• Sherri McCarthy

The Silent Mantra of an ACOA

Updated: Jan 29

Sherri, age 5

We are hiding in plain sight, we children of alcoholics (ACOA), or, as I prefer, Survivors of Alcoholic Parents (SOAP). Chances are, if you are not one of us, you know one of us. How can I be so sure? Because alcoholics are virtually ubiquitous. Everywhere. Every race, every class, every culture. And the majority of those alcoholics have families, which is why alcoholism is considered a family disease.


Alcoholism doesn’t conduct interviews to determine eligibility before it sinks its filthy claws into the hearts and minds of its prey, seeking to disrupt, overtake, and destroy. No political party is immune. No religion is safe from its grasp. Overly dramatic? Maybe. Maybe not.


According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, there are 28.6 million Americans who are Children of Alcoholics. To really get your head around that number, let’s look at the top 10 most densely populated cities in the United States: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose. Added together, the cumulative total population of those large cities is 25,051,756, which falls 3.5 million people short of 28.6 million.


Looking at 28.6 million another way, the combined population of the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Idaho, West Virginia, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming only adds up to 28.1 million, roughly a half million people fewer in those 18 states than the number of children of alcoholics among us.


I confess math is not my strong suit but I am pretty confident I can safely say that 28.6 million people is a shit-ton of people. That’s a lot of hurt walking around out there in the normal-looking bodies of doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, teachers, police officers, firemen, soldiers, elected officials, celebrities, elite athletes, clergy, moms, dads, addicts, and homeless. Yes, we are in every walk of life. Every occupation. Why, then, doesn't the whole world know about this? I'm sure there are several reasons at play.


The amount of emotional energy it takes to survive a childhood soaked in alcohol is enormous. It varies, of course, from person to person and alcoholic to alcoholic, but for a lot of us when we reach adulthood the LAST thing we want to do is talk about how we were shaped and formed by drunk parents. We're just glad it's "over," (although, as we all eventually discover, it's not ever really "over.")


Plus, there’s the issue of the silent mantra among us:


Don’t Tell. Don’t Trust. Don’t Feel.


The mantra is hidden from most of our conscious ACOA minds until we see it spelled out in black and white, so it’s no wonder you don’t know it, too. How can we possibly reveal something about ourselves that is hidden even from us?


Don’t Tell.

The most vicious, perhaps, of the mantra: keep your mouth shut. I didn’t discuss my parent’s alcoholism with anyone as a little girl. Not even my siblings for the most part. It wasn’t until high school that I remember telling some close friends and some of my teachers, but, even then, I downplayed the severity of the problem.


My brother and I broke the rules a few times when we feared for the life of one of our parents during an especially violent fight and called the police, but it was not until adulthood that I remember speaking about it again. What I do remember was the lecture that came the next day, after my dad sobered up, “What happens in this household is no one else’s business.”


Don’t Trust.

If you couldn’t trust the very people you were supposed to be able to trust the most in all the world, WHY would you ever consider trusting someone outside of the family?


Don’t Feel.

I broke up with more than one boyfriend for telling me he loved me. That kind of mush was off limits, although I preferred to think I was “guarded.” I hated to let anyone get remotely close to me, to know me too well. I kept an open personality and tended to literally take on the emotions of others, but the self-disclosure I enjoy with my husband is only possible because of the internal work I did through therapy to allow myself to be vulnerable to another person.


Just those three aspects of the silent mantra are enough to crush any emotional reserves a survivor might have after growing up in the chaos that accompanies alcoholic parentage, but there are 13 additional traits common among us as well. I’ll be delving into those in the coming weeks.


According to the late Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D, in her book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics,” the characteristics and personality traits most commonly shared among ACOAs are:


1. Guessing at what normal behavior is.

2. Difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.

3. Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.

4. Judge themselves without mercy.

5. Have difficulty having fun.

6. Take themselves very seriously.

7. Have difficulty with intimate relationships.

8. Overreact to changes over which they have no control.

9. Constantly seek approval and affirmation.

10. Feel that they’re different from other people.

11. Are super responsible or super irresponsible.

12. Are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is underserved.

13. Are impulsive—they tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.


So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that there is also a list of positive character traits ACOA’s develop that Tian Dayton, Ph.D. has identified in her book, “The ACOA Trauma Syndrome: The Impact of Childhood Pain on Adult Relationships,” that we’ll take a closer look at later.


I’m thankful for psychologist, psychiatrists, sociologists, therapists and counselors who have studied children of alcoholics and who have published their work. It is through those books that I have come to a greater understanding of myself and the traits I carry, both positive and negative. I have no doubt I would have been further along in my life's journey if I had taken advantage of the outstanding resources available through 12 step programs, but I had my own warped ideas about that, which I'll share as we go.


Until next time, I wish you peace.

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