As far back as I can remember my mother was an alcoholic. I would wait at school for her to collect me, filled with dread of what would greet me when I hopped in the car. She would often pick me up from school drunk and I would spend the evening ‘minding’ her, making sure she didn’t fall down the stairs or get into the car as she continued to drink.
I was constantly anxious and worried about her. Some days she would go missing for hours. When I was twelve, myself and my Dad had to carry her into the house from her car. My childhood memories are full of similar moments that I’d rather forget.
In my early twenties I moved out of home thinking that I could leave my past behind me. Even though I was no longer in the chaotic home environment, I still struggled with a constant sense of anxiety and low self-esteem. I felt worthless. I hated myself and was still always anxious. When I am anxious, I tend to focus on physical symptoms and would convince myself that I had various illnesses (you name it, I thought I had it).
In work, people would ask me if I out the night before because I looked so exhausted and didn’t care about my appearance. My concentration was poor and I was forgetful which made me feel like I was bad at my job. Socially, I agonised over what I said when I met others and would be convinced that I looked odd, stupid, or ugly to them. I would go over every conversation afterwards and berate myself for saying certain things. I felt so low I couldn’t face day to day life any more.
After much resistance and avoidance I knew I had to get professional help. The idea of going to a counsellor was terrifying so I asked a trusted friend to make the appointment for me. I was convinced that it wouldn’t help but I’d give it a go. It sounds like a cliché but it genuinely changed my life. Firstly, having someone tell you that it’s okay to feel this way was extremely comforting and relieving.
Counselling has taught me how to make sense of my past and understand why it affects me now. Some typical traits of ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics’ are low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, perfectionism, focusing on the needs of others over yourself, fear of losing control and difficulty expressing emotion; all of which I could identify in myself. Alcoholism is also associated with secrecy, embarrassment and shame. I had never told my friends what was going on. As a family, we never spoke about it either which made things very difficult for “the child” me to process emotionally.
Counselling has ultimately enabled me to love myself and cope with the anxiety that will always be a part of me. Sometimes just acknowledging it as a normal feeling is helpful. I have learned to be more self-aware which allows me to identify what triggers my anxiety. I still have days when I am more anxious or down in myself than others. I remind myself that it is a temporary feeling, try work it out and if it persists I go back to my counsellor for a few sessions.
Running is one of the best releases for me. Regular exercise hugely reduces my anxiety. In the last few years, I have signed up to 5km/10km events that are challenging but give me something to focus on and the sense of achievement afterwards is great. I also go to a painting class which means I have a dedicated time set aside each week for me to relax. I don’t think I would put that time aside if I didn’t have the commitment of the class so that strategy works well for me.
I used to think that my past should not affect me as an adult and felt that I should be able to cope by myself. I never realised the impact of growing up with an alcoholic parent on my ‘adult’ self until I talked to a counsellor. I’ve learned so much about myself and developed coping skills that I use on a daily basis. Typical of the strange dynamic in a family with an alcoholic, no one talked about the ‘elephant in the room’ and so I bottled up everything for years. I have realised that I have nothing to be ashamed of and opened up to my friends, who have been a huge source of support for me.
My advice to anyone in a similar situation is to give yourself a break, recognise that what you went through was hard and share it with someone.
If you need help please talk to friends, family, a GP, therapist or one of the free confidential helpline services. For a full list of national mental health services see yourmentalhealth.ie.
- Samaritans 116 123 or email email@example.com
- Pieta House National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 or email firstname.lastname@example.org – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement) or text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply)
- Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)