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  • Writer's pictureSherri McCarthy

3 Steps to Ease the Squeeze

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

“Everywhere I look, I see my own failure.”

I said this recently to my husband on an evening I was feeling especially low. I was on antibiotics for an ear infection, had been caring for a son we kept home from school for two days with strep, and was working to meet a deadline for my business. My house was decidedly NOT spotless, my bathroom mirrors and sinks needed attention, dog toys were lying around in every room from a rambunctious puppy, a load of laundry sat idly in the washer and another waited its turn in the dryer, and pile of half-read books mocked me from across the room. All I could see was my own failure. Every undone thing, every item out of place was wrapped around my mind, squeezing hard. Those chores should have been done hours ago. No excuses.

Why do I share this low point that makes my face flush with a small measure of embarrassment? Because my reaction is so very typical of a child of alcoholics. There are a few traits at play here:

First, an ACOA guesses at what normal is. My truth: I am 50 years old and I still haven’t found the resting place for “normal” when it comes to housekeeping. I don’t know if “normal” people (and I put normal in quotes because it is entirely subjective and far from stationary) leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight sometimes because they are so damn tired. I don’t know if “normal” people sometimes find dust in places I didn’t even know I should look for dust. I have guessed at what “normal” is my entire life and I don’t always know if I’m anywhere near the target.

The point is, because I lived in an environment with no sense of “normal,” I have no basis for comparison except what I see in magazines, on tv or at the home of friends who have invited me over to their clean houses. I cannot tell you the relief I feel when a friend allows me in her house when it’s messy—with loads of unfolded laundry on the couch and dishes in the sink. I love her for it, for sharing her “normal” with me. I consider her authentic, genuine, and a woman I can trust.

But with myself? My mind must take a stand and make a choice about the state of my own home. My choice is: no excuses. Get it done. Anything less than everything clean and in its proper place is failure. Which brings up another trait: an ACOA judges herself mercilessly. I don’t generally show the same kind of love and appreciation for myself as I do for my friends. I am ruthless in my criticism of myself. I set too-high expectations and berate myself for not attaining them.

I see, of course, that line of thinking is entirely unreasonable. My mind gets that. But my emotions? My emotions are like a gang of bullies running around my heart with baseball bats looking for things to whack. And it’s tiring. Like, REALLY tiring.

What must happen when I go down these paths of ruthless self-talk is that I have to STOP, BREATHE, and REFRAME the entire situation. That’s admittedly difficult to do when I’m running short on sleep and feeling under the weather, but difficult does not mean impossible and to be the example I want to be to my children, it’s important that I strive to do the difficult things that they may never see, but that give me the opportunity and the experience to teach them later that they, too, can do difficult things. These three steps have helped me ease the squeeze in my mind:

1. STOP.

When my heart starts pounding and my breath goes shallow and I feel my muscles growing taunt, I have learned over the last 50 years that it is a warning bell or me to stop. If I don’t, I know I will spiral downward to a place that is even MORE difficult to climb up from. So, at the very moment the realization of what is happening hits my brain, I stop. Literally, I will stand perfectly still.


If I need to, I go somewhere I can be alone. Generally, that’s the bathroom (clearly, the words of a mother of young children). I take some deep breaths and focus on allowing my shoulders to drop, letting the muscles loosen in my entire body. Once I can breathe more deeply, I can move on to the next step.


I ask myself, “what is happening here?” I keep breathing as I question how I’m feeling and where that feeling is coming from. I consider what my mind has been telling my heart, “You have dirty dishes in the sink from breakfast and it is almost dinner time, therefore, you are a failure.” And then I ask myself, “is that REALLY a fair assessment of the situation? REALLY?” And I calmly reconsider that judgement: okay, so I ran out to take the dog to the vet right after breakfast and then I drove for a field trip at school. We just got home and I took another antibiotic and laid down for 30 minutes before starting dinner. Was any of that really worth criticizing (and, for me, that 30-minute rest will be the thing I criticize most). If I get to that point where I criticize resting, I ask myself what I would say to a friend. How I would encourage her? And I talk to myself in that tone.

What I have discovered through this process is that my upbringing ingrained a certain way of thinking that I will battle repeatedly as I journey through this life. But that battle has also gifted me with the ability to think critically through situations, to pay attention to details, and to pick up on things that others may miss—which makes me able to perform my work as a writer/ghostwriter at a higher level and allows me to cross industries in writing without much difficulty.

In my day job as a writer/consultant, I am able to spot the areas that will highlight the issue most clearly and resonate best with readers and audiences. It’s truly a gift I can see came from the battle to overcome my skewed thought patterns my upbringing ingrained in me. And since that battle continues, my insights are never rusty.

So, while being a child of alcoholics imbues my life with challenges that others may not have to overcome, I’m thankful that those challenges have also gifted me with the ability to use them to my advantage. It’s a small example, really, of what it’s like to be an adult child of alcoholics; a glimpse into the work it takes to shape our foundations as people into something that serves us. It’s a building of resilience that each of us—whether we are an ACOA or not—must accomplish to find true peace and contentment.

I’m obviously not done. I am an imperfect work in progress. I don’t have everything figured out, I haven’t “arrived.” I don’t love every aspect of life’s journey—but deep joy and contentment can be found in the work of becoming resilient, of figuring out your own steps to teach your mind how to flip the crap into cake (and that is a terrible illustration that reminds me a little bit of a specific scene in The Help. Since this piece is all about imperfection, I’m leaving the terrible illustration here). Enjoy!

Until next time, I wish you peace.


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