In my first Step Towards Healing, I highlighted a book that sparked an awakening and awareness in me about what I had experienced through childhood and how it had affected me in becoming an anxious and mal-adapted young adult. From that first step, I’ve continued to pick up books and seek out resources to help deepen my understanding and develop a safe & healthy game plan for my recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic family.
The next book I picked up is titled “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics” by Robert J. Ackerman, Ph.D. Dr. Ackerman has decades of clinical experience in helping women who have been affected by alcoholism, particularly those who have an alcoholic mother, father–or both. I liked this book because it really digs deep into the psychology of the adult daughter in all of these scenarios. While adult children of alcoholics share have many traits in common (as discussed in Part I), defense mechanisms & coping skills vary depending on who in the child’s life was the alcoholic (mother-only; father-only; both parents) and furthermore how the other parent (if present) behaves in response to their spouse’s addiction.
This book hit me two-fold. First, it gave me some very interesting insight about my mother. I am fully aware of alcoholism’s strong presence in my family history as a whole. My parents have been divorced since before my first memories. I’m sure I will talk about the abusive relationship between my mother and my father in blog posts to come, but the relevant information to share right now is that after my mother left my father, she moved back in with her parents–my grandparents. I was raised in a house with my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather (until he passed). My grandparents are alcoholics.
My grandfather’s alcohol abuse eventually killed him (kidney & liver failure). He was on dialysis and still sneaking drinks until the day he died. In their day, he and my grandmother were perpetual party people and heavy drinkers, often leaving my mother (& aunt) unattended. Thankfully, as I mentioned in an earlier post, my grandfather’s death was a wake-up call for my grandmother. He passed when I was 5 years old, in Kindergarten. In the wake of his death, something clicked for my grandmother and she (successfully) went on her own journey to recover from her many years of alcohol abuse. This of course was too late to “raise” and “rescue” my mother who was already 36 years-old and alcohol-dependent, so my grandmother invested her parental redemption in me. If it weren’t for this, I don’t know where I would be..but I digress.
Perfect Daughters granted me tons of insight in coming to realize that not only is my mother an alcoholic, she is also an adult daughter of alcoholics. The book talks about the coping skills adult daughters develop in response to having two alcoholic parents, as well as discussing their high likelihood of becoming self-harmers and substance abusers. I saw so much of my mother in this book, more than I saw myself, and gained a sense of empathy for her. I was able to release some of the anger I had been walking around with since my teenage years when I realized how much she much be hurting on the inside, too. This did not by any means excuse her behavior, because I realize that our lives are largely a product of the choices we make (after we acknowledge the access to resources & privileges some of us have over others [men v. women; Caucasian v. persons of color; wealth v. poverty; able-bodied v. those living w/handicap, etc]). But Perfect Daughters did help to humanize my mother, in my mind. I remember thinking, I wonder if she would seek help and therapy if she were to read this book. But then also realizing that she would never accept it from me because she would manage to see it as an insult or a pass of judgement.
The other way that Perfect Daughters impacted me was in understanding myself. I found my own mentality reflected within its pages. There is a section in the book called “Childhood Lessons.” This section urges the reader to look back on their life and identify whether or not they learned these unintended lessons within the process of adjusting to an alcoholic family and coming-of-age. Below are the selections from the larger list of lessons that I highlighted because I realized that I had been living these lessons my whole life:
- If I can control everything, I can keep my family from becoming upset.
- Whatever happens is my fault, and I am to blame when trouble occurs.
- People who love you the most are those who cause you the most pain.
- If I don’t get too close emotionally, you cannot hurt me.
- Nothing is wrong, but I don’t feel right.
- Expressing anger is not appropriate
- I’m unique, and my family is different from all other families.
- I can deny anything.
- I am not a good person.
- I am responsible for the success of a relationship.
- To be acceptable, everything must be perfect
Dr. Ackerman goes on to write, “These childhood lessons become imprints or beliefs that you have about yourself, and they begin to dictate your expectations of yourself and your behaviors…However, you have survived and somehow you have maintained some balance in your life. Therefore, you must have learned other lessons that have served you well or have allowed you to survive.” The latter section of that quote, I immediately think about my relationship with my grandmother as she played the role of emotionally-available parent in my life.
The book provides profiles for the 8 different patterns of behaviors that develop in adult daughters. I was able to identify my mother within these profiles, as well as discovering myself as an “Achiever” and “Detacher”. The most valuable part of this book for me was that Dr. Ackerman acknowledges that each type has both positive and negative traits.
In the last part of Perfect Daughters Dr. Ackerman provides tons of information about how an adult daughter (or child) can help their own recovery. I found this to be really valuable because I hadn’t known where to begin in acquiring and building healthy skills for myself before reading this book. When I started reading Perfect Daughters I was still in a place where I was trying to understand if alcoholism really had affected me or was I just hypersensitive & paranoid. Within the first 100 pages, I came to the realization that what I had felt in Part I was very real and that there were most certainly somethings amiss.
Perfect Daughters helped me to build up the confidence to continue to go forth in my healing & recovery. It helped me to understand my mother’s behavior on a higher-level and therefore I started to develop more realistic expectations for our relationship (what I deserve v. what she is capable of). Whether you are a daughter or son of alcoholics, I encourage you to see out this book if maternal alcoholism has been present in your life in one way or another. I look forward to sharing my next steps towards healing and the resources that have helped get me here, in the future.