The Making of an ACoA: Living Behind a Mask

“You could have all the crazy thoughts you wanted, as long as you smiled and kept them to yourself.” ~Maqra Purnhagen, Past Midnight


Living in an alcoholic family system is like driving at night without your headlights on – you are always squinting to see a little better, wondering what lies ahead in the road or what might jump out at you from behind the bushes. Visit the living room of the average family that is living with – or should I say living in – addiction and you are likely to find a family that is clinging to its own emotional edges, one that’s functioning in emotional, psychological and behavioral extremes. A family in which small things that might otherwise be solved smoothly become bigger than necessary, blown up into minor catastrophes, while outrageous, self-destructive or even abusive behavior may go entirely ignored and unaddressed. Where feelings can get very big, very fast, or literally disappear into nowhere with equal velocity. There can be a low hum of apprehension surrounding even the smallest decisions, while major life decisions are barely acknowledged. A family who places a lot of emphasis on what doesn’t matter, while what does matter is swept under the rug, shelved, circumvented or downright denied. A family, in short, who doesn’t know what normal is.

All-or-nothing thinking characterizes the trauma-induced response. Those affected by trauma tend to go from 0 to 10 and 10 to 0 with no speed bumps in between. They have trouble living in any sort of middle ground. Because they don’t have healthy ways of finding an emotional middle ground, they achieve balance by shooting from one emotional extreme to the other, over- or under-responding and zooming right past middle ground as if it weren’t even there. They have trouble with self-regulation. They have trouble staying present or in their bodies and integrating thought with feeling; they live in their heads or in their feelings. This is part of why those within the family don’t learn what normal is; it reflects the loss of neuro-modulation that can accompany trauma.

The All-or-Nothing Character of Our Response to Trauma

A hallmark characteristic of CoAs and ACoAs who have been traumatized by the effects of growing up with parental addiction is a loss of neuro-modulation (van der Kolk, 1986). Children learn the skills of self-regulation and balance in the arms of those who raise them. When the family atmosphere is full of mood swings that are rarely explained and put into an understandable framework, children are left to make sense of their surrounding circumstances with the immature reasoning of a child and to regulate their moods in their own childlike ways. Their thinking, feeling and behavior all too often mirror what they see around them, and this is what they internalize as the norm.

Living with adults who cannot easily express and process emotion in healthy ways also leaves children to wonder about themselves and about what is going on in the family. They sense that great wells of feelings exist but nothing is said out loud. Negative feelings leak out through criticism or withholding of affection. Children observe the sudden bursts of anger or tears that might indicate problems, but then all of those clues disappear into nowhere and no one talks about it or explains what they are feeling or thinking.

In this environment, family members often develop the habit of hiding what they are feeling and not sharing what is going on inside of them, because sharing gets them nowhere. Children in this atmosphere may come to feel anxious about their parents, their siblings and themselves. As parents drop the ball, there are regular skirmishes among siblings for a sense of power and place. Siblings may turn to each other for support, but they also learn that they have to compete for the limited love and attention that their parents have to give.

They may learn dysfunctional relationship habits such as manipulating parents to get what they need, jockeying for an edge over another sibling or sidling up to one parent and taking sides against the other. Parents may co-opt one child as a surrogate partner and distance the other. Family factions, both overt and covert, can develop, creating an in crowd and an out crowd. Thus, not only is the emotional atmosphere of the family thrown off, but the relationships within the family become distorted as well. In this environment, it can be a challenge for the growing child to find his or her own emotional and relational regulation and balance.

Most relationships have stormy moments; it’s a natural and even healthy part of being alive, attached, adaptive and growing. But alcoholic families get lost in the storm; they lose some of their ability to right themselves and find solid ground.

Fleeing on the Inside: When CoAs Dissociate

Picture again the child facing her drunk parent. She is short; he is tall. She thinks with a child’s limited reasoning; he’s been to college. She has her truck or teddy dangling from her arms. He is holding the keys to the house, the car and credit cards. She could fight, but she knows that if she tries to stand up for herself, she will only come to her daddy’s waist. She could flee, but where would she go in her footie pajamas with no money? So she does what she can do. She shuts up. She stands there like a little soldier and takes it. She freezes, holds her pain, hurt and tension in the musculature of her little body and flees on the inside; she dissociates.

Dissociation – or fleeing on the inside – can be hard to see. After all, your body is still there – you talk and interact, you seem to be there, but you are not in your own skin. You’re not present. You’re on autopilot. Life appears to be happening out there, somewhere, but you’re not quite present.

Some of the factors that sear trauma in place and make it more likely that a CoA will develop post-traumatic trauma syndrome are:

1.      Parent Is Causing the Stress

The same people who children would go to for comfort, their parents, are the ones hurting them. This is a double-whammy for the children and makes abuse within the home all the more disempowering and debilitating.

2.      Basic Power Imbalance

Children are trapped in a world created, run and paid for by the parent, and they have limited access to other resources. If they fight back, they risk getting grounded, hit or having their allowance taken away. Older siblings can also trap younger siblings in this power imbalance that can be part of a trauma bond. Being at the disempowered end of a trauma bond can mean that children are stuck going along, stuck saying yes even when they want to say no.

3.      Lack of Access to Outside Sources of Support

Having somewhere to go that feels safe and offers a different model of how to live can have a lasting, positive impact on a child that counters the effects of growing up with trauma. ACoAs often talk about grandparents’ houses, spending time at the neighbor’s, the house of a friend or relative, or a job where they could regain their balance and recognize that the world is full of options. These experiences restore a sense of hope and direction for the CoA.

4.      Developmental Level of the CoA

Psychological and emotional growth happens along a continuum. Children always understand their environment with the psychological equipment they have at any particular stage of development. Small children may come up with fantastical, magical solutions that are the product of their immature minds. They may learn to bend the truth, for example, to make it less frightening, creating reasons for their parents’ erratic behavior that are less threatening than the truth: “Daddy yells at me more because I am his favorite.”

As adolescents, they have a greater ability to perceive reality but are still in the throes of their own individuation. Adolescents may have trouble figuring out how to separate from a situation and hold onto a sense of self when the circumstances of the family already feel fundamentally abandoning and confusing. Young adults can also struggle with families who fall apart. Once they leave, their home base disappears and is not there to return to.

5.      Length of Time the CoA Spends in a Dissociated State

While dissociation may represent our best, albeit unconscious, attempt at managing the unmanageable when we were small and trapped, it can become a liability and is considered to be maladaptive if it becomes a pattern that we fall into without awareness. “Research tends to show,” according to the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, “that dissociation stems from a combination of environmental and biological factors. The likelihood that a tendency to dissociate is inherited genetically is estimated to be zero” (Simeon et al., 2001). While dissociation is most commonly the result of being in situations of physical or sexual abuse or neglect (Putnam, 1985), dissociation may also occur even when there has been no overt physical or sexual abuse (Anderson and Alexander 1996; West, Adam, Spreng, and Rose 2001). “Children may become dissociative in families in which the parents are frightening, unpredictable, are dissociative themselves or make highly contradictory communications” (Blizard, 2001; Liotti, 1992, 1999a, b).

Too much time spent in a deeply dissociated state can contribute to PTSD. Additionally, lesser forms of dissociation can become an unconscious solution that can impair our ability to be present and to connect in other situations. For example, a child dissociating in a classroom where he’s scared may be a child who has trouble paying attention. Or an adult who dissociates in an intimate relationship may not be present enough to truly live in the relationship and understand it.

6.      Perceived or Real Helplessness

Living with the mood swings or the abuse, neglect or emotional and physical violence that can accompany addiction is terrifying for children, and they can feel helpless to protect themselves or those close to them in the face of it. Learned helplessness can be part of the ACoA trauma syndrome. In disaster situations, the smallest form of involvement can allow victims to be less symptomatic. Even cleaning up branches and debris after a hurricane can allow those affected to restore a sense that they can do something to improve their situation, which counters the PTSD symptom of learned helplessness. Children can counter their own sense of helplessness by doing positive things for themselves, whether writing in a personal journal, helping to restore order in the house, engaging in fun or meaningful school activities that build their sense of having their own life, or getting a job to earn their own spending money.

7.      Organic Makeup of the CoA

Basic intelligence is a factor in resilience along with the child’s own organic structure. Some children seem better equipped by nature to cope with adverse circumstances in spite of their gender or position in the family. Though it is virtually impossible to separate the combined effects of nature and nurture, there can be organic reasons that can influence a child’s ability to cope with adversity effectively.

8.      Length and Severity of the Stressor

The cumulative effect of childhood toxic stress is part of what gives the ACoA trauma syndrome teeth. And though toxic stressors are common throughout society, some are more devastating than others. When CoAs move into adult- hood with a history of childhood trauma, they are more vulnerable to being traumatized as adults (Krystal 1968).

9.      Lack of Access to Support Outside the Family

Children feel trapped by their families through both the bonds of love and attachment and the natural dependency of childhood. Generally speaking, the more dysfunctional a family becomes, the more isolated it becomes from other families. Children who have access to sources of support can be helped to build resilience that reduces the sense of being trapped and allows them to feel as if they can do something to help themselves.

10.  Sensory Nature of the Stressor

The more senses that are involved and attached to experience, the more the brain and limbic system absorb and remember it. First responders at Ground Zero on 9/11 were more likely to become symptomatic because of the amount of sensory input they experienced: they saw, smelled, heard, touched and tasted the scene and experienced powerful emotions of horror, disgust, fear and compassion.

Home is a highly sensorial environment full of smells, sounds, touch, tastes and imagery. What happens in the home is absorbed deeply into the brain and body.

11.  False-Self Functioning

When we discover that being who we are does not get us what we need, we may learn to be who we aren’t. When parents are not curious about their children’s genuine feelings and do not give them help in understanding them, children become less curious about their own feelings (Cozolino, 2006). They may begin a pattern of hiding their authentic selves in favor of developing a self that is acceptable to the family.

Children with narcissistic parents may develop a false self around gratifying the needs and expectations of their narcissistic parents; they learn that to stay connected, parental needs and wants have to remain the primary focus. Addiction can mirror narcissism in that the needs of the addict become a primary concern.

The more fearful the family is of being exposed, the less space there is for honest reactions. Honesty carries with it a tacit call to action, a call to come out of hiding and uncover problems. If the family does not want to do this, children need to come up with a way to stay connected that does not challenge the acceptable status quo, essentially presenting a normal family face to the world rather than allowing the chinks in the family armor to be revealed.

For CoAs, this may even feel like a clever solution to a very pressing problem. We may contort parts of our personality to fit in or to get points so that we can remain part of the family as it sees itself. If we step out and begin to point out inconsistencies, lies and deceptions, we are telling the system it needs to change. We risk becoming the bad guy.

The real danger lies not in creating a mask or false self; we all do this to some extent or another. It’s natural to cultivate a false self for social or professional reasons or even for protection, but CoAs may spend so much time functioning within these parameters that their sense of authenticity becomes compromised. The sad outcome is that the false self becomes so well-constructed and adaptable – or garners so much acceptance, approval or even power within the family that spawned it – that eventually the true self becomes lost to us (Horney, 1950). We hide our true self so effectively that even we can’t find it. The false self is meant to absorb or take the pain that the child finds too overwhelming. The false self is largely unconscious.

This false self is also sometimes seen as the “idealized self” (Horney, 1950). We construct a version of self that is better, stronger and more able to cope, a self that is less easily wounded or made anxious. We may even come to idealize our particular solution – for example, bullying becomes strength or manipulation becomes cleverness. The false self steps in like an actor on a stage, hiding our stammering and insecurity under a smoke screen of well-modulated behavior, or disguising our anger and envy beneath a syrupy smile. The family payoff can be great. Because this self is essentially constructed to meet the needs of the family and make the system work, we can get a lot of recognition and even control through playing the role well, the role that the family has written.

But the more time we spend functioning through a false self, the more underexplored the authentic self becomes. Like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use, the authentic self does not get the practice in living and interacting that would allow it to strengthen and grow. So even though the false self is meant to protect the more vulnerable self, it actually has the effect of weakening it. When people who have become dependent on false-self functioning go into therapy or enter a 12-step program, they can go through a period of feeling very vulnerable and shaky because they are removing their coping strategy and exposing the pain underneath it. But over time, new healthy emotional habits get created and new ways of healthy coping get practiced and adopted.


Excerpted from The ACoA Trauma Syndrome: How Childhood Pain Impacts Adult Relationships.


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