From The Red Book:
ACA is a 12-Step Program of Recovery
ACA’s relationship to other anonymous programs is a shared dependence on the Twelve Steps for a spiritual awakening. Each program’s focus is different, but the solution remains the same. In childhood our identity is formed by the reflection we see in the eyes of the people around us. We fear losing this reflection, thinking the mirror makes us real and that we disappear or have no self without it.
The distorted image of family alcoholism is not who we are. And we are not the unreal person trying to mask that distortion. In ACA we do not stop abusing a substance or losing ourselves in another. We stop believing we have no worth and start to see our true identity, reflected in the eyes of other Adult Children, as the strong survivors and valuable people we actually are.
Finding Wholeness Through Separation: The Paradox of Independence
As ACA grows to maturity, we need to see the need to more clearly define our relationship to Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon Family Groups and to acknowledge our special contribution to Twelve-Step Programs.
As we struggle to form an identity separate from our “parent” programs, we are also becoming aware of the need to separate emotionally from our alcoholic homes. Only in complete separation can we find the freedom to express who we are and to create the experience of intimate closeness we so desperately needed as children.
Results of Abandonment
Rene Spitz, in his classic study of infants in foundling homes, discovered the babies who were left alone for long periods of time could not tolerate the isolation and lost the will to live. The despair of not being held except during basic care left the infants without hope of receiving the comfort and love they needed to feel safe and secure.
How a Negative Self-Image Begins
Children in an alcoholic home exist in a constant state of basic insecurity which begins when the cry to be held is met with hostility and rejection, or simply ignored. Self-soothing is not possible in an atmosphere conditioned by violence and fear. And children of alcoholics are always close to feeling the despair which comes from being helpless and dependent in a home without love.
Abuse Seems Normal and Acceptable
An alcoholic home is a violent place. Alcoholism is a violent solution to the problem of pain, and anyone trapped in its lethal embrace is filled with rage and self-hate for choosing this form of denial. Children exposed to such violence come to believe they are to accept punishment and abuse as a normal part of existence. They identify themselves as objects of hate, Not worthy of love, and survive by denying their underlying feelings of hopeless despair.
In loving homes, children are eager to see themselves reflected by those around them. A positive self-reflection increases their sense of security and feelings of self-esteem and gives them confidence in relating to others. They see respect for their need to be protected from harm and relate to authority with trust and not fear. They come to believe they have value because they are accepted and loved.
Fitting into the Dysfunctional Family
As children in an alcoholic home, we are horrified by the images we have of ourselves. What we see reflected in the distorted mirror of alcoholism are projected images of hostility and hate. In a desperate effort to connect and belong, we force ourselves to fit these distorted images and become false selves to keep from feeling isolated and alone. Sadly, we often become mirrors for our family, struggling without success to reflect the love we need for ourselves. This tragic reversal further robs us of the chance to form an identity based on being valued and loved. The strength of this desperate attachment becomes clear when we attempt to change the family’s belief about who we must be and find a less violent identity.
Learning to be Indecisive
Children of alcoholics are paralyzed by indecision when trying to separate emotionally from their homes. They are in conflict about when to approach and when to avoid the very people on whom they depend to give security, comfort, and love because these are the same people who are destroying the children’s sense of well-being. They are equally in conflict about leaving home, burdened with shame and guilt and a massive sense of failure for being unable to find a less violent solution to the problem of pain. With few social skills and an inability to discriminate between whom to approach and whom to avoid in the outside world. they are forced to agonize in the middle and to fight falling into despair.
Repressing Feelings to Survive
To survive in the midst of confusion and to have any sense of control, Adult Children must distance or dissociate from their feelings of panic and fear. There are three forms of dissociation.
The first uses the functional defenses of the mind to deny or distort the painful reality by repressing, projecting or rationalizing the feelings that are causing the pain.
Using a substance to alter the feelings is the second way to dissociate from feeling pain. The most easily available substances are alcohol, sugar, nicotine and caffeine.
A final form of dissociation uses negative excitement to keep us unaware of deeper fear. By focusing our attention on phobias, obsessions, dreams and taboos, and compulsively tensing in response to these fears, we force the body to build a protective physical armor and to produce adrenaline, endorphins and melatonin to chemically block the perception of pain.
All three forms of dissociation keep us imprisoned in a narrow and familiar range of behavior, never reaching the extremes of panicked exhaustion or of collapse into suicidal despair.