There is a laundry list of personality defects and behavioral issues associated with children of alcoholics. According to doctors and health organizations, we tend to have compulsive personality types, overdeveloped senses of responsibility, and crippling fears of abandonment. We judge ourselves poorly and struggle with feeling and articulating our emotions. There have even been names coined that describe the roles we play in our families, ranging from the “Family Hero” who picks up the parents’ slack from a very young age to the “Scapegoat” who acts out as a means of distraction.
For a long time, I told myself I was an exception to these ascribed behaviors and traits. I tried to convince myself of that because I did not want to let my upbringing define my future, or acknowledge the ways in which my father’s alcoholism impacted me. I did not want to view myself, or have others view me, as a victim.
With the progression of time, however; I have learned that escaping your upbringing is impossible. The environment in which I was raised has become an integral part of my identity. I can deny where the stereotypes apply, but the reality is that I exhibit many of the traits of a textbook child of an alcoholic. I do desperately seek approval; my low self-esteem and tendency to withdraw are common for the “Lost Child” role many children of alcoholics take on. Accepting that my status as a child of an alcoholic is ongoing has forced me to acknowledge an even uglier reality; the reality that 25% of children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves.
I have a complicated relationship with alcohol. Any child of an alcoholic does. When I first went off to college, I vowed to never drink. Guilt was the main motivator in this decision. I refused to drink because I did not want to invalidate the struggles my family had dealt with because of alcohol, but more importantly because I did not want to end up like my father. It took time to remind myself that I was not the same person as my father and that I had a decision in who I would be or become. I was not destined to have the same relationship with alcohol as my father did, and it was not fair to rob myself of the college experience to pacify misplaced guilt. It was when I finally allowed myself to drink that I discovered that how I feel about alcohol, and how I feel about myself when I drink is far more complicated than I thought.
If the odds of becoming an alcoholic are one in four for children of alcoholics, the reality is that either me or one of my siblings will become one. Sometimes I cannot help but think about which one of us will end up following in the footsteps of my father. Out of all the children, I am the least like him. That fact is something I have always prided myself on. I did not inherit his wicked temper like my sister did, or his penchant for lying like my brother. I do not have the depression that he and my older sister continue to struggle through. My life has always been one of balance; I receive good grades, work hard, take care of myself, and for that I have every reason to believe I am in the 75%.
I do not drink often, but when I do I struggle to moderate myself. It is difficult to put down a drug that you think turns you into a better version of yourself. When I drink I become funnier, more outgoing, and more courageous. I can strike up conversations with strangers, and push myself to do things I’d normally be too self-conscious to do. My predisposition to binge combined with my longing for escape often makes it difficult for me to stop myself. If I am at a work event I will get one more beer than I should, and if I am at a party I will uncontrollably drink myself to the point of sickness. These behaviors may seem typical for college students, but it does not feel that way when you are the child of an alcoholic. Every time I drink I worry that I will end up liking alcohol too much, that my college immaturity will be more than just a phase, and that I will lose control of the life I have fought so hard to achieve. I worry that I will lose sight of all the heartache it has caused in my life and lose myself the way I lost my father.
I am not a survivor; I am surviving. It is an important distinction to make when it comes to children of alcoholics. I am my own person, but I am also a being made up of my experiences and struggles. I will always have to deal with, and battle against, the urge to become what I fear. The laundry list of traits and behaviors will continue to haunt and impede me throughout my life, but it is something I can and will cope with and adapt to. At the end of the day I will always be the child of an alcoholic, regardless of whether or not my father is still around. It is something I will carry in my blood and never truly overcome, but it something I will continue to survive through.