Adult Children of Alcoholics: Does the hurt ever heal?

Constant chaos lurks beneath the calm

Intimacy and inter-dependency are a natural part of any healthy family. However, for an ACOA, they become potential triggers of stress. Just as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) responds to the sound of a car backfiring: he “hits the dirt” because his subconscious interprets the sounds like gunfire.

The brain in a state of fear

Our thinking brain shuts down when we’re terrified, but our feeling brain keeps active, absorbing the environment. The cortex, which is where we can think about our feelings and making sense of it, shuts down when it senses in danger. Our limbic system takes over, and we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Nature does not intend us to think about running for safety when confronted with a charging, wild animal. It wants us simply to run.

Home becomes a prison

But for a child, a drunk, out-of-control or neglectful parent is just as terrifying as a sabre-toothed tiger. Such incidents push a child into a state of extreme stress and fear. They freeze in fear — like a deer in the headlights, getting caught in a “startle response.” Then there is an attempt to fight or flee. If escape is possible, the traumatic experience will be temporarily stressful, and the person is unlikely to develop full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. If, however, the intention to flee is stopped, there’s a “freeze” response. What is a child supposed to do? If they fight, they will eventually lose. The parent, after all, holds all the keys of the house. And if they flee, there’s nowhere to go. There are no options for the child — it’s a trap.

How childhood pain is relived in adult relationships

When children are not able to make sense of painful and perplexing childhood experiences, those experiences linger on. The associated images, impressions and emotions remain locked within their unconscious, waiting to burst forth to the surface. Unfortunately, when they do break cover, they get projected onto the situation that triggers them, with little or no awareness of their origins. They may view the present circumstance as the sole cause of their intense emotional reactions. They may not be aware of the pain from their past triggering the present overreaction.

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