ACA 8: Internalizing Our Parents: Part 2

From The Red Book–Chapter 2:

Another way to think about how we acquired para-alcoholism as children is like this. The alcoholic can be removed from the family by divorce or separation, but nothing in the home really changes. The alcohol abuse or other dysfunction is gone, but the home remains fearful or controlling. Boundaries are unclear. The children don’t talk about feelings. They either become enmeshed with the non drinking parent of alienated from him or her. The rules of “don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel” apply even with the alcohol or other dysfunction removed. The inside drugs of the para-alcoholic are at work, affecting the children. The non drinking parent’s fear, excitement, and pain are affecting the children and are transferred to the children. This is the internalization of the parent’s feelings and behavior in one of its purest forms.

Many adult children express anger at the nonalcoholic parent for not protecting them or not removing them from the dysfunctional situation. We felt abandoned watching this parent remain absorbed by the alcoholic’s behavior. Ironically, many of us hold more resentment toward the non drinking parent than the alcoholic parent.

From the nonalcoholic parent we learned helplessness, worry, black-and-white thinking, being a victim, and self-hate. We learn rage, pettiness, and passive-aggressive thinking. From this parent, we learn to doubt our reality as children. Many times we have gone to our non alcoholic and expressed feelings of fear or shame. Many times this parent has dismissed our feelings. We have been called selfish or too sensitive when objecting to our drinking parent’s behavior. In some cases, this parent defended or excused the alcoholic’s behavior.

The damage that some nonalcoholic parents can do through inaction or by failing to remove children from the dysfunctional home boggles the mind. Some of these parents have ignored sexual abuse within their homes. In some cases, a child has been accused of being dishonest when the child tried to tell the non drinking parent about the sexual abuse he or she was facing. This is difficult to think about or to accept, but for many of us it is true.

From the nonalcoholic parent, we learned to accept abusive or neglectful behavior as a natural part of life. For example, during an argument, some of us left or fled the home with the nonalcoholic parent only to in a few days as if nothing had happened. From this behavior, we got the message that it was normal to push aside our fear and return to our abusive or shaming parent. As a result, we can have great difficulty walking away from unfulfilling relationships as adults. We know in our minds we should leave, but it “feels” normal to stay. These are just a few of the examples of being infected by the disease of family dysfunction.

In the interest of fairness, we must realize that our parents passed on what was done to them. They are adult children as well. We are not blaming them for being powerless over the effects of family dysfunction, In most cases, the treatment they handed out is the treatment they received growing up. Our parents internalized their parents. This has to be true if we are to believe that family dysfunction is passed down from one generation to the next.


Our fairness in looking at our family must extend to parental alcoholism. If our parents or grandparents are active in alcoholism or addiction, we are not blaming them for that as well. We must understand that our parents are powerless over alcohol and that their lives are unmanageable. This is the disease of alcoholism, which affects a person in body, mind, and spirit. Our parents can suffer from an obsession or compulsion to drink that always overpowers them unless they get help. Some of us have watched our parents or grandparents die agonizingly slow deaths. A few of our parents have been lost to alcoholic insanity or dementia. They have been depraved and pitiful or unapproachable and scary. The alcoholic is powerless over alcohol and has an obsession of the mind to drink or take drugs. The para-alcoholic suffers from a similar condition, yet it is difficult to see since it is on the inside. In essence, the alcoholic and para-alcoholic are the same personality driven by near-identical fear, but one drinks and one does not.

This is where we got confused as children. We thought we were the drinker’s problem or some part of it. From the alcoholic’s behavior, we assumed that we were no good, unseen, hated, ignored, used, or attacked by the alcoholic because there was something wrong with us. From the para-alcoholic’s behavior, we assumed we were less important than the drinking. We deducted that we were the problem when in reality the disease of alcoholism was the problem. We take this mistaken belief into adulthood. We can continue to act out our childhood role with our alcoholic parent or someone else. Some of us can remain stuck and feel responsible for our parents on some level. We can act our role with the nonalcoholic parent as well. If there was dysfunction in the home without alcoholism, we can have the same misperception. We can act out a dysfunctional role with our parents or another person.

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