As an adult child of an alcoholic, I’m totally aware that my brain is programmed differently than that of other people who didn’t grow up in that kind of environment with chaos caused an alcoholic parent.
I realized this after watching a movie. Seriously. (Shut up.)
Love Actually is a British romantic comedy released in the early 2000s. It’s a favorite of mine because of the stories – it features stories of love among several different characters. A few years after its release, it came up in conversation with a few coworkers – like me, these ladies were in their early 20s and we were all smitten with the stories. But one lady brought up what she believed to be a huge flaw in the plot – she didn’t understand it and the other ladies agreed that they were also baffled by it. In the story, there’s a character named Sarah. She’s a super hardworking businesswoman at an architecture firm or the like. She is in love with Karl, a very handsome and hardworking architect. They’re both way too shy and awkward to make a move until the company’s Christmas party when Karl gets enough guts to ask Sarah to dance. Finally, they get together.
This is the moment; it is awesome:
Up to that point, it’s very clear that Sarah has a complicated life. Her parents are deceased so she is the only family member available to look out for her mentally-ill, adult brother who lives in a facility and appears to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. Throughout the film, it’s clear how much Sarah worries about him. She takes phone calls from him constantly, even when she’s busy at work. She appears to be the only one who can calm him down when he has a freak-out session.
As Sarah and Karl are finally getting together, Sarah’s brother calls her phone. Karl asks, “Will answering the call make him better?”
Sarah replies, “No,” but answers the call anyway, interrupting the special moment and leaving Karl looking disappointed that she seems to choose giving attention to the brother over finally being with Karl. The brother is having an extreme meltdown so Sarah abruptly ends the night and heads to be with her brother. After that, it’s completely awkward and uncomfortable with Karl because he probably felt rejected and very baffled by Sarah’s decision to interrupt their time together.
In one scene, after it’s clear Sarah and Karl aren’t going to be a thing, Sarah actually calls the brother just to say hello. That scene demonstrates that Sarah is as dependent on her brother as he is on her.
This blew my coworkers’ minds. She’s nuts, they said. Why would she continued to sacrifice her own happiness to be all wrapped up in her crazy brother’s life, knowing full well that she can’t cure him of his problems? My coworkers were so frustrated by this. They felt the producers goofed this up in the plot.
But I completely got it.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve done so many things that made no sense to people. They couldn’t understand why when I learned that my mother was wasted at home in the middle of the day, that ruined my day. They couldn’t relate to the fact that I would literally get sick to my stomach with worry about the potential horrible things that could come from my mother’s drinking such as her drinking and driving. I didn’t speak much about any of this but when I did, people always said, but you have nothing to do with that. It’s not your fault – if something bad happens, it’s your mother’s fault, not yours. Yet it felt like my fault, too. That’s why I was always creating the solutions in my mind for the terrible things that could happen. It was the same reason I always answered the phone and rushed to help family members. They couldn’t understand why ‘d keep putting off my life for everyone else’s. I often think about this – how I’ve always felt different from other people who don’t do these things.
One day I was speaking with a fellow adult child of an alcoholic. I described to him about how I felt “screwed up” inside compared to other people and how I felt that my obsessing over my mom and her drinking and being the person everyone always ran to with their problems.
He said, “Why do you feel messed up? It’s all you’ve ever known. You’re programmed that way. And when you recognize that behavior is not healthy and you take steps to react, think and behave differently, you’re actually going against the very program that’s been installed in your brain since you were a little girl.” I’ve often thought about that and when I mention to people, they seem to get it, too.
ACOAs have talked about how when they open up about the effects of being a child of an alcoholic, they often have an it’s-time-to-get-over-it response like you’re stuck dwelling on the past. Part of the healing process and taking care of oneself is to recognize how we are programmed to live as adults when we are children and young people. Back to my Love Actually reference, Sarah took an unfortunate route in her life – one we as adult kids of alcoholics do often. I guess the key is to have the guts to take steps to re-program our brains. It is so hard. It feels like a security blanket. There’s so much comfort in familiarity, no doubt.
So friends, spouses and others who are close to ACOAs may understand ACOAs better by recognizing the monumental undertaking it is to think and react differently than we have our entire lives. We are works in progress likely forever. It takes a lot of courage but the work is definitely worth it.
Take good care of yourself.