Most kids have big dreams about adulthood. What kind of job they will have, what kind of car they will drive, how late they will stay up and what kind of vegetable they will never, ever eat again when they grow up. I just wanted to grow up to be normal. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) or Survivors of Alcoholic Parents (SOAP)* share this trait, as outlined by Janet Woititz, EdD in her book “Adult Children of Alcoholics.”
I knew we weren’t a normal family. I knew it wasn’t normal to call the police on my parents. I knew it wasn’t normal to be woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of my parents screaming at each other. I knew it wasn’t normal to search until I found the hidden bottle of booze and then pour it down the drain, leaving the bottle in the sink, upside down and empty, for them to find.
The problem was, even though I knew what WASN’T normal, I didn’t know what normal WAS. There was never any basis for comparison, really, since most of my time was spent at my own home and not in the homes of my friends. I picked traits I wanted to have in my own family when I grew up. My friend’s dad used to sit with his girls and a giant bag of popcorn to watch TV. I wanted that. Another friend’s mother would tuck notes in her lunch. I wanted that. Nightly walks, card games, movies, and laughter. Oh, the laughter. Other homes had laughter. Not the forced, shallow-breathed kind like we had. Deep, authentic laughter. God, how I wanted that.
Of course, none of those desires pertained to the simpler things: how often do you change the sheets on your bed? How do you meal-plan, budget, make educated decisions about important life events? What would it take to go to college? Do you mop weekly or monthly? Laundry every day? Once a week? Personal grooming habits? Shower every day or every other day? What was acceptable? What was normal?
Learning basic life skills was virtually non-existent inside our home. I was in my 20’s before I learned how long it actually took to boil an egg. And that information was passed on to me by a 12-year-old boy. Yes, really. A child taught me.
But I could change a tire on a car, knew how to weed a garden, and how to make date nut roll—the holiday treat my mother savored every Christmas from her own childhood. She taught me that. But how often you should wipe down your baseboards or dust for spiderwebs? No clue.
How I transformed the trait to work in my favor.
Somewhere along my life’s path, I discovered a secret: there is NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL. Normal for one family may not be normal for another. It’s totally subjective and relative to different familial cultures. What a liberating revelation! As I thought back to some childhood memories, I knew my discovery was true.
I had a tall, beautiful friend in elementary school who invited me over to play one day. She lived outside of town on a dairy farm. Her house was big—two or three times the size of mine. And clean. I smelled something delicious coming from the kitchen and I heard the soft boiling sounds of food in water, the sound of muffled clinks of a spoon against a pan and I heard her mother humming. We investigated and, to my horror, discovered that wonderful smell and soothing sounds of love being crafted in the kitchen were coming from the cow tongue her mother was making for dinner.
The burst of laughter from my friend when she saw my face was contagious. I laughed with her, but for different reasons. I was incredulous that people would eat tongue. ON PURPOSE. I could not get past the thought of a cow’s taste buds rubbing up against mine. She laughed because tongue was normal to her. Not her favorite, but a normal dish in her Portuguese family. I made sure I was able to go home before dinner. Normal is relative.
Normal is like a mirage—you see it hazily, without sharp focus, and as you get closer, it vanishes. Only to appear again further away in a slightly different form. And it finally dawned on me: I GET TO DECIDE NORMAL FOR MYSELF.
Many of the realizations I’ve had have come after much introspection, in deciding that building resilience was a worthy endeavor. But sometimes, they come through my most beloved pointing them out.
Not too long ago, I was folding laundry while my boys watched television. I said, “You guys are lucky. I didn’t always have clean clothes to wear.”
They paused their cartoon and asked, “what?”
I continued, “When I was growing up my mother was often too drunk to do laundry so I would have to go to the mountain of dirty clothes and smell each one until I found the LEAST smelly thing, and that is what I would wear. You’re so lucky you have never had to do that.”
Big blue eyes stared at me until one, then the other, said, “Thanks, mom.”
Later, I told my husband what I had shared with the boys and his response took me off guard, “AH, that’s why you’re so crazy about laundry.”
Thoroughly confused I asked, “What?”
He gently explained, “Sherri, you INSIST on their clothes going into the laundry to be washed even if they’ve only worn something for an hour. It is okay for them to re-wear some things.”
A light went off in my head and I realized he was exactly right: something I didn’t even realize had become my normal based on the experience of my childhood. I was a bit of a militant general when it came to their clothes.
Life has become easier since he pointed it out to me, mostly because I’m choosing to do less laundry.
I have chosen my normal to mean that there is peace and routine in our home, a certain way of doing things. For me, because of the chaos of my childhood, I find comfort and peace in structure and routine and I’m teaching my children that routine has tremendous upsides.
Structure and routine may not bring you peace—it may not be your normal. It may feel more like a straitjacket than liberation, but that’s the beauty of the understanding of normal being relative: YOU get to decide for yourself what that looks like for you.
So, while the scars of my past remain, I’ve given myself permission to adjust my sails when I see fit. And as far as my dream of normal? I strive now for authenticity instead.
*I have coined the term Survivor of Alcoholic Parents (SOAP) because of the derogatory connotation the term adult CHILD evokes for me. It’s likely this terminology will remain specific to this blog, but I use it because of what it represents to me and how I see the world: through the eyes of a survivor.