of family" and are permitted to leave the system.

8. Conflict between members is allowed and resolved.

9. The family continually changes.

10. There is a sense of wholeness in the family.

In functional families, members treat one another with respect and love. Sensitive to feelings and considerate of needs, they share a sense of security. Family conduct is usually predictable, behavior is reasonable, and parents are responsible. Children grow up feeling nurtured and protected. And, as Virginia Satir has pointed out in Peoplemaking, "In a nurturing family, it is easy to pick up the message that human life and human feelings are more important than anything else." In functional families, the standards of expected behavior are firm yet flexible. Family rules, implicit or explicit, take into account individual differences but are basically consistent.

Every family operates in a variety of ways aimed at keeping the whole working. And if one person gets sick or has serious problems, the whole family organizes itself around whatever seems to be wrong in an attempt to make it right. In most families, for instance, if one parent broke a leg and was forced to stay in bed for several weeks, the other parent and the children would take on the injured parent's responsibilities in order to keep the system running as smoothly as possible.

Pretending To Be Normal

In an alcoholic family, this attempt to preserve the system demands that everyone play the game of"let's pretend we're normal." But it gets very difficult to sustain this game. In a normal family, one or ideally both parents are in charge. In an alcoholic family, however, no one is really in charge since the parents are often either physically absent or emotionally unavailable. Because of their individual turmoil, parents may not be able to set appropriate, consistent family rules. In alcoholic families, more often than not, rules are either nonexistent or extremely rigid. In either case, children in alcoholic families usually get strong messages that they shouldn't trust anyone outside the family, shouldn't talk about what's going on inside the family, and shouldn't have feelings of their own. Family life is often chaotic; at best it is unpredictable and confusing.

If you grew up with an alcoholic parent (or parents), it is likely that neither of them, in their narrowly focused lives (the alcoholic obsessed with alcohol, the nonalcoholic obsessed with the alcoholic), was able to give you a strong sense of self-worth, express affection, or help you solve problems. Perhaps they were frequently angry, insensitive, non-nurturing, un-protective, or neglectful. You may have been physically abused or terrified by the threat of violence and abuse. Children in alcoholic families don't always get the attention, affection, love, and understanding they need in order to grow up feeling safe and secure.

Re-Examining The Past

You may have grown up feeling unloved, fearful, and alone. And you may still feel that way.

"The first time I knew there was a problem in my family was when I was about seven years old," said Joe, a fifty-year-old Marine who recently became aware of a strong and persistent feeling of rejection. "My mother sent me to the store for a loaf of bread and everything seemed fine when I left the house. But, by the time I got back, there was a real brawl going on. My parents were screaming at each other, my father was breaking up the house, and my sisters and brothers were crying. I was so frightened that I hid behind the ironing board until things calmed down.

"My mother told me to tell the neighbors that we were having a party. I knew it wasn't a party. My mother threw her wedding ring out the window in the middle of the fight and we spent the whole next day looking for it. "Then, after my brothers had grown up and moved out of the house, my mother snatched me up from my bed in the middle of the night and took me and my sisters to another state. There was no warning, no talk about her leaving our father, no good-byes.

"There were seven people in the family, but I never felt it was a family. Something was always boiling. There was lots of action, but no consistency or affection. I was the youngest, and when my parents finally divorced, I was the only one still at home. Neither of them asked for custody of me. That proved that I didn't matter to either one of them. That's the way I always felt."

Joe describes feelings of confusion, rejection, and fear characteristic of children in alcoholic homes. Although he knew something was wrong, he didn't understand until much later in his life that his parents' violent behavior was closely related to their alcoholism.

If you grew up in an alcoholic home, you too may have tried to pretend it was a party when you knew it wasn't. Your childhood world—inconsistent, unreliable, and incomprehensible-probably left you feeling unprotected, fearful, and isolated. And most of us don't realize, until we feel and examine recurrent pain or fear in our adult lives, an examination often aided by professional therapy.

And Always Keep In Mind The Most Important Factor

  "What we live with we learn,
and what we learn
we practice, and what we
practice, we become...
and what we become
has consequences"...
AND almost always, I have
found, who we become
has little to do with who
we were meant to be.

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(Est. 4.15.96)

DISCLAMER: Before you start to look at the material that I have assembled for you I want to make clear that I claim very little original authorship here. Even where I don't give credit I probably should because there are very few original words of wisdom left in recovery. I want to especially thank Terry Kellogg, whom I do believe has a lot of original stuff, John Bradshaw whom I believe has the ability to synthesize others material better that anyone I know, and I guess if we wanted to be completely accurate we should not quote the serenity prayer out of content nor without giving credit to the author. I also want to give permission to anyone to use anything on this site for the benefit of recovery as long as they do not make any more money off of it. This offer only extends to what I have the right to give.

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