COMMUNITY, SUPPORT & HEALING
for adult children of alcoholics

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The 13 Characteristics

A Change of Air Will Do You Good

If you know me at all, you know that I tried all the things. All the programs. All the groups. I’ve read all the books over and over again. While all of these things gave me really important bits and pieces about how to navigate a home with two alcoholic parents and the lasting damage it might leave me to wrestle with, none of the available groups or systems clicked for me.

No group felt like it understood me. No set of tools moved me meaningfully forward in my healing. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. The language was all about recovery and I was not the alcoholic. I understand now, all these years later, why that language is used in many systems but I was seeking something that was wholly my own. Something that was about me, designed for me.

As my mother would return from her AA meetings and talk of the steps and “recovery” it felt wrong to me that those were the same words in my own meetings. The system and language felt lifted, second-hand. Which is how the effects of her drinking felt — I was not the smoker but I inhaled all the smoke.

When I got the call at age 18 that my mother had died (cirrhosis of the liver), I wept in the shower though I had rehearsed this scene with myself a dozen times because some part of me knew this was coming. Through all the emergency hospital visits, I could tell we were on borrowed time.

As I stood in the shower in my shared dorm room bathroom at UCSD a few days before taking the Spring finals of my Freshman year, I thought to myself: this will not be in vain. Her death will not be in vain. I have not experienced this in vain.

It took me twenty years to navigate the trauma, confusion, low self-esteem, toxic relationships and workaholism that were my “inhaled smoke.” I was lost and then found and then lost again. Each time, I gained a bit more understanding. A bit more insight into what it has meant to grow up in a home with parents who were neglectful, verbally abusive, scary and inconsistent. Each time, I tried another group or system. Each time, none of them felt like me.

I started Change of Air two years ago as a return to that commitment I made to myself at 18. I have not experienced this in vain. I also know that I’ve learned so much through the incredible yoga teachers I’ve had the pleasure to work with professionally over the years and the many incredible doctors and wellness professionals I’ve worked with throughout my career. I am not an expert in how to heal from trauma or having alcoholic parents, but I am an expert in my experience. And I am an expert in going to every existing group and system and club and community for ACoAs and not finding what I needed.

I created Change of Air because it’s what I needed. I created Change of Air because there was no place that combined movement and story telling and hiking and nature and shared stories and the really honest, vulnerable ways we are learning ourselves every day, with every new trigger. I created Change of Air because I could not find a safe place to share all of these things and find others who were navigating the same terrain. I created Change of Air because I know that Vincent Van Gogh and so many other artists did their best work – the work of their lives – when they decided to move away from the stagnant air and busy cities they’d become so familiar with and instead moved to the sea or the country. They literally changed the air around them and saw things from an entirely new perspective.

The dictionary defines “a change of air” as “a different place from where one usually is.” And that’s exactly what I hope Change of Air becomes for me and for you and for everyone who is new to understanding they are an adult child of an alcoholic and those who have known and have struggled under the weight of it for their entire lives.

I chose the name Change of Air for this reason. I wanted a change from what existed. I wanted to consume a different air that I could not find in those meeting rooms and groups. I landed on the name and I bought the URL and I set about working on some early designs. Only then did I realize that Change of Air, abbreviated, is CoA for children of alcoholics. It was auspicious. It was not an accident. We are just getting started. I hope you will join me on this journey.

 

The 13 Characteristics: Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously

The sixth characteristic listed on the Dr. Janet Woititz list of 13 Characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics is that we take ourselves very seriously. Since the fifth characteristic is that we have a difficult time having fun, us being too serious is not at all a surprise.

We had to grow up in a very chaotic and confusing environment – never sure what we’d wake up to or come home to or what a single comment could do to make a seemingly mellow family moment turn into an awful one in under a minute.

OF COURSE WE TAKE OURSELVES SERIOUSLY. WE WERE SURVIVING.

When I first read this long ago as a teenager, I was very offended. Mind you, I was a teenager who got straight As and was in a gazillion clubs and looking at a gazillion ways to get into college. I DID TAKE MYSELF QUITE SERIOUSLY, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. And I didn’t think it was a bad thing. In fact, I thought it was a strength. So reading this for the first time and many times after brought up a bit of anger in my, a bit of pride. “We should take ourselves seriously,” my body cried!

I took care of my younger brother, I made sure we were fed, the clothes ironed, our schoolwork done, our grades good and so much more. All while navigating chaos at home while also wanting some help, some support. All while wanting someone to SEE ME, understand me, tell me I was going a good job, tell me I should not have to be doing all this.

So yes, I took myself very seriously then and I do now. I struggle with this ACoA “characteristic” because it implies that seriousness is a bad thing and I don’t think it is. We survived because we were serious. Our parents and their drinking made being serious a necessity for us. I’m ok with that and I embrace my seriousness.

BUT! It’s always been clear to me from the way this list of characteristics is written that the real prescription here is having more fun. Finding joy. Letting things be easy instead of so serious and hard. That is something I definitely need more of in my life and that I actively work towards.

So my challenge to all of you this week is: how can we make it easy? where can we play a bit more? when you find yourself clenching your jaw and worrying about the next thing (which feels ever so familiar to us — so familiar, we sometimes create tension where none exists just so we feel comfortable again), can you remind yourself to release the jaw, relax and breathe? can we be present to what IS here right now and find some silliness in it all?

An easy assignment: pursue joy. 😉

The 13 Characteristics: Adult Children of Alcoholics Have Difficulty Having Fun

The fifth characteristic on the Dr. Janet Woititz list of The 13 Characteristics of an ACoA says we have a difficult time having fun. Obviously.

Growing up in our home was not fun. No one around me showed me what fun looked like. I saw anger. I saw drinking. I saw shouting. I saw fights. I saw neglect. I saw that my needs were not as important as those who were drinking.

And because my parents were drinking, I had to assume so many responsibilities at such a young age that simply were not mine. Caring for my brother. Making food for the entire family. Ironing all the clothes. Making sure my mother got up for work on time. Making sure she showed up to things on time. Paid our bills on time. And so on. And so on. There was no time for fun.

As Dr. Woititz puts it: “Growing up with an addicted parent is not fun. Kids are not allowed to be kids. When the kids are not given this joy, the adult usually does not know how to simply enjoy life. The ACOA is constantly worrying about their addicted parent, or is in trouble for things they should not be responsible for, or compensating in some other way for the addict. The usually carefree, fun time of being a child often does not exist if the parent is an addict. The addict is the “child” in the relationship. Because of this, the child does not know how to be a child.”

I’ve been accused of not knowing how to have fun for much of my life. Only in the past few years have I understood this enough to let go enough and lighten up. I’ve even learned to seek fun. To seek joy. To find ways to have life be easy instead of ever so hard.

I’ve also seen how the “life is ever so hard” pattern can be very hard to break. We are so used to life being hard and having to take care of everyone, that we actively seek out – unconsciously – situations that will allow us to re-live that over and over again. Because the not having fun feels familiar. Sound familiar? 😉

So! I challenge you to find new ways to infuse a little fun into each day. And I like the word “fun” instead of joy because joy can feel so esoteric and big, whereas fun feels doable. Fun is silliness and that seems achievable. I’m using this list to remind myself of easy ways to get my fun in and I’ve noticed that a few of them (dance like no one’s watching, laugh to your heart’s content & hiking in nature) have made their way into my regular fun routine.