An Adult Child of an Alcoholic Finds Healing through Al-Anon from an Abusive and Dysfunctional Family History

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Much of my journey leading to recovery revolves around my dad. From a very early age, I remember being afraid of him. He traveled 80 percent of the time due to a high-pressure corporate job. And when he was around, my three older siblings would clamor and compete for his attention while I mostly stayed back and watched. 

I have one memory of him taking a shower with me when I was five years old and an incident of him yelling at me when I startled him in the bathroom one time. I also remember crying once when he came home after a business trip and wanted to put me to bed. I’m not sure why but I didn’t want to be alone with him and even as I write this I feel that fear rise up again.

Other than those, I have few memories of him before I turned eight years old. 

Soon after my 8th birthday, my dad sat me and my three older siblings down and said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is your mother and I are getting a divorce. The good news is that I’m marrying Mrs. M.” Mrs. M. was a wife and mother of three, and a close family friend from our Catholic parish.

I believe this event was what caused my mother to start numbing her pain through alcohol, which she did for many years as a “functional alcoholic.” This was the disease that eventually took her life 40 years later. My dad was a functional alcoholic, too, and so was Mrs. M. My mom married another alcoholic and divorced him after 10 years. My father had two more marriages after Mrs. M.

Watching all of this happen and witnessing the effects of it on my siblings was a tremendous burden. There were also two more incidents that I believe triggered some lifelong anxiety for me. 

The first was when I was around 12 years old and was visiting my dad at his “new” family’s house. He had just gotten home from work and told me to come upstairs to chat. I sat on the bed in their bedroom while he took off his work clothes and changed into his leisurewear. I remember the way he looked at me and it felt creepy. I never felt like a daughter around him, more like an object for his use. The second was when later that same year my brother tried to sexually abuse me. 

Through all of this, I developed a fear when it came to relationships with boys. Whenever I was alone with a boy I shook uncontrollably and could not be myself. I was terrified of abandonment and avoided conflict at any cost. By age 14, with so much alcoholism in my family, I started attending Alateen meetings (Al-Anon for teenagers).

The warm fellowship and acceptance I felt in those meetings kept me coming back. But Alateen also piqued a curiosity and longing for a relationship with God that has not left me to this day. I spent the next seven years searching (though not always virtuously) for a higher power until at the age of 21 I became a born-again Christian. Even though I was raised Catholic, I had left the Church after my parents’ divorce.

My years as an Evangelical Christian were filled with Bible study and service. I had a lot of friends but my fear of people and relationships continued. I barely dated throughout my 20s and when I did I always found a way to end the relationship before I was abandoned.

I tried going to a few Adult Children of an Alcoholic (ACA) meetings but did not feel a connection.  Finally, at age 31, I married a physician who was a widower from my church with two young children. 

This experience triggered a lot of ACA traits and fears and my Evangelical faith did not help me cope. I attended counseling, went on anti-depressants, and eventually found my way back to the faith of my childhood. In 2004, my husband and I had our marriage con-validated and we were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

As a Catholic, my faith grew in ways that I never dreamed possible. I learned about and embraced the idea of redemptive suffering and relied on the sacraments and spiritual direction to get me through the most stressful times in my life as a wife and stepmother. But the fear of abandonment often surfaced in my marriage through feelings of insecurity and mistrust. I also had chronic insomnia for which I frequently used Benadryl and Ativan.

I did not equate my anxiety and insomnia with my early childhood since I had assumed the past was behind me and did not realize that it could still be affecting me as an adult.

In October of 2019, I began the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius as part of a spiritual director training program. I met weekly with a spiritual director and increased my meditation time to an hour a day. Part of the experience involved weeks of meditating on past sins followed by a general confession. It was a difficult but also incredibly healing process that opened me to the idea of looking at the past and feeling the pain of my childhood wounds and brokenness. 

In March of 2020, the pandemic hit and I found myself increasingly isolated, anxious, and emotionally fragile. Then in April of that year, my dad died, an event that brought me to the realization that I needed and wanted to forgive him and finally be free of my resentment toward him. I bought a book titled Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope by the Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Enright

The book took me through a step-by-step process for each wound I was carrying from my relationship with my dad, which offered a lot of healing. I had a sense of freedom, yes, but I also felt much more vulnerable. I felt like an anxious orphan in need of good and healthy parents.

Then my adult stepson, who is in recovery, suggested I go back to ACA meetings. I reluctantly agreed, thinking it would be a good way for the two of us to grow closer.

My first ACA meeting was like coming home. I immediately had the feeling that these are “my people.” I was reintroduced to the ACA Solution and they also talked about the idea of reparenting, which intrigued me. As I started to practice some of the principles, I found myself getting in touch with my childhood fear and shame that I had been unaware of. The ACA Solution entails becoming your own loving parent to free yourself from past shame and self-blame. 

I began researching to see if this reparenting concept had been used by any Catholic or Christian counselors. I discovered Dr. Gilliam, a Christian psychologist, who wrote a workbook called Reparenting (Volume 1 and Volume 2). I also discovered the Catholic priest Fr. John Horn who adopted a similar process in his book called Healing Prayer: Practical Mysticism and St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.

As I continued to attend ACA meetings and practice the principles of reparenting, I found my anxiety lessening and started to overcome the insomnia I had struggled with for over 20 years. I also incorporated my Catholic faith into the process by frequently meditating on the love of the Holy Family. Yet, I longed to join other Catholics on my recovery journey.

And then I discovered Catholic in Recovery.

Now I regularly attend both ACA and Catholic in Recovery meetings, and we even started a virtual meeting for Adult Children from Dysfunctional Homes that meets on Fridays. 

Recovery as an adult child is a beautiful and healing process. Through it, I believe and trust that God will continue to peel away the layers and reparent me into my true self—a beloved daughter of God the Father. With the Holy Family, St. Therese, and all of you in Catholic in Recovery on this journey with me, I cannot imagine a safer place to be.