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It's Often Still the Morning After for Adult Children of Alcoholics

September 01, 1989|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

When things get too quiet in his relationships, Bob stirs up trouble.

"Two long-term girlfriends were the nicest women in the world, and in both cases I broke up for no good reason," said the 32-year-old account executive from Huntington Beach.

"It's Catch-22: I'm attracted to maternal, stable women, but then they'll start to bore me after a while. Then I'll go off and have a wild fling with someone who's half nuts and a month later start missing the stability."

Donna admitted that she is drawn to the "wrong person" again and again. "My boyfriends have always been 'emotionally unavailable,' to use my therapist's term," the 28-year-old Anaheim art instructor said.

"They're handsome, exciting and undependable. One would tell me how much he loved me, and then come up with excuses not to see me for a week. Another was outgoing and charming in a crowd but would become reserved and uncommunicative whenever we were alone.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get married because I've never been attracted to the marrying type."

Karen, a travel agent in Orange, has been married twice, both times to alcoholics. She was 34 before she realized two years ago that every one of her lovers was a substance abuser or financially irresponsible.

"It's hard to explain," she said, "but I think that I somehow thrived on the mission of trying to save these people. I would view them as cute little boys who just needed a lot of love and a good mother figure to make them all better. I thought I was Mother Teresa."

These three people, along with about 20% of the U.S. population, share a common background: They grew up with at least one alcoholic parent.

As adults, the offspring of alcoholics often find themselves plagued by unsuccessful and unfulfilling relationships. "They don't know how to trust, they don't know how to deal with their feelings," said Marge Manes, primary therapist at Buena Park's ASAP, a treatment center for chemical dependency.

"They learned certain techniques in order to survive in their family, and they continue to use those techniques as adults."

Dave Kushner, a marriage, family and child counselor with Starting Point, a detoxification center in Costa Mesa, said: "When you grow up in an alcoholic family, you learn to adjust to the craziness. You bring home a picture you drew in school, and Mommy rips it up because she's drunk. So you learn to test the waters, to stifle your emotions, to avoid allowing yourself to be vulnerable."

Many times adult children of alcoholics seek out the "exciting," roller-coaster relationships that they had with their parents--and that their parents had with one another. "If there are 99 healthy men in a room of 100, the (adult child of an alcoholic) will head straight for the one man with whom she can have a dysfunctional relationship," Kushner said. "If the guy works an 8-to-5 job and would make a great dad, he's boring; he's not a challenge."

Adult children of alcoholics gravitate toward others of the same profile, said Judith Farrow, co-director of the Adult Children Center in Orange. "They choose partners of the same level of health," she said. "They can't deal with healthy people. They feed off each other. It's a way of staying in denial--they can always blame their problems on the other person instead of looking at themselves."

In families that are dysfunctional--a term that encompasses not only substance abuse but also such problems as mental illness and religious fanaticism--children frequently adopt certain protective devices and roles that they carry through life.

"There are four roles that children of dysfunctional families generally fall into, although they can be a combination of the roles," Manes of ASAP said.

"The hero" is often the oldest child. "He gives the family dignity," Manes said. "He is the overachiever, the workaholic. He's the one the family can look to and say, 'We must be OK,' because look how great he's doing.'

"He is very concerned with appearances. The hero wants the wife, the white picket fence, the three kids. He wants his family to look right, but he doesn't know how to become involved in it. There is no emotional bonding."

Middle children take on either the role of scapegoat or lost child, she said: "The scapegoat gets into trouble to make himself the focus of attention. He allows his parents to blame the family problems on him rather than themselves. He's the one who is most likely to use drugs and alcohol himself. As an adult, he jumps in and out of relationships and goes through a number of divorces.

"The lost child never feels like a part of the family. He spends a lot of time in his room alone. He is very shy, very hurt. He pulls away from relationships. He might never marry at all, unless someone pursues him--and even then, he won't go into the relationship 50-50."

Finally, there is the clown--most often the youngest child. "He makes jokes and tries to keep everybody happy when things get tense," Manes said. "He keeps his relationships superficial."

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