Chances are, if you are the child of someone with an addiction to alcohol, your upbringing likely left you unprepared for life as an adult. The consequences could be compared to those of living in a poorly constructed house, with an unreliable foundation.
This is a prepublished excerpt from the book “Raised in a Bottle,” scheduled for release in Summer 2021. If you have questions regarding publication, use of content, or speaking engagements, please reach out directly to firstname.lastname@example.org
“The way he opened the door after a stressful day was the first clue, and I could tell from the sound of his footsteps when something was wrong again. First, he’d open the cupboard and take out two glasses—a tumbler and a shot glass. One was for beer, the other was for liquor. Those two drinks would quickly turn to several, and his mood would change; he’d become either more relaxed or more angry. In that unsettling atmosphere, the world could turn upside down at any moment.”—Mona
Regardless of a family’s economic or educational level, alcohol abuse disrupts and distorts its fundamental structure and the health of its members. The consequences of that distortion are clear, common, and long-lasting.
You could compare it to living in a poorly built house, one whose foundation was not fully poured and didn’t have a chance to set before the walls went up. A house like that does not provide the security that other houses do. With the cracks in its foundation, its wobbly walls, and its ill-fitting doors, it offers neither shelter nor safety from intruders.
A family that goes from crisis to crisis, one painful event to another, managing merely to survive, never develops a healthy, genuinely positive narrative about itself. Its sense of its own history and identity gets distorted into something negative, which can leave a child without an anchor for his or her own personal identity.
Growing up in a family with alcohol problems forced you into roles that compromised your identity and prevented you from growing into your own authentic self. Rather than being nurtured in discovering and developing your own unique abilities, perhaps you had to take on responsibilities that in healthy families belong to parents. Maybe you adopted your parents’ unhealthy and ineffective problem-solving patterns, leaving you inclined to try to avoid life’s challenges rather than stepping up to face them with competence and confidence.
If your parents were unable to meet your needs as a child, they may have left you with pain that lingers to this day. For a child, lying awake at night with no one to come and comfort you in your sadness or fear, or being repeatedly left alone and at the mercy of chance, eventually translates into insecurity, low self-esteem, and little ability to feel joy and to trust. The trauma of childhood neglect can have long-lasting physical implications for the adult body as well, impairing your ability to care for yourself and even leaving you prone to addiction, as a way to try and self-soothe.
Along with neglect, the blurring of boundaries in childhood can turn certain feelings, both yours and other peoples’, into foreign territory. You may end up afraid of other people’s feelings, or unable to trust the possibility that someone else might be interested in yours. Because the very notion of limits and boundaries has never been clear, you find it difficult to sense your position in a social context or even in a room. Where you stand in terms of the difference between right and wrong, between your own values and those of others, and between appropriate and inappropriate behavior may be hard for you to get a firm grasp on.
Often, a person with a family background of alcohol abuse has learned to be a kind of seismograph, quietly recording everything happening around him and vigilantly monitoring the emotional environment. Perhaps your fear of making a negative impression on people, whether on the job or in social settings, influences everything you do; rather than being conscious of your own value, you adapt yourself to fit in wherever you go, and constantly seek affirmation from other people. A completely harmless invitation to a meeting with a boss might trigger panic reactions as you fantasize over expectations of reprimands or even firing—even if you know that you do your work well and work harder than many of your colleagues.
By contrast, an upbringing that lacked healthy boundaries may have left you unusually tolerant, understanding, and accommodating of other people and their peculiarities, to the point that you find it too easy to invite people with addictions into your life, since their problems don’t strike you as abnormal. Such relationships generally end up fraught with painful drama—the closer the personal connection becomes, the more volatile the situation can be.
Perhaps you have experienced yourself overreacting when your partner was late for an appointment, or resented the way your teenage son’s sullen reply to an innocent question threw you off balance, or taken a friend’s harmless opinion as a direct criticism of you. For a person without the peace of mind to weather situations like these and the faith that she will come out of them unscathed, real, close connections with others can seem to get endlessly sabotaged, while the path to your goals in life is always susceptible to being derailed.
An Unfinished House
Once again, picture your personality as a house. The foundation of that house is your self-esteem, how you perceive your own value. Whether it’s high or low, your self-esteem is at the root of how you live your life, and if that foundation is shaky, its instability will affect everything you do. Constantly struggling to shore up an unsteady house is hard work, and the extra effort can end up costing you: Precious elements of your personality may develop in only a limited way, or simply never get the chance to surface in the first place.
A house is meant to shelter and protect, to provide you with the time and space and security to learn who you are and to be that. Its walls and doors are intended to be reliable and secure, boundaries that let you include what you want and need in your life and exclude what you don’t. There is no question that those are your decisions to make, but unless you’re on a firm footing, steady on your foundation, you may not have the confidence to make them. You may find that there’s room in your house for everyone’s problems but your own.
It may feel to you as if, no matter how much you work on it, your own house doesn’t seem to welcome you; its atmosphere is dark and sad rather than bright and warm. Instead of cheering you up, encouraging you to thrive, it leaves you blaming yourself, berating yourself for the house’s imperfections and incompleteness. You may even get the feeling that everyone has an ideal house but you, and that yours will never be worth having until it is identical to theirs.
Things shouldn’t be that way: Your home shouldn’t feel vulnerable to you or inhospitable or inferior. Real repairs may be needed to put your house on a firm foundation, and this book offers you the tools to make those repairs. Will they be easy? Probably not; there may even be some inner part of you that fears the uncertainty that can come with change, even change for the better.
Your focus right now may be on simply getting through one day at a time, putting out a thousand little fires that threaten to burn down your house. But shifting that focus, making the necessary repairs, can bring great rewards. Relieved of the constant demands and distractions of one crisis after another, you can begin to expect more out of life, and demand more, and get more.
With your foundation made secure and reliable, you can dare to believe in a happy, productive future. And believing it will bring it.
The most important question: What changes do you want to make?
As you embark on your journey, take a moment to consider where you’d like to see the most significant change in your life, and which topics may be most meaningful for you.
Which of the potential changes listed below might have the most dramatic and positive impact on you? Select a handful of them as specific places for your developmental work to begin.
I want to learn how to set limits in a clear and equitable manner without feeling guilty afterward.
I want to be calm rather than troubled and burdened by rumination and worry.
I want to understand that my parents’ problems are basically not my responsibility, and I want to release myself from my old pattern of taking over when they have difficulties.
I want to stop isolating myself and falling into “black holes” where I find it difficult to talk to others.
I want to take good care of myself.
I want to have clarity in relating to my mother, father, and siblings.
I want to understand myself, my feelings, and my reactions.
I want to be able to return myself to a state of calm when my emotions get too strong.
I want to let go of the view that I am different from others, so I can be comfortable in communities.
I want to get rid of my inner critic.
I want to lose my excessive need to assume responsibility for how others feel.
I want to get to know myself, so that I can shape my life in relation to my own needs and dreams.
I want to break the pattern in which I was raised by giving my kids attention, being present for them, and encouraging their independence.
I want to learn to be in close relationships, so I know what it is that creates security.
I want to be able to send clear signals about what I want, rather than hiding my needs.
I want to know how to build up my self-esteem.
I want to love myself and take responsibility for my life and my choices.
I want to be capable of discerning whether other people are keeping me trapped in my old patterns, or instead providing the sustenance and support to let me be me.
I want my moods to be more stable and to no longer experience sudden mood swings.
I want to become more knowledgeable about problems caused by alcohol abuse and how it has influenced me and my family.
All self-improvement begins with becoming conscious of your patterns.
As long as a pattern such as a defensive mechanism remains unconscious, your reactions will be automatic and you won’t fully understand the pattern’s cause or function. You won’t see the reality of the situation as it truly is, and you will likewise be unaware of how damaging your reactions can be to yourself and the people close to you.
Throughout your journey, you will come to discover (again and again) undiscovered aspects of yourself, as well as previously hidden causes behind the way you act and feel in particular situations. That new knowledge will let you say goodbye to patterns or stories about yourself that are no longer useful or constructive. It will become clear that, while certain ways of dealing with the world may have helped you maintain control when you were young, as an adult they only pull the rug out from under you and generate disappointment, misunderstanding, and frustration.
I wrote Raised in a Bottle to guide you through those specific areas of life that are commonly shaped and affected by an upbringing in a home marked by alcohol abuse. It’s my sincere hope that my work will support you in your journey.
Thank you for your trust, and for your courage in taking the first step.