Two sons grow up in a home with an alcoholic father. One son becomes an alcoholic. One son doesn’t drink at all. When you ask the alcoholic son why he is an alcoholic he says “Because my father was an alcoholic”. When you ask the sober son why he doesn’t drink he says “Because my father was an alcoholic”.
That’s a pretty common story that many people have heard in the Al-anon world. When it is discussed further, it is usually said that it is all about “perspective”. I don’t exactly agree with that. I think that no two people experience trauma the same way, even in the same home. I don’t believe that the son who became an alcoholic became that way because his perspective was wrong. Even with a brother in the same home, maybe even in the same room, they experienced things differently.
Take my family for example. My brother, sister, and I all grew up with the same parents. They are a few years older than I am but they had very similar experiences as I did with our parents. We all had embarrassment when my mom would get arrested, we all knew if mom didn’t come home straight after work she might be sleeping it off in her car somewhere, and we all were frustrated planning our weddings and praying our mom would show up sober for events. All three of us had the same two parents. We all internalized and cope with our parents’ drinking completely differently.
My sister, the oldest, cannot handle confrontations. She will literally do anything to avoid confrontation. She will completely stop talking to someone if she is upset with them. She also likes to pretend that things are fine when they are not. After my mom is home and sobers up, she pretends like nothing happened and everything is fine. She goes back the next day like all is well. She can’t confront my mom about her drinking when my mom is sober and she can’t stand up to my dad for enabling her either. She is very enabling but she thinks it is out of love. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and she is living her life stepping on egg shells. It infuriates me but I know it’s because she is afraid she is going to trigger my mom into a relapse. For her, it is easier to pretend everything is fine than to face the truth. She wants to “love” the alcoholism out of the person. I can appreciate that. It’s wrong but I can appreciate it.
One other tiny quirk about my sister is her messiness. She does not throw away anything. For a long time, I saw this as a way to push people away. She didn’t want anyone to confront her on her home’s cleanliness so she just didn’t have people over to her house. It was always worse when my mom was doing poorly. As time has progressed, she has gotten better. This was her way of coping though. She couldn’t verbally ask for help for fear of being judged so she made a physical mess to represent the mess that was going on inside of her.
My brother on the other hand, is the most confrontational person in the world. He loves to argue and he loves to ruffle people’s feathers. He constantly berates my mother for her drinking. He loves to blame anyone he can for her drinking as well. Currently, he has it in his head that the medication she is on is exacerbating her alcoholism…He believes if she has a medication change, maybe she won’t want to drink…talk about deep denial. Even though her doctor knows she is an alcoholic and prescribes her medication with that knowledge, my brother doesn’t accept it. He is also more of the type to “threaten” the alcoholism out of a person. He ended up moving away after a few of my mom’s episodes because he didn’t want his kids around the situation. I can appreciate that too.
One quirk about my brother, ironically, is that he is an extreme neat freak. His house is spotless and that is saying something for having two kids. He washes his hands probably 20+ times a day. In the winter, his knuckles will crack and bleed because his hands are so dry from the hand sanitizer. I have always seen this as his version of control. He could never control what happened in our home growing up so now he is trying to control as much as he can in his own home.
Then there’s me. I can be confrontational but I also have deep anxiety about upsetting people. I guess I am a mix of my siblings. I constantly fear that if I upset my mom and it triggers a relapse, everyone will blame me. I am worried that if I yell at my husband when he upsets me, that he is going to leave (This is an irrational fear because my husband loves the crap out of me). I worry that if I am too blunt with friends, they won’t want to see me again. This doesn’t stop me from confronting my mom, friends, and husband though. I still confront them but I have to take about 10 Tums to make it through that day.
When it comes to my own home, I lean closer to my brother. My home is pretty clean but my knuckles are definitely not raw from washing my hands twenty times a day. I do tend to over-clean and it drives my husband crazy. Who needs to dust the fans every week? We do honey! We do.
The point is that we all grew up in the same home but interpreted, coped, and internalized what was happening differently. My siblings and I get frustrated with each other all the time because we handle situations differently. My sister wants to be nice, my brother wants to be mean, and I need Tums before I can decide which way I will lean. I think it is wrong to assume there is one treatment modality or one way of addressing your symptoms as an adult child of an alcoholic. I am a big supporter of Al-Anon but if it doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. You shouldn’t feel guilty if it isn’t the right fit for you. We all experience trauma differently and even though we recover differently, we can still recover together by being supportive of one another. You are not alone in your suffering.
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