It’s My Turn:Recovering as an Adult Child of an Alcoholic

I just picked up The Complete ACOA Sourcebook, Adult Children of Alcoholics at Home, at Work and in Love, by the late Janet Geringer Woititiz, Ed.D.  I finished Part 1: What Happened to You as a Child? What is Happening to You Now? and Breaking the Cycle. In what feels almost after the fact—after nearly three years of weekly therapy—this book spells it out in black and white the consequences of growing up in an alcoholic home and in my case, explains the underlying anger and conflicts I’ve had to deal with for most of my adult life. Thanks to books like this, a  great psychologist named Dr. Ella Marks, and my faith,  I’ve been able to extricate myself from some of the wreckage of my early life.

I saw my broken self all too clearly in the common traits of the many adults Woititiz collected from other ACOAs.  A number of us became “hyper-responsible” victims in a very abbreviated childhood having to “be a grown up” way before we reached double-digits. In a house of tension and chaos never knowing what to expect, some of us became anxious.  Later we could be labeled as “controlling”, pushing to have some order and security in our lives.   We fear abandonment, tend to over-react when something is changed beyond our control, and can be dangerously impulsive. We also can go overboard seeking the approval of others.

Thankfully, I’ve done a lot of hard work.  I have learned how to identify difficult, conflicting emotions and have found ways to avoid and unhappy, negative places—figuratively and literally. I am no longer a victim. I have choices.  I’ve made a number of healthy ones for my marriage, for my children, and last, but recognizably not least, myself.

One in four families in the U.S. experience from some sort of mental illness and addiction. If your household growing up was or now is one of the four, you don’t have to suffer alone. Get help. Start by picking up this book and read at least the first three sections to find a path.

I want to share a poem from an Adult Child of an Alcoholic that appears on page 156.  I couldn’t believe how the poet Kathleen Algoe in 1989 felt almost exactly the way I felt when I began therapy in 2010. I remember on my drive home from my very first session the “child within” almost audibly said, “It’s my turn!”

I found my “child within” today;

for many years so locked away,

Loving, embracing—needing so much,

if only I could reach in and touch.

I did not know this child of mine—

we were never acquainted at three or nine.

But today I felt the crying inside.

I’m here, I shouted, come reside.

We hugged each other ever so tight

as feelings emerged of hurt and fright.

It’s okay, I sobbed, I love you so!

You are precious to me, I want you to know.

My child, my child, you are safe today,

You will not be abandoned—I’m here to stay.

We laughed, we cried, it was a discovery–

this warm, loving child is my recovery.

From Chapter 5
Recovery Hints

It is important to be clear what recovery means for adult children. Alcoholism is a disease. People recovering from alcoholism are recovering from a disease. The medical model is accepted by all responsible folks working in alcoholism treatment.

Being the child of an alcoholic is not a disease. It is a fact of your history. Because of the nature of this illness and the family response to it, certain things occur that influence your self-feelings, attitudes and behaviors in ways that cause you pain and concern. The object of ACOA recovery is to overcome those aspects of your history that cause you difficulty today and to learn a better way.

To the degree that none of us have ideal childhoods and to the degree that even an ideal childhood may be a cause for some concern, we are all recovering to some extent or other, in some way or other. Because there are so many alcoholic families and because we have been fortunate in being able to study them, it is possible to describe in general terms what happens to children who grow up in that environment.

To the degree that other families have similar dynamics, individuals who have grown up in other “dysfunctional” systems identify with and recover in very much the same way.

All for a Toothbrush

I remember one of my earliest Christmas seasons at my place of work where I am  the grant writer for a soup kitchen, food pantry, assisted living, and community outreach programs.  My cubical office which faces the Main Street is situated in such a way that I can hear people talking outside at the call-box at the front of the building.  With my office door open, I can also hear my co-workers talking to the people at the call box from their offices.

I was supposed to be concentrating on my work, but my thoughts kept drifting to what seemed to be an insurmountable list of things I needed to buy and do before Christmas.  I had to find the right gifts for people, had to plan a big meal with fussy eaters, and deal with idiot relatives who mouth off when they drank too much.

“Yes?” the squawky voice of my co-worker, a Sister startled me from my dysfunctional daydream.  She was two doors down the hall talking to a man who had just rung at the box outside.

“Ma’am, I was just released from prison and I need a toothbrush,” the burly voice beseeched. That should be no big deal, I thought. We just received literally hundreds of them during our recent toiletry drive, we could spare one. To my shock, the nun said, “I am sorry sir; I only give out toiletry bags on Tuesdays.”

What?! It was Thursday, but this didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t want to go against my co-worker, but I just could not see not making an exception for this man. I jumped out of my seat and ran down the stairs.  I pulled opened the door to the large dark man slightly hunched from the cold.  He was wearing a coat but was blowing into his bare hands to keep them warm.

“Sir, why don’t you wait in the dining room and I’ll get you a toothbrush.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. I ran back up the stairs slipping past the sister’s door and up to the third floor where we kept the toiletries.  I stood before huge grey bins and plucked a boxed toothbrush. This man has nothing, I thought as I stuffed the toothbrush a nearby Ziploc baggie.  I added tube of toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo. Our mission is to help those in need, I thought,  justifying the stuffed bag. Remembering his cold hands, I picked up a pair of large gloves from the shelf of recent donations.  I didn’t want to get caught with this contraband so I stuffed the loot in the large pockets of my sweater.

I met the man in the empty soup kitchen dining room; it was cleared out after lunch hour.  “Here you are, Merry Christmas,” I said, taking a step towards him looking into his dark brown eyes.  His cold hand brushed mine as I handed him the packet. “Oh, the gloves, too,” I said, pulling them out from my sweater pocket.

All of a sudden this man began showering me with a profound and holy gift. “God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you and your family,” he bowed towards me. “God, Bless You.” My being tingled in his warm glow and my heart beat wildly, flooding me with spirit.  Here I thought I was to giving him, this needy man, just out of jail, a simple toothbrush kit and a pair of gloves, but he gave me something greater.

Teary-eyed, I floated up the stairs and back into my office.  While I was away from my desk, my boss had laid a white envelope across my keyboard. I opened my Christmas card and two sizable green bills spilled out. I burst into tears.

A Prayer Around A Hole In Deep River (An excerpt from my memoir)

My sister and I rode along in nervous chit-chat and pull into the lot at the Deep River Congregational Church. We followed signs to the church office and met the secretary.

“There it is.” The soft-spoken woman gestured to the cardboard box sitting on the table.

I stared at the light brown package with the many cancelled stamps. If you didn’t know, it could be just about anything.

“Do you want to open it here or at the cemetery?” she asked.  “The urn is inside.”

“I guess here would be easier, thank you,” I said. She handed me a pair of scissors.

I worked at the parcel, tearing off the envelope on the front.  My sister read it.

“It’s a proof of purchase of the burial plot,” she said.

The inner box was wrapped tightly in cellophane and I peeled the sides away.  Finally, I got to the white ceramic square. It was smooth and plain. I lifted it out of the debris.


“Hi, Grandma,” Brenda said.

We got directions to the cemetery down the road.

“Is there a place nearby that we can get some flowers?” I asked. The secretary gave us directions to a nearby flower shop. We thanked her and Brenda carried the urn to the van pretending once to drop it.

“Should we put her in the back seat with a seatbelt?” she giggled.

The flower shop was closed.  We wound up finding slightly-aged, off-white roses at the nearby supermarket.  On the way to the cemetery, we passed Grandmother’s old apartment complex where our father would take us to visit her in the late 70s — and where she ignored my sister. “There’s were you used to live,” Brenda said as if she was talking to one of her preschoolers.  “Should I hold her up to look out of the window?”

What a bizarre caper this was, my sister and I retrieving and now preparing to bury our grandmother’s ashes! My father’s side of the family wasn’t close— in fact only three of Grandmother’s five children bothered to attend her memorial service in Florida.  We adult grandkids didn’t go.  Yet when my father called from somewhere on the road again, and told me that his mother’s ashes were being sent to be interned by some church sexton, something inside me winced.  She was blood, after all, and my sister and I lived only twenty minutes away.  I had called Aunt Carol to ask permission to intern them.  “That would be very sweet, Dolly,” she replied.

“Can this be the one?” I parked my mini-van on side of the road at the sparsely-filled cemetery. Two women were photographing a child playing with a Golden Retriever rolling in the clumps of daffodils.  It seemed an unlikely final resting place for such a cold, meticulous woman.

“This has to be it. There are no other graveyards on this street,” Brenda said, checking the hand-drawn map the one the church secretary had given us.

We waded through shin-high grass to a single granite structure in corner of the yard with the yellow roses from the local grocery store and Grandmother’s white ceramic urn.   Brenda compared the names on the sheet of paper with those on the brass plate affixed to the side of the monument.  “I guess this is it.  But there is no third ex-husband listed here, like Aunt Carol thought.  Grandmother’s name is here, but only as a single plot.”

“Look,” I pointed with my foot towards the dingy plywood square a few feet away from the monument.  I lifted the board and inhaled the fresh dirt.  I surveyed the shallow hole and then spread the roses on their plastic wrapper beside it.

We stood solemnly for a moment.  Brenda recited some of the 23rd Psalm and I joined in.  We trailed off in a murmur because we didn’t know the rest of it.

“I’d like to pray,” I said.  We bowed our heads.

“Holy Spirit, our grandmother’s life was one shrouded in mystery and in pain. Please use us to understand and find compassion for the sadness in her life and that of our extended family. We are asking that grandmother’s soul receive your healing.”

I reached for the urn and paused with it over the opening.  It dropped into the hole and it hit the bottom with a thunk.  I picked up a rose and dropped it in. The stem planted itself upright in the soil next to the urn.

“We also ask for healing and for comfort for our father, Anthony,” I said, dropping in another rose.  It too, stood on end.

Brenda took my lead, “We ask for healing for her daughter Carol.”

“For daughter Jane.” I dropped another rose.

“For son Gerald.”

“For daughter Louise.”

“Spirit, I ask for healing for myself,” I said, dropping my rose into the hole.

“For me, and my children,” Brenda whispered as she dropped hers.

“Yes, for our entire family.”

We paused and looked into the grave. A ring of roses encircled the white square beneath.

We each took a final rose.

“To new life,” I said, laying it on the grass beside the hole.

“To new life,” Brenda echoed.

We walked across the grass and got into my van in silence.  “That’s one for the books!” I said, putting the key in the ignition.

“Wait a sec,” Brenda said, “I want to show you something.”  She pulled out an envelope from her pocketbook.  “Dad sent it to me from wherever he is in Florida.  I got it in yesterday’s mail.”

I glanced over and saw photocopies of news clippings on a sheet of paper with Dad’s scrawl around it. “Those Grandma’s obits?”

“Uh-huh. You will not believe this, but there are two different ones and one totally lies!”

“What? What do they say?”

“Check it out.” She handed it to me and I scanned the two and quickly noticed fake.  “Marion and her husband Edward? moved to this area (Florida) in 1989 from Deep River, Connecticut.’ What the—-? Grandpa and Grandma were divorced in 1961 and he died in 1974, for Pete’s sake!  Why the crazy lie?”

“I knew you’d freak out over this,” Brenda laughed.  “I did a little investigating and I called Aunt Carol yesterday. She said that she and her sister were actually going to make up three separate obits, besides the real one.”


“She said each write up would have Grandma in different scenarios to be sent to three different newspapers.   The last one was for the Riverton papers saying that Grandma had lived in Deep River with her third husband until he died, and then moved to Florida.  That did happen, but why would any of her ex-in-laws in Riverton give a rat’s ass?”

“Who would even care about the many faces of Marion?”  I sat stunned.

“The many husbands, the many last names,” Brenda laughed. “Mary Day, B-, Van Zant, again Van Zant, and then final, O’Neal…”

“God, so much dysfunction!  So much pain!  I just want to know why and what happened! Don’t you?”

Brenda nodded.  “But how?  It’s all so messed up, how would we find out?”

My reporter instincts were shifting into overdrive.  “There’s got to be a way to find out. Why was Grandmother allegedly like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest? What happened to Grandpa if what Uncle Gerry said in his letter is true—-that  he beat Dad to a point of psychological damage?”

“Why didn’t any of their kids take over the family business?” Brenda asked.  “We’d be a lot better off if Dad did.  We at least deserve to know what happened since we have had to deal with all the fallout bullshit now,” she said, twisting a bulbous zirconium ring.

We sat quietly for a minute.  “I’m on it!”  I said, pulling the van onto the highway heading toward home.  “I’m going to find some answers.”