“Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.” — Janet Woititz, Adult Children of Alcoholics.
The phrase “guessing at normal” was coined (as far as I’ve been able to ascertain) by therapists working with adult children of alcoholics and addicts. But it doesn’t just apply to ACOAs, but also to adult children of many types of dysfunctional families. Whenever the adults in a family are incapable of behaving rationally and functioning normally in a consistent manner, the children in that family have no models of how normal adults are supposed to function. So they, or rather we, go through life guessing at normal–basing our behavior on our best guess (often wildly inaccurate) of how a “normal” person would behave in whatever situation we happen to find ourselves in.
I grew up in such a chaotic family system, and have been “guessing at normal” all my life, to a greater or lesser extent. The chaos in my family stemmed primarily from my mother’s mental illness (my mother’s paranoid schizophrenia), further aggravated by my father’s alcoholism (and poorly managed “recovery” therefrom).
For years, I believed that my father’s alcoholism didn’t have much to do with how I turned out or the problems I’ve experienced in adult life. After all, he had stopped drinking actively by the time I was 7 years old and only fell off the wagon one other time during my growing up years (as far as I can recall). Of my two parents, he was the “reliable” one. When our mother was being hospitalized every couple of years for months at a time, my dad was the one my sister and I felt we could count on to NOT fall apart. I always thought that what was wrong with our family was because of my mother’s illness—that it WAS my mother’s illness, in fact.
In recent years, however, I’ve come to realize that my dad’s alcohol addiction actually had a much bigger impact on the two of us kids than I thought at the time. Just because an alcoholic stops drinking doesn’t mean they are easy to live with, and my father was VERY difficult to live with at times. He could be extremely warm and affectionate, as well as a big jokester who delighted in telling one funny story after another. However, I also remember him having a hair-trigger temper and spanking us (especially my sister) to the point of abuse on more than one occasion. This—the spanking—wasn’t a constant thing, but it was something that sort of hung over our heads. We never knew when some trivial event or remark was going to set him off, so when his rages happened, they came with no warning. Between that and the fear of upsetting my mother and “causing her to get sick,” I spent a lot of my childhood walking on eggshells.
Another trait of my dad’s that could be hard to deal with at times was his inability to admit when he was wrong. When you pair this trait with a tendency to fly off the handle with little provocation or warning, you have a volatile mix. We learned not to argue, because it never did any good, no matter how much logical reasoning or information you might bring to the situation. What we did was “humor” him; let him think he was right (because that’s what he was going to think anyway) until something happened to force him into facing reality.
I remember a very good example of this that occurned when I was in my early twenties. I was home from college an extended break (I think it might have been between spring semester and summer school—the memories are somewhat foggy). My mother had been hospitalized (again), after one of the psychotic breaks she was prone to have every other year or so, and since she wasn’t around, I had the use of her car. Now, that wasn’t as much fun as it may sound, because the use of that car included making several visits to see her, which involved an hour’s drive each way, as well as ferrying my younger sister back and forth to work, picking up her toddler at her sitter’s home, etc. etc. In short, I was the family chauffeur, since my father was always at work during the day.
Sometime during this period, the power steering in my mom’s car developed a problem. It sprung a leak, and the power steering fluid would leak out and have to be replaced, over and over again. When it got really low, the car became VERY hard to steer. If you’ve ever driven a car without power steering (I have), recall what it was like and then multiple the amount of force needed to steer by a factor of at least 5—that will give you some idea of what I was up against. In addition, driving a car with power steering in that condition can cause serious damage to various parts.
Attempts to discuss this problem with my dad were fruitless. His response was to vehemently insist that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the car, that I was just imagining things and advanced “making it sick.” Even when we made a short trip in the car with him driving and the steering in an advanced state of “out of fluid” stiffness, he continued to insist it was just fine. Knowing that any attempts to change his mind would be completely futile, I didn’t even try.
What I did do (the only thing I really could do, under the circumstances) was keep replacing the power steering fluid at a service station where my parents had credit. This went on for a couple of weeks, as I recall. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, my dad went and got the power steering fixed. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that one of the guys at the gas station may have said something to him when he was there gassing up his own car, something like, “Hey, your daughter has been in here every few days having us put power steering fluid in your wife’s car; it’s got a leak and you need to get it fixed, man!” Then again, seeing the charges for all that power steering fluid on the monthly statement may have done the trick. At any rate and for whatever reason, he finally faced up to the fact that there was actually a real problem and got it fixed.
Now you might think he would have come back to me at that point and said, “You know what? The power steering did have a leak, but it’s fixed now. Sorry I didn’t believe you.” But oh nooooo—that was NEVER going to happen with MY dad. Because in order to apologize to me, he would be admitting directly, to my face, that he was wrong—something he was not EVER going to do unless (maybe) his life depended on it.
So, whatever was going on with my mother, my father was no picnic, either, even though, as I said earlier, he was no longer actively drinking by the time I was 6 or 7. Somewhere in there, he had joined AA, and from that point on, he stayed on the wagon MOST of the time I was growing up. I remember one major slip-up when I about 9 or 10, and after that sobriety throughout the rest of my childhood and teen years. (He fell off the wagon again after I grew up and left home but that is a story for another time.) But even during the years he wasn’t drinking, I don’t think he was REALLY “in recovery.”
From what I know now, I believe he was what the folks in the 12 step programs call a “dry drunk,” someone who no longer drinks alcohol but in many ways behaves like they are still in the midst of addiction. I learned to handle my dad’s “quirks” by withdrawing from him, spending as little time with him as possible (not all that hard, because he worked ridiculously long hours during those years) and pulling away from him emotionally as well. By the time I was 14 years old, being alone with him was extremely awkward and uncomfortable, as he seemed like a stranger to me by that time. I literally didn’t know what to say to him. I was pretty sure most of the things that concerned me at the time (boys, clothes, school, peer relationships, the Beatles) would not be of interest to him, or worse, would provoke arguments. A person who is always 100% sure they are right about every single thing is not going to validate you unless their opinion just happens to coincide with yours, and I knew that wasn’t likely to happen. So I proceeded to shut him out…and I really didn’t miss him all that much!
Looking back on all this, I now recognize that I am much more of an ACOA than I used to admit to myself. I don’t want to minimize the impact of my mother’s illness, because I still think that it shaped my childhood in a deep and profound way, but my father’s addiction and incomplete recovery were definitely part of the picture.
As it happens, there is very little literature on adult children of the mentally ill and TONS of literature on adult children of alcoholics. I discovered ACOA literature sometime in the 80s and quickly found that it explained the various things that were wrong with me much better than anything else I’d ever encountered. Before I read my first ACOA book, I had thought of myself as just some sort of freakish weirdo who didn’t really fit in anywhere, but I had no idea why I felt that way. Now I finally had the answer—and for the first time in my life, I realized that I wasn’t uniquely weird and freaky after all! As I continued to read, more and more things fell into place for me.
Out of everything else in the ACOA books, the phrase “guessing at normal” stood out for me the most. It was something I had been highly conscious of doing in many, many situations, but I had NO idea where it had come from, until I read about the concept in the ACOA literature. I regard that characteristic as one of the chief defining effects of my mother’s illness (and my father’s pseudo-recovery from alcoholism) on me, and for that reason, it feels like the right title for this blog.
I originally considered calling this “Growing Up Crazy”, because that’s how I experienced my childhood–as a crazy time, during which I lived part of my life in the “sane world” (at school, church, Girl Scouts, etc.) and the rest in the “crazy world” of my family. But I’ve come to realize that the word “crazy” is highly offensive to some people. For family, it was not. We used it freely. The word “sick” was the primary label we used to describe my mother’s condition, but “crazy” was also definitely part of the family vocabulary. (For example, when reminiscing about a past psychotic break of hers, I remember my mother describing herself as having been “crazy as a loon” at that particular time.) As a result, that word will no doubt appear here from time to time; for those who have trouble with it, you might want to think of this note as your “trigger warning.”)
NOTE: This entry has been greatly expanded from what I originally posted several months ago. I am hoping I can continue writing here regularly, in the hope that the posts I make here will eventually provide the basis for the memoir I want to write, about what it’s like to grow up with one severely mentally ill parent and one who was sane enough to function in some ways (but not in all the ways my sister and I needed him to be). Wish me luck, because I’m going to need it!