For an adult child who grew up with alcoholism, para-alcoholism, dysfunction, and abuse, fear and anxiety almost define his life.
“Adult children often live a secret life of fear,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 10). “Fear, or sometimes terror, is one of the connecting threads that link the 14 traits together.”
Those traits, such as isolating, seeking approval, victimization, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, the inability to self-defend, denial, repressed feelings, the need to people-please, being consistently reactive, and self-judgment result from a rewired brain that seeks to survive in a post-home environment it believes will be similar to the one it already experienced.
Three of those traits mention the word “fear”-namely, “… Afraid of people and authority figures;” “We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism;” and “We became addicted to excitement.” “Excitement,” in the latter case, became a substitute for the original word, “fear.”
“While many adult children appear cheerful, helpful, or self-sufficient, most live in fear of their parents and spouses in addition to fearing an employer… ,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook continues (ibid, p. 10). “They have a sense of impending doom or that nothing seems to work out.”
Those who attend Al-Anon meetings, which provide comfort and support to families of alcoholics, echo this phenomenon.
“Before I came to Al-Anon, fear was my biggest obstacle,” one member shared in Al-Amon’s “Hope for Today” text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 58). “My reactions to fear included withdrawing, hiding, procrastinating, running, or berating myself. None of these behaviors helped me to face my fears. In fact, they only made situations worse.”
Although fear and anxiety, as indicated by this member, dictate, distort, and derail a person’s life, and can course through an adult child’s veins as regularly as does blood, they are fundamental to all belonging to the animal kingdom, restricting actions and activities that the brain perceives as dangerous and detrimental. But when they become excessive, they inhibit meaningful, nurturing, and healthy relationships and erode the quality of life. They are also hardly new.
More than a century ago, Sigmund Freud made a statement that was just as valid then as it is today.
“What we clearly want is to find something that will tell us what anxiety really is,” he said.
“Anxiety,” in response to his plea, is a set of unpleasant, but familiar and sometimes frequently-experienced emotional and physiological sensations that can include elevatored blood pressure, pulse, heart, and respiration rates. It is a state of lesser or “dis”-ease, an unsettledness, a jitteriness. The person is not fully able to calm down, rest, and be at peace with himself.
It implies that something about his current condition, circumstance, or environment is not entirely safe or is even mildly retriggering and can provide a subtle, anticipatory warning that something amiss is about to occur. Compounding this state of unease is the fact that the person may not be aware of what this doom may be nor when it will take place-in other words, why he or she feels like this and how he or she can shake it off cannot be determined.
Freud erroneously believed that fear was experienced when the person could determine what the detriment was and that anxiety prevailed when he could not. Yet this was not an accurate assessment, because these physiological states are not equal ones. Fear is the diametric opposite of love and is therefore the lowest rung on the emotional ladder, while anxiety is milder and less intense. Although neither is particularly pleasant, fear can release stress hormones and adrenalin, sparking the fight-or-flight response because a person or circumstance poses a threat to safety or survival. Anxiety, on the other hand, is milder and can be considered the prior step to this intense state, preceding the actual threat.
And, while fear is more likely when these counter-survival circumstances are known, anxiety can be experienced whether they are or are not. An adult child, for instance, suffers in silence from this condition without being able to determine why, but someone else, whether belonging to this adult child category or not, may be subjected to the same situation while contemplating a near-future event, such as the need to give a speech in front of a large audience or receive a medical procedure. Anxiety, in this case, can be considered synonymous with anticipation.
Both fear and anxiety can be equated with “rings” of the body’s “alarm system”-that is, warnings that gear it up to endure, tolerate, or even survive a pending event.
“The perception of these bodily changes is what we experience as anxiety,” according to Michael Kahn, Ph.D. in “Basic Freud: Psychoanalytic Thought for the 21st Century” (Basic Books, 2002, p. 108). “Their function, Freud saw, was to serve as a warning of danger in the offing. The purpose of the warning is to signal us to take action against the impending danger.”
But he went a step further. It was not only the danger that proved detrimental, he conjectured, but the powerlessness or helplessness the person would experience in the face of it, leaving him vulnerable to its effects.
“It is important to remember that Freud’s theory describes not just anticipation of danger, but also anticipation of helplessness in the face of that danger,” Kahn continues (ibid, p. 110). “If I feel confident of my ability to deal with the danger, I do not need to be warned and I do not experience anxiety.”
This statement contains the two fundamental realities of an adult child’s upbringing-danger (in the midst of a shaming, blaming, potentially abusive alcoholic or dysfunctional parent) and helplessness (as a defenseless., vulnerable, undeveloped child in the midst of it). But fear and anxiety intensify when they are coupled with this helplessness, serving, to a significant degree, as both the cause and core of the adult child syndrome.
“Many adult children struggle with the notion of powerlessness in step one (of a twelve-step recovery program), since powerlessness is all that many of us have known as children… ,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook advises (op. cit. p. 101). “As children, we were overrun by parents who unknowingly taught us to feel helpless or less competent.”
Parental dysfunction, betrayal, and even abuse create what becomes the original “authority figure” to such a child, the one who seems to turn on him, as if he has, for reasons beyond his understanding, been relegated to the other, or enemy, side of the fence, and creates an indelible image he attributes to others later in life.
“We cane to see our parents as authority figures who could not be trusted,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook points out (ibid, p. 11).
“Our past experiences tell us that any leader, employer, or officer is inherently an authority figure and is to be distrusted,” it further states (ibid, p. 379).
Because most of these parents are unrecovered adult children themselves and are triggered by their own offspring, they project their own fear, often by means of boundary-devoid enmeshment, on to them.
“The nondrinking parent’s fear, excitement, and pain are affecting the children and are transferred to (them),” the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook advises (ibid, p. 24). “This is the internalization of the parent’s feelings and behavior in one of its purest forms.”
Even when such children reach adulthood and move away from their home environments, they take the transferred fear with them.
“Our parents projected their fear, suspicions, and sense of inferiority onto us,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook explains (ibid, p. 101). “We were defenseless against the projections. We absorbed our parents’ fear and low self-worth by thinking their feelings originated with us.”
That adult children live a fear-based life as a result of these conditions can hardly be disputed. An alcoholic’s or para-alcoholic’s sheer entry into a room may breed anxiety and tension-so much so, in fact, that the air can often be cut with a knife. Walking on eggshells, they pull in, avoiding any movement or sound that will trigger the parent and invite chaos, upset, blame, criticism, or even abuse. This consistently unsafe, unsettled environment offers no experience in being raised in a calm, trusting, safe state, and they subsequently carry fear and anxiety with them in their adult interactions.
“… Adult children use (fear) to mimic the feeling of being alive when in reality they are recreating a scene from their family of origins,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics “textbook explains (ibid, p. 16). “Gossip, dramatic scenes, pending financial failure, or failing health are often the turmoil that adult children create in their lives to feel connected to reality.”
Although abandonment can assume many physical and emotional forms, it can be considered the fundamental foundation of fear. An infant, in its original, helpless condition, is completely dependent upon his mother or primary caregiver for protection, safety, warmth, nourishment, clothing, comfort, soothing, and all his physical needs, and can do little more than cry to alert her that he requires attention. Being abandoned and sensing that she will never return evokes overwhelming fear and anxiety, since her absence can be ultimately equated with death.
While abandonment can be considered the first fear in a chain that links an adult child’s life to it, there are numerous subsequent others, including the initial parental betrayal and the terror the helpless, defenseless child may feel, causing him, without choice or alternative, to escape within in the self-created protective inner child sanctuary. It paints that parent as the original authority figure and he views the multitude of others he later encounters in life as wearing his displaced face. It leaves him, as a vulnerable, defenseless child exposed to a fear-projecting person, who can, at times, be unstable, criticizing, blaming, shaming, and abusive, adding layers to fear’s fire. It creates an uncertainty as to when these incidents will occur. It causes him to squelch and swallow what may be done to him, as he adheres to the unwritten “don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel” rules imposed in alcoholic homes, as he continues to build his fear base. And, finally, he leaves a home environment he believes approximates the one he will experience beyond its doors, sparking hypervigilance for danger he cannot identify or understand, but which causes his inner child to tighten its grips on its sanctuary.
This chain, connected by fear-based links, results in a life characterized by uneasiness, anxiety, and distrust.
“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.
“Hope for Today.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002.
Kahn, Michael, Ph. D. “Basic Freud: Psychoanalytic Thought for the 21st Century.” New York: Basic Books, 2002.