Life in the Altman family revolved around taking care of my father and brother. Ever since my first exposure to my alcoholic father, I assumed the roles of caretaker and lost child. I was the one who retreated into a corner, fanatically obeying the family injunction to “keep our family issues within the family.” Silence was golden. A closed mouth was honored and secrecy reigned big time. Over the span of the next twenty three years I learned to place my goals and dreams in second place. The first order of the day was to make sure my father was happy.
Typically, I submerged myself in my father’s dysfunction. I was happy if he was sober. Sadness engulfed me if he was drunk. And anger raged every time he drank. Misery was the name of the game from Monday to Friday since he drank each and every one of those nights for at least fifty years. Even the weekends were spent in various stages of misery since he was a dry drunk. He always said that weekends were his family time. I think his priorities were backwards. Every father I knew spent every night with his family. Mine did not. He preferred drinking and his tavern buddies to his family. It was a real love triangle.
Dysfunction is not defined by caretaking issues. We all have times when taking care of someone is a part of life. Parents take care of their children; Adults care for their parents; and communities meet the needs of citizens. It becomes problematic when we deny our priorities in an effort to care for someone else. Typically, children and spouses of alcoholics lose themselves to the well-being of the addict. This can impact families in several ways including:
• Failure to realize and develop one’s talents and innate gifts
• Failure to satisfy your emotional needs
• Failure to plan financially
• Failure to develop intellectually
• Experiencing developmental delay
Let’s take a look five ways to face down co-dependence.
• Learn to build your life around your special gifts and strengths.
Dr. Martin Seligman, renowned expert in positive psychology, has a program called Strength Builders. Google his name for more information. When you live in line with your talents, you develop a sense of autonomy that remains independent of the alcoholic’s dysfunction and illness.
• Look inward and ask yourself what you need to find happiness and fulfillment. Then proceed to meet those needs yourself. Children of alcoholics often need to parent themselves and fill in the emotional blanks.
• Learn what your financial needs are and make plans to meet them. Depression and anxiety can interfere with both educational and career choices. Look into mental health and community resources that can support you in these critical areas.
• Find out what you need to do to develop and sustain your mind. Beyond career education, there are plenty of opportunities out there to further your education.
• Recognize stages of life and plan accordingly. I would like to relate a story in my life that points to this challenge.
I was twenty eight years old when I finally learned to drive. Stuck in the teenage need to separate myself from my family, I failed to take the steps needed to do this. The anxiety and accompanied depression kept me in a state of dependence. I was absolutely terrified to drive. I also told myself that if my father had to pick me up from work, he would not be out drinking. How co-dependent was that! I sacrificed my self-esteem to the urge to keep him out of the taverns.
Dear Readers: I’m open to other ideas on facing down codependence. Feel free to go to my website and make comments. This article will be on there as a blog post.
Barbara Altman is the author of “Recovering from Depression, Anxiety, and Psychosis: My Journey through Mental Illness” originally published in 2011 under the title “Cry Depression”. This is available on Amazon. www.Depressiontorecovery.com