By Lisa Sue Woititz, author of Unwelcome Inheritance
During my mother’s (Dr. Janet G. Woititz, author of Adult Children of Alcoholics) long illness, we had many bedside conversations about her growing concerns for ACOAs in recovery. She believed they were getting stuck in a pivotal phase of their healing process and that the support groups that were popping up around the country were spreading misinformation about what it meant to be the Adult Child of an Alcoholic. Mom was frustrated at her physical inability to get back to work – to be part of the solution to what she saw as a growing problem with potentially disastrous results. Since that time, over twenty five years ago, the problem of addiction has continued to grow and its impact on our families has too. With all that in mind, let’s clear up a few of the most common misunderstandings about ACOAs:
MYTH #1 -- BEING AN ACOA IS A DISEASE
Alcoholism is characterized as a disease because it is progressive and while it can be arrested it cannot be cured. Like diabetes, cancer, and other diseases, it is a condition that requires ongoing treatment in order to achieve and maintain remission. This is why many recovering alcoholics make a lifelong commitment to their twelve step program – along with abstinence from alcohol, it is part of their treatment plan which helps keep this deadly disease at bay. (Many of us who have alcoholism in our families have may inherited this disease so it’s good to be mindful about our physical predisposition toward alcoholism and addictions in general.)
Living in a home colored by alcoholism can be toxic and we can become mentally, emotionally, spiritually and even physically ill as a result. Treatment and support are often necessary to recover from this prolonged experience so that we can go on to live happy and productive lives. Growing up with an alcoholic parent was traumatic for many of us, and more-so for some than others, so treatment needs may not be the same for everyone. But that is not the same thing as having a disease. Rather, it is a fact of our family history that explains how we became the exquisite individuals that we are. Our past experience puts us in a unique position of deep understanding and ability to help others that have lived through our shared experience.
MYTH #2 – TREATMENT FOR ACOAS IS THE SAME AS IT IS FOR ALCOHOLICS
Since being an ACOA is not a disease or a medical condition, most of us don’t need the lifelong treatment that an alcoholic needs. For Adult Children of Alcoholics, recovery has everything to do with education –about what alcoholism is and what happened to us as a result of living with it. We need to learn the life skills that our preoccupied parents were not able to teach us and how to move forward through the healing process and onward. With support, we share those difficult experiences and the feelings that go along with them and every once in a while when old hurts resurface we may have to address them again. This is a common human experience that we all share, whether we grew up in an alcoholic home or not.
A continued focus on the past and things that we cannot change can reinforce our feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. We may continue to blame others for our lot in life instead of using what we have learned to create the life that we want. The best thing that an ACOA therapist or support group can do is to work themselves out of a job -- by educating others about the effects of alcoholism and empowering them to fly on their own.
MYTH #3 – OUR SUPPORT GROUPS SHOULD REPLACE OUR UNHEALTHY FAMILIES
If you belong to an ACOA support group you may have made lifelong friends that you dearly love. However, the purpose of the group is to provide a safe place for us to learn about ourselves -- not to replace the family of origin. The goal is to come to a place of acceptance, peace and understanding and become open to the possibilities of renewed relationships with our family of origin. We may even be the catalyst for that change. I remember Mom saying that, “We need to find ways to connect with others, other than by identifying with their level of pain.” When our ACOA groups came to an end, the members continued to get together socially and the focus shifted to friendship and fun. When your group experience has run its course, I hope you will add your wonderful new friends to your circle of loved ones.
About the Author
Having grown up with a parent in the throes of addiction, or who got physically sober but perhaps not emotionally so, you know the ravages of addiction firsthand. Through counseling, self-help groups, or classic books such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, you may have an understanding of how the patterns and behaviors associated with addiction play out within families, but applying that knowledge to your own approach to relationships and parenting is another story.
In Unwelcome Inheritance, Lisa Sue Woititz combines her own insights with the unpublished contributions of her late mother, the early leader in the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) movement, Dr. Janet Woititz, uncovering how multiple generations of people affected by addiction continue to enable their children’s substance abuse and how, without realizing it, they continue to model the addictive behaviors learned from their own parents. These ACOA pioneers then bring to light these hidden behavior patterns--including impulsivity, misplaced loyalty, people pleasing, insecure parenting styles, and multiple compulsive and addictive behaviors--so that you can take a clear look at how you got to this point. Additional points of inquiry, illustrated by stories from the trenches of the ACOA movement, help you explore what you can (and can’t) do to help your children, your children’s children, and yourself lead healthy, balanced lives.
Dr. Janet Woititz Ed.D., was the author of several books, including the seminal Adult Children of Alcoholics, and was an early leader in the movement that made "adult child" a household name. She passed away in 1994. Lisa Sue Woititz managed Dr. Woititz’s Institute for Counseling and Training for a number of years and has worked in the mental health, substance abuse, and criminal justice fields.