The How and the Why by
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(135 Stories)

Prompted By Trauma

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Every demise needs a post-mortem. This is hopefully the last thing I will ever write on this subject.

I am an ACOA.

I have mentioned in several stories my time, long ago, with Maria. How it started, how it ended and the changes it wrought upon me. And for years – decades –  afterward, I wondered what the hell happened. Not why it ended, because that is forever unknowable, and I am still enough of a scientist to not want to bother with unanswerable questions. Also, it really isn’t important. What I’ve been trying to figure out is why I reacted as I did, why I went a bit insane and stayed that way for many years. What made me so damned fragile?

How many people do you know who have married and stayed with their childhood sweetheart, their date for the senior prom, or the one with whom they shared their first sexual experience? I know of only one. Losing your First Big Love is a nearly universal human experience. It happens, it sucks, you stew a while, gain a few pounds binging on sweets or alcohol, and then you move on. The experience is generally measured in months. I spiraled down and down for a little over nine years, only beginning the climb out of the Pit of Despair when I started my relationship with Gina. I was sufficiently damaged that I think that sometimes she feared that I was unsalvageable.

It took a long time, but I think I have the answer. I am an ACOA.

ACOA stands for Adult Children of Alcoholics. The phenomenon of the ACOA has been recognized for decades, but recently there has been a lot of information and speculation made available (Thanks, Internet!). It has also been recognized that kids raised in ANY “dysfunctional,” unsettled and chaotic situation, whether due to booze, drugs, mental illness, violence, abandonment, what have you, can be saddled with ACOA traits.

In a shotglass…growing up in such an environment inevitably leaves scars. They never go away, but can be dealt with, worked around, minimized and occasionally even used to one’s advantage. The term was apparently coined by AlAnon, the ACOA support arm of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since AA is in love with the number twelve, they listed twelve characteristics of ACOAs. Later input by many people has expanded this list; I recently counted thirty-six alleged traits, although some seem redundant. Also, hardly anyone has ALL of them, I hope! The rock-bottom line is that growing up this way will wreak a LOT of havoc on a kid.

In my family, Mom was the drinker, and a nasty drunk she was. All week she was sober, went to work, shared cooking meals with my Dad and grandmother, and was basically decent. Quick-witted and funny. Very smart. But after work on Friday, she started drinking her Piels Draft and rapidly became a monster. Short tempered, sullen, desiring to see no one, speak to no one. Possessed of a talent for vicious verbal abuse that would humiliate a dock worker (which my Dad actually was for a while; he told me that the film “On the Waterfront” is very accurate!). To this day I mark as an alcoholic anyone whose personality turns nasty when they drink. And Mom liked to drink in the kitchen, which made most of the house dangerous to access. We used to go upstairs to our grandparents apartment to use the bathroom, just to avoid her wrath.

Dad, on the other hand, was a non-drinker. But he was self-righteous about it, and could not suppress his annoyance when Mom drank. This made for EPIC fights. We lived for years with a big stain on the wall from that night when Mom tossed a large bowl of Jello at Dad’s head. He ducked (boxer’s reflexes) and the bowl shattered on the wall. He refused to repair the damage, so there the reminder stayed.

One of my earliest memories is being in my bed upstairs in my grandmother’s, with my head under a pillow and my little transistor radio blaring WABC-AM, hoping that Cousin Brucie could drown out the frightening sounds of the screaming and cursing downstairs. This went on, nearly every weekend, for years. Another is of the time Mom actually went OUT drinking, and came home very late. Some guy she met at the bar gave her a lift home. Dad was very unhappy with this; they fought right in the hallway, with Mom shouting some of the vilest insults I have ever, to this day, heard (she was very imaginative, with a huge vocabulary). It was so bad that I fully expected my father, who was raised to be a typical Italian-American male, although he was not at all typical, to hit her. But he never did, not that night, not in all their years together.

I think it useful to examine the list of ACOA traits in some detail, if only to see how many different types of mental illness can result from this unfortunate upbringing. I will start with the ones I have, and will combine those that seem to be merely a restating of the same principle. BOLD means they are particularly important to the post-Maria debacle. An asterisk means I have managed to overcome, or mostly overcome, a trait.

What I got:

  1. Hypervigilance*: Seeing threats everywhere. Because growing up, you never knew something might explode.
  2. Need for Control (especially emotional control): Not of others, but of myself, of my feelings and emotions. To this day I tend to keep things inside. Very like Mom, very Norse. It was no coincidence that one of my childhood heroes was Star Trek’s Mr. Spock; I hate it, hate myself, when I allow my emotions slip their reins.
  3. Conflict aversion: Having experienced so much anger, I can’t stands no more. If someone raises their voice to me, I just walk away. Extreme conflict aversion is not a useful trait in dealing with the rest of humanity.
  4. Low Self-esteem: Both my parents had a habit of blaming the imperfections of their kids for their problems.
  5. Abandonment fears: This is a big one. Part of me is always held in reserve, in case someone close to me reconsiders. Some call “trust issues” a separate trait, but I think that is hair splitting; it’s not trusting the person within the relationship, it’s trusting that they mean it when they say they will stay. Gina spent years, with great patience and tenacity, breaking down this barrier.
  6. Difficulty finishing projects: Why bother if your life is always going to suck? This in me has manifested as a nagging suspicion that if I can’t learn something easily, then I just can’t learn it at all. If I’d special programs for bright kids available in school, I might have avoided this one.
  7. A feeling of being “different”* (but not in a superior way).
  8. Extremely self-critical: Oh yes, I am stupid like that!
  9. Loyalty beyond reason*: In particular, I tend to cling to relationships when they have become actually destructive. Maybe my parents staying together amidst all the anger, sadness and strife made me think that this is how it should be. Not a factor with Maria, but probably part of why I felt so trapped in my first marriage.
  10. Anxiety: How not?
  11. Feeling isolated*: I often feel alone in a crowd, even of dear friends. I have always attributed this to my being deeply introverted, but maybe introversion itself, at least mine, is a product of early stress, a form of PTSD?
  12. Fear of irrational authority figures*: A cousin to conflict aversion. Logical, since one of my main authority figures as a kid was periodically insane.
  13. Depression: Ya think?
  14. Pessimism: When nothing you do for years seems to help, how can you learn optimism?
  15. Approval seeking*: Well, I waited DECADES!
  16. Taking myself very seriously* (this has mostly waned).
  17. Fear of criticism* (I used to, but now I mostly don’t give a damn what people think of me. Constructive criticism of my work, projects, skills etc has always been welcome; science is based upon that).
  18. Gimme Shelter:This one is not in any list that I have found, but for me it is very real; an obsession with finding a refuge. I have daydreams or fantasies of a place, my place, my fortress or hiding place. Sometimes it’s a cabin on a mountaintop, or in the deep woods. Sometimes an island. When I was a kid it might be a cave, an undersea habitat or a space station. But in any guise, a sanctuary where no one could find me or get to me. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was nineteen, but nearly five decades on, sometimes, if I can’t sleep, I relax by imagining being in my hideout.

The problems that I seem to have managed to avoid include:

  1. Becoming a drunk myself (although my poor brother got that one).
  2. An attraction to other broken people.
  3. Perfectionism (for the most part).
  4. Compulsive or impulsive behavior.
  5. Lying without cause.
  6. Aversion to intimate relationships or close friendships.
  7. Extreme sense of responsibility OR irresponsibility. (see #3).
  8. Guilt.
  9. Feelings of victimization.
  10. Being overly judgemental toward others.
  11. Black/white thinking.

 

Looking at this list, you can see that a good chunk of the DSM might derive from childhood trauma. Information is scarce, but since our brains might not be finished growing (if they ever fully are) until at least our mid-twenties, I do wonder if childhood exposure to various stress hormones and chemicals might actually lead to permanent structural or neurological changes. The good news is that recent research is showing that changes, good and bad, can be made throughout life.

So how did all of this prime me to be devastated by Maria? I entered the relationship an emotional tinderbox. My primary example of an adult relationship had been a model of conflict, sadness, isolation, backbiting, recrimination and rage. Which never ended, until Dad died. But Maria, for a while at least…stayed with me, despite her parents’ opposition and threats. She wanted me enough to defy them. She risked a lot for our relationship. This managed to overcome my fears. Despite all I had seen and heard, I allowed myself to believe in an eternal Us. Her love for me became an article of faith, and my faith was absolute.

Secretly defying her parents for as long as we did, then declaring ourselves and savoring that victory (for a few months, anyway) was another factor. We were not just two college kids in love, we were comrades in arms. Like soldiers at war, a shared enemy seeking to destroy us drove us tightly together. This made her betrayal that much more damaging; she was my love AND my best old Army buddy, and they both told me to take a hike one March day. This opened the floodgates, and all of the traits, factors and beliefs that I emboldened on The List came crashing back down into my brain. I fully believed them all. I actually suspected that she had been setting me up from the very beginning (which was nonsense; Machiavelli himself was never THAT Machiavellian) and I had been just too stupid to see it and there was no way I’d get smarter or better.

Had her parents just butted out, the relationship would most likely have progressed normally, running out of steam and dying in the natural course of things, in a year, eighteen months. I’d have cried a bit, missed her for a while, then moved on, found another girlfriend and been fine. Had she merely been kind and honest when she ended it, I still probably could have avoided the worst of it, and recovered in a normal-ish time span. As it was, her actions were the match that lit the bonfire that had been preparing for many years. She could not have rocked me more efficiently had she wanted to and known all about The List.

Luck played into the aftermath as well. It’s a truism, but true nonetheless, that sometimes the best cure for a bad relationship is a good relationship. The problem was that it took me over nine years to find one.

I now recognize that Maria also grew up in a very dysfunctional (That cliche again. We need another word.) environment. Not booze, but extreme psychological abuse, terrible because it was done to her deliberately; I witnessed one horrible example soon after we met, and it had clearly been going on for a long time. I realize that faking her affections, then and later, would have required Streep-level acting chops. She was simply another broken child whose wounds prevented her from acting in a positive, normal, or compassionate way.

 

 

 

Profile photo of Dave Ventre Dave Ventre
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.


Tags: ACOA, PTSD, alcoholic, abuse
Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You have laid out your case with great rigor, Dave. I learned much about the tenets (and destructiveness) of ACOA. You lived through major league trauma as a child and young adult. I’m glad you’ve worked through so much of it and found your angel in Gina and refuge in mountain biking. Keep going toward the light.

  2. Dave, thanx for your very personal story as an ACOA. I realize how painful it was for you to live thru it, and how painful your earlier breakup.

    But so thankful to learn of the progress you’ve made overcoming your early demons, and how wonderful to have found your soulmate!

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Your honesty and insight into how your parent’s marriage and your mother’s alcoholism shaped you is a painful example of how the trauma inflicted on children growing up shapes their brains and outlook on life. I’m glad you have been able to understand why you reacted the way you did and overcome so much. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    This must have been challenging to write, but maybe contributed to the ongoing healing. It feels very honest. So many children have to figure out how to overcome various types of trauma, and sometimes it seems incredible that anyone manages. Your description reminded me of my own mother, who was brilliant and functional but also changed when she drank–she limited the amount of the daily cocktail hour fortunately, but that changed with social occasions and she could become hypercritical and mean. And I responded by aversion to conflict, though fortunately not the whole list of ACOA traits (and definitely I have not ever been much of a drinker myself). Congratulations on getting so much clarity and understanding, even of poor Maria’s actions. And may the future be bright.

  5. Jim Willis says:

    Dave, thanks for sharing this and for doing so in such detail. Although I don’t recall hearing about ACOA, what you say not only makes sense, but it also fits my own experience as well. My mother was an alcoholic who didn’t stop until her best drinking buddy died of liver disease. Mom somehow wound up living to 103, mercifully. I loved her to the end, but the question I had growing up was, “Which Mom is going to show up tonight?” That uncertainty, which often was more like suspense, tainted my own ability to trust some of my key relationships going forward. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      Mom eventually gave up both cigarettes and alcohol, although both times the damage was already done (to her lungs and her kids, respectively). Growing up having to navigate a minefield every day is not the prescription for good mental health later….

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