This is a group for those affected by being raised in an “alcoholic household.” The group will be especially helpful for those wanting to learn more about ACOA (Adult Child of Alcoholics) features (which are on a spectrum and vary from person to person), identifying similar patterns among members and offering support and connection to each other over personal experiences. The group will also offer the opportunity to booster strength and hope in members. It is also helpful for those that identify with Alanon, as well as those who do not; all are welcome.
Lately I can’t get enough of the TV show Shameless because, as a psychotherapist working with addiction, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) and Children of Alcoholics, I’m happy to see when TV actually gets it, mostly, right. Shameless, however, presents one of the more extreme cases of an alcoholic family system. Read more >
Learning 3 Characteristics of “Adult Children of an Alcoholic” (ACOA) from Fiona on Shameless
Lately I can’t get enough of the TV show Shameless because, as a psychotherapist working with addiction, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) and Children of Alcoholics, I’m happy to see when TV actually gets it, mostly, right. Shameless, however, presents one of the more extreme cases of an alcoholic family system.
The main character is Fiona Gallagher, a doe-eyed 21 year-old with a lot of bravado. She is someone that we can easily connect to and we often root for because of her disastrous conditions growing up with two addicted parents. She is a heroine; she takes care of her five younger siblings while struggling to try to keep the house intact. When we look a little closer, we see a young woman consistently derailed by her circumstances and therefore, never able to grow and thrive.
Albeit this is an extreme example, it isn’t an uncommon one. I work with a lot of Adult Children of Alcoholics in group and individual therapy. Some of these clients come in without knowing they are ACOA but come instead for relationships issues or anxiety. They recognize that the family wasn’t healthy and that the alcoholic parent(s) definitely caused problems, but find it much harder to recognize how they were negatively impacted, and that there’s a name for it!
There are many lists of characteristics of ACOAs, I recommend Janet Woititz’s list in her book Adult Children of Alcoholics. If we take a look at Fiona, we can see how these characteristics play out. Here are 3 (of her 10).
Three common characteristics of ACOAs
1. ACOA’s guess at what normal behavior is.
There is nothing normal about growing up in an alcoholic household. Sometimes we were expected to do things that are far beyond what children should be expected to do. So ACOAs often had to grow up way too quickly and become “adult-like” long before their parents who often act like children or they can be “child-like” well into adulthood. ACOAs come to expect that the house is a wreck and never clean, that appointments are often missed, that lies are often told in place of the truth and that chaotic situations are the norm. Fiona lives in this type of home and as a result, she was made to become a 40 year-old as a 21 year-old.
ACOA’s are just that: adult children. This means that in many ways they can appear like full-fledged, interesting, caring, responsible and responsive people. In other ways, when it pertains to their own success and growth, they use child-like resources to fall back on because acting adult in all areas seems stressful, confusing and foreign. They were never taught how to manage adult tasks or given appropriate examples. However, with the right help, this can be learned later in life and is completely workable. Often in group for ACOAs, members talk about how they change their behavior and support each other in the process.
2. Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
As children, when our early caregivers are unreliable and inconsistent, we protect ourselves from the hurt that naturally arises from this neglect. With the alcoholic family system alcohol is the main focus and, as a result, basic parenting–nurturing, protecting and educating–is lacking. As a result of growing up in this family, it is very difficult to understand intellectually and emotionally what a normal and healthy relationship is, and often times, unhealthy ones feel more familiar and comfortable.
The wiring of an ACOA’s brain is to be attracted to chaotic, anxious, or hope/fear cycling as normal in relationships. This is why we see Fiona attracted to Jimmy/Steve, an exciting and romantic car thief; and it’s incredibly confusing for her most times because he offers real help financially and sometimes emotionally. When we are doing work on ourselves as ACOAs, it is necessary to re-train the brain (see www.neurofeedbacktraining.com) and to appreciate that our wires might be “crossed” and attracted to chaotic and unhealthy relationships. Another dynamic in their unhealthy relationship is a confused sense of loyalty. ACOA’s are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved (also on the list.) ACOA’s will stick by the alcoholic or others that have alcoholic characteristics because they have learned that this is their perceived job.
3. Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
ACOA’s often have trouble in work with the easiest of tasks and then can somehow be the most creative, resourceful, hard-working people you would ever meet. It’s not uncommon to see an ACOA go to college and get straight A’s and then have a difficult time in the work world. This behavior mirrors the inconsistent and confusing alcoholic household. As an example, one minute the alcoholic parent was praising the child’s highest talents, skills and achievements, only to be torn down the next minute for other aspects of their character and behavior.
Moreover, ACOA’s often act like “children” in key areas where they were never directly taught adult skills such as saving for retirement, how to write a check and pay bills, or how to organize priorities at work. Fiona appears extremely mature when it comes to showing care for her siblings, but contains gross misjudgements at times, like when she allowed her younger brother to keep a gun that he found as long as the bullets were taken out!
ACOA’s will often have difficulty in relationships because they spend more time focusing on others than on building their own skills and attending to themselves, and eventually their lives become unmanageable and chaotic. When I work with ACOA’s in therapy, we attempt to be mindful of when this pattern arises and “do differently” even if it’s uncomfortable (which is a sign it’s a new behavior.) The path is to focus on oneself, giving personal permission to thrive, to investigate our own experience and to live a fuller life.
In the following clip (*viewer discretion advised for colorful language), we see how Fiona finds her mother in the middle of a depressed episode having gone on a drinking and drug bender. Fiona must take off her suit when she was going to be moving up at her job that evening assisting at a local nightclub, and she sullenly repeats her pattern of picking up after everyone in the house.
Though no ACOA has every characteristic listed they usually will present some aspect of each one and will also present on a spectrum from mild to serious. The good news for Fiona is that she’s strong, resilient and caring, and confused. Her situation is workable, just like everyone else’s.
Join our new ACOA therapy group starting in NYC!
Heather Coleman, LCSW is a Buddhist Psychotherapist working private practice in New York City. She specializes in addictions, relationships, and trauma. A new ACOA therapy group is starting and will focus on working with emotions and communication skills; contact Heather at 347-708-6177 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org to join this group starting in the Fall 2016. Sessions are $85/group.
Psychotherapy sessions with Heather – $150/50 minute session
Neurofeedback sessions with Heather – $125/50 minute session
Neurofeedback and Psychotherapy Session also available – $150/50 minute session
In my private practice at Buddhist Psychotherapy NY, I work with people in recovery or struggling to find their way there.
The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is: suffering is inevitable in this life. The Second states that the cause is clinging. When we experience addiction, this “clinging” aspect gets heightened to the nth degree. On a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) level, our subconscious screams: “This experience isn’t good enough as it is!” I have often heard people struggling with addiction say that the best party in the world was just not exciting enough, even in New York City. There needed to be more sex, more cigars, more drugs, more food, more rock and roll. However, classically, I’m somewhat saddened that a harsh and aggressive approach is used in treating addiction. Often, the idea is to get on board with the counselor or “you’re out.” And instead of taking a Middle Way, it is suggested to be completely abstinent or there is no other way. While this is true for most struggling with addiction, this is not always accessible in the beginning and potentially a harm-reduction approach is a better start.
Approaching how one can be “middle” in terms of meeting emotions, relationships and experiences, is already a good start.
An addict does not need to be any harder on themselves; they already have an imaginary, berating entity living in their heads, which is part of the original dilemma. Traditionally, there is also the idea that the addicted part is “bad”, needs to be strong-armed into extrication, and that one just needs more will-power and control to stop this demon. We all need a plan of action for harm-reduction and refrain, using discrimination for what is healthy or not, but our attitude is what needs adjusting. What if we were to be more friendly to the addicted part? To actually feed it what it needs instead of ignoring its screams?
Here are some compassion-based pointers for helping in recovery:
The addiction served a purpose When anyone encounters pain, they use coping mechanisms or find ways to move away from that pain. It’s human nature; if we burn our hand on the stove, we quickly pull our hand away in reaction. In facing addiction head on, it is important to see what kind of purpose it has served. Did it help to numb or move away from pain? Did it enhance a situation that seemed boring or anxiety provoking? Did it seem to make you feel “freer to be yourself?” The most important point is to take an honest look at one’s self and see what might be occurring in one’s experience. Looking requires the utmost bravery and courage. Considering the absence of a numbing agent, sobriety usually brings more feeling and emotion to the surface; so it is imperative that we have a way to work with emotions, to sit with them gently, to understand we don’t have to act on them and that they will eventually pass.
The Jenga block concept Once the purpose seems clear, it’s important to find direct replacements. I refer to the Jenga block concept where we need to change the rules of the game a little bit: If we remove a Jenga block at the bottom of the structure, we better replace it with something or the structure will feel too fragile! As we are well aware of the game, the more we take out, the more wobbly the structure becomes; humans aren’t very different. The addiction has been helping with survival and the removal of it prematurely feels like a threat to the ego and identity. For example, if doing $200 of cocaine a night made Joe “feel more like himself”, we have to start to think of other ways for him to connect with himself. Was Joe formerly creative? Felt more like himself in certain activities or places? Does he feel most like himself when around others who understand him? Then we work to weave these ways of feeling “more like one’s true self” into daily life; for instance, belonging to a new community, developing one’s artistic practice or hiking through nature with no obligations.
Stability Stability Stability It is important to then take a holistic approach towards one’s life, especially in early recovery when one feels most fragile. Quite simply, getting enough exercise, proper nutrition, and sleep is very useful during this stabilization period.
Isolation is the enemy Anyone who’s ever been addicted knows that social isolation before and during recovery is a slippery slope; and for some reason those that live in New York City can still feel alone in a sea of millions of people. It’s important to identify people in your life or people you could meet that “get you.” Often times, there is an evaluatory period of people, places and things that were formerly associated with addiction, and there is a realization that in order for recovery to be supported, some of these areas need to be greatly modified or avoided. Early recovery is a time to assess if your relationships and places you frequent are in line with health. Moving forward, this is also a constant assessment throughout recovery.
Stinkin’ Thinkin’ Once sober, thoughts become clearer that are related to addictive thinking. I once heard someone in recovery for 25 years say, “i still think of having a beer when in an uncomfortable social situation. I think it will temporarily make it all easier to get through.” This is stinkin’ thinkin’. It may come up quite regularly so it is important just to identify it as “stinkin’ thinkin’” and then know that there is a choice not to listen or follow through with it. This is when we have the ability to ride our thoughts, not allowing them to ride us.
Get support For as many people that use A.A., N.A., O.A., D.A., S.A. and Alanon as support in recovery, there are just as many who don’t like the 12 step system. The most common complaint I have heard is the non-belief in God. It’s unfortunate, because time and again someone will avoid the 12 steps completely due to this fact. Many times there are open discussions about how this interferes with the process in the “rooms”, and there have been groups formed to work around this caveat such as A.A. for atheists, Buddhists and non-believers alike. That being said, God can, and should, be interpreted in any way that fits with your idea of a higher power. Moreover, there are now recovery programs for Atheists as well as those interested in Buddhism, such as Refuge Recovery. The added support of a system like this, along with having a sponsor or a trained therapist can greatly aid in recovery.7. You may have to hit bottom Some people don’t have to hit bottom to get into recovery, but many do. Bottom is when circumstances can’t seem to get any lower or worse. And everyone’s bottom is different; this may be the loss of one’s job, spouse and friends or it might be one night of losing your dignity or it might be developing a serious health condition. So if you are far off from recovery, ask yourself, how far from bottom are you? How bad and intolerable do things need to get before you reach a bottom? One of the main mechanisms that keeps addiction in place is “ignorance”, turning a blind on to one’s current circumstances, pain, and suffering.
As a Buddhist Psychotherapist, I often have the application of the Four Noble Truths to all life’s circumstances in the back of my mind.
When the Second Noble truth, clinging, has gotten out of control, it’s hard to ever believe that life could be different. But alas, it’s important to know that there’s a Third and Fourth Noble truth! Three: There is a way to work with suffering and clinging and Four: There can be a path towards health, wellness and sanity. One should never give up hope. All circumstances are workable with the right resources and a touch of personal compassion.
Call 347-708-6177 to schedule an appointment.
Psychotherapy sessions with Heather – $150/50 minute session Neurofeedback sessions with Heather – $125/50 minute session
Inevitably, regardless of the stated reason for coming to therapy, my clients will make this statement with certainty. The grass is greener over there and filled with feelings of acceptance and companionship and love. And over here, clearly there’s something wrong with me.
Of course this is not true. There wouldn’t be articles about loneliness if you were the only one feeling this way. But, we conveniently forget that everyone is struggling with the same difficult feelings.
Now that we’ve cleared up that point, we can move on to the question of what to do about it.
Actually—we can’t leave that first point yet. We need to be curious about the fact that we created and believed that idea: There’s something wrong with me and everyone else is fine.
How does that make us feel if we believe that statement? Badly. Very badly. And we believe there is something wrong with us to warrant feeling badly about ourselves.
Our greatest bad habit as Westerners, as far as I can tell from over 10,000 hours of sitting and talking with people about their lives and struggles, is that we are constantly beating ourselves up. Criticizing ourselves, coaching ourselves with a harsh, aggressive tone almost 24/7. Even when we’re asleep we’re pointing out our flaws to ourselves and rousing a bad feeling.
So if we look a little closer at that lonely feeling, it is not just “I don’t have the companionship and sense of being seen and liked by others.” It’s actually far worse—we don’t have the kind companion who understands us withinourselves!
So long as we believe that the bad feeling, the lonely feeling, is legitimate and has an origin in “there must be something wrong with me that I am alone,” we will never resolve the feeling.
The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, when teaching psychotherapists how to work with mind from the point of view of Buddhism, would speak of the projector and the projection. He emphasized the point that if we don’t stop fixating on the projection—the story of why I’m so lonely—and instead look at the projector—the “me” who is creating this bad feeling and the belief that rouses the feeling—then we will never be cured.
We all focus on the story (projection) that the feeling (projector) rouses. There’s the lonely/bad feeling, and then there’s the story: I can’t be appreciated and understood by my partner (or insert any person here). Rarely do we stop and look at the feeling that’s generating this story.
Conquering our loneliness requires bravery. Here’s where we need to get practical and think about change as a practice. We are going to interrupt a habitual pattern and do something different.
We have to be willing to:
Stop being focused on the story and feel the feelings of loneliness and badness.
Suspend our 100 percent certainty that there is something fundamentally wrong with us that would make it so we feel lonely.
Cultivate some reason why we deserve a little protection from the constant inner talk that is putting us down.
When the lonely or bad feeling comes up, interrupt its flow with this more accurate information.
How do we do this? The easiest way is to start by thinking of a child. I have found that, while we all will have strong ambivalence around why we don’t deserve kindness and care, it’s almost impossible for us to find a reason why a child doesn’t deserve those things.
Here is a practice to help conquer our loneliness:
Stop reading and ask yourself to find that lonely or bad feeling as a felt experience in your body.
It’s usually not far from our awareness if we stop and attend to it. If need be, think of a recent experience when you felt misunderstood or alone.
Now think of a kid you like, or one you know or see regularly. Imagine that this child has that feeling. If you were the adult in the room and could see that child was feeling this way, would you say with an aggressive tone, “Clearly they did something wrong and deserve to feel this way.” Of course not!
But this is exactly what we say to ourselves. So our third step is to notice that protective feeling and mental certainly we have that the child will not be helped by judgment and aggression in response to their pain. Try to notice where that certainty is as a feeling in your body.
Practice saying to yourself, “This certainty I have that this child deserves protection and kindness, I have to remember to apply to myself when I have these feelings. And to do so without bias. It is to be a non-negotiable response that’s practiced.”
Conquering loneliness has little to do with whether we have friends or not—we all know the feeling of loneliness even when we’re surrounded by others.
It has everything to do with examining and ultimately rejecting the bad feeling within us, and its companion belief that we somehow deserve aggression and being kept from companionship and community.
Natalie Baker, LMHC is a Licensed Psychotherapist, Certified Zengar Neurofeedback Trainer, Meditation Teacher
Natalie Baker, founder of Buddhist Psychotherapy NY & Neurofeedback Training Co. (Neurofeedback NY), is a licensed psychotherapist and an advanced Zengar certified neurofeedback trainer in New York. She has over thirteen years experience as a psychotherapist in NYC treating clients with conditions such as PTSD, trauma, anxiety, depression, and relationship issues and over 20 years experience with mindfulness training.
To schedule an appointment for psychotherapy or neurofeedback session call Natalie at (347) 860-4778