Do You Suffer from ‘Adult Child Of’ Syndrome? You Can Dig Yourself Out
Since the age of 5, my young father had been carrying around a hole in his center as wide as the Grand Canyon and just as deep. Here is what he chose to fill it with: fear and heroin. It was 1975 and the Vietnam War had been raging far too long. He was anxious and eager to grow into the man he would be, but he wasn’t quite ready yet. There was the matter of that hole.
When his lung collapsed from an overdose on the Austin streets, things started to get real. He was hospitalized and at least physically repaired. He crouched in a corner of a washed out room and let the withdrawals rattle him, threatening to kill him since he clearly hadn’t succeeded at the job. And he did it; he kicked heroin. But addiction didn’t get a write off, a pink slip from his life entirely. He still struggled with women and sex and pot and pills and the compulsion to disappear into himself, refusing intimacy or honest, straight-up connection with anyone. That proposition was too dangerous for a man who had an oceanic trench carved through him.
First Father, Now Mother
Then there was my mother. She had been born into poverty and was the last of 15 children. Her father had died when she was 14, her home had burned to the ground (and she was blamed), and she had taken the board-hard abuse of a mother who was too old and too exhausted to be doing any mothering by the time my mother came along. She had her own hole.
When she met my dad, she’d already become addicted. Mostly to chaos and extreme emotional reactivity. But soon, within a matter of a couple of years, she would discover Mommy’s Little Helper (i.e., a dependence on Valium and Xanax and whatever pain prescriptions doctors were handing out in the beginning of the pain-drugs-for-somatic-complaints days).
My mother appeared most of the time to be living deep under water, a pressurized mass of weight and force holding her below the surface of her life. She drifted slowly, never quite seeming to get enough air. She lay in bed for weeks at a time and rarely changed out of the nightgown she’d made threadbare from her tossing. One moment she was listless and bobbing in a barely discernible current, and the next she was exploding in rage. Her hole had made her defensive and terrified.
Digging Yourself Out
My parents’ patterns of addiction and how they separately chose to navigate them began to dig a hole in me. I came to find myself buried. I carried that deep rift into my life and into every relationship. Nothing was as terrifying as someone wanting to get too close. People, I believed, will inevitably break and when they do their breaking they will end up breaking you.
But this kind of fear is never your friend. It’s not especially self-protective; it’s more of a doom magnet. I started to fear I was just as mentally ill as my mother, just as addicted as my father. Of course, it was never true. To be just as ill or just as addicted would mean I never thoroughly gave “getting well” a chance, but I did and I still do. I miss my parents, and I hurt for the space I sometimes feel in me—comprised by the absence of them—but I know that to honor the better part of who they were, as well as to insist on challenging myself toward bigger and better growth, is to believe that even when it’s hard to, I am doing well, going to be well. Today, right now, I know it’s true.