Adult Children of Alcoholics - Part 2 (Transcript)

Dr. Tim Clinton: Hi everyone. This is Dr. Tim Clinton, Executive Director of the James Dobson Family Institute and President of the American Association of Christian Counselors. Wanted to take just a brief moment to let you know that we love, appreciate and are praying for you. Our entire team here at Family Talk is doing that very thing.

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Thanks for letting us be a part of your life every day. We are going to get through this. Dr. Dobson said, we are going to get through this challenging time and we're going to do it together. Let's go now to our regular programming.

David Meece: My father was an alcoholic. He would go on these drinking and drug binges and he was absolutely just vicious as a human being. I mean he's out of his mind. My brother and my sister and I saw him try to kill my mom three different times. Of course the fear was he was going to turn on us next. And he did one night, he drove his car through my bedroom wall and announced he's going to kill everybody. Those terrible things that came about as a result of his addiction to alcohol and drugs were so traumatic that I blocked 'em out of my mind completely.

Roger Marsh: Well, that was certainly a heartbreaking account from our friend, Christian recording artist, David Meece. And sadly, I'm sure many of you could identify with and empathize with that story as well. Numerous adults are still dealing with the painful issues associated with alcoholism in their family and the impact it had on them growing up.

Did you have a parent struggling in this area when you were a child? If so, then today's broadcast will speak to you. In just a moment, Dr. Dobson will continue his conversation with four folks who grew up with alcoholic parents in the home. One of the members of our panel is licensed marriage family and child counselor, Dr. Curt Grayson. The other three individuals in the group asked to share their stories with anonymity. So for the purposes of this interview, we're calling them Ann, Chris and Joe.

As we rejoin this discussion, Dr. Dobson reads a list of characteristics attributed to adult children of alcoholics. As was the case with yesterday's broadcast, the material we're about to discuss is very sensitive in subject matter, so it's not suitable for younger listeners. Parental discretion is advised. With that, let's hear again from Dr. Dobson and his four guests on this edition of Family Talk.

Dr. Dobson: We were talking last time about the experiences of these four people as children of alcoholics and what they went through, the pain that they experienced individually. There's an amazingly consistent pattern from one person to the other. And I'm told if we had 100,000 people here, that would be true as well. There are just these common characteristics.

In fact, that reminds me of the fact that in 1967 when I graduated from USC, I did not have a class in which we talked about adult children of alcoholics. It wasn't discussed then. It wasn't recognized that there is this commonality. There is this frequent pattern of pain and the perpetuation of the problem among those individuals who were children of alcoholics.

It would probably be wise now in this second broadcast to talk about what those characteristics are. People are going to recognize themselves. And so I have a list here of 13 characteristics. I'm going to read them rather rapidly and then ask you all to comment on what I've read. Okay? All right, here we go.

Number one, adult children of alcoholics have to guess at what normal is. They think that what they experience is what everybody experiences. Two, adult children of alcoholics have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end. Three, adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. Four, and I'm not going to repeat adult children of alcoholics. I'll say "they," judge themselves without mercy; very hard on themselves. Five, they have difficulty having fun. Six, they take themselves very seriously. Seven, they have difficulty with intimate relationships.

Dr. Dobson: Of the four of you, Chris, you've never been married. Have the other three had marital difficulties?

Ann: Yes, definitely.

Joe: I'm divorced.

Dr. Curt Grayson: I'm divorced.

Dr. Dobson: All three are divorced. Isn't that interesting? Number eight, they overreact to changes over which they have no control. Number nine, they constantly seek approval and affirmation. Number 10, they feel they are different from other people. Number 11, they're either super responsible or super irresponsible. You can't lose on that one. [crosstalk 00:05:26] Either one way or the other. You can count on that.

Joe: Black or white.

Dr. Dobson: And number 12, they are extremely loyal. This one surprised me. They're extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. And number 13, they are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. Okay. React to the list of 13. What jumps out at you from what you've just heard?

Chris: What jumps out at me is the tremendous need for approval. I missed getting the affirmation I needed as a child. And what was okay one day, it was not okay the other day and so there was tremendous confusion. And I have since learned that silence to me means disapproval. It means I have to guess. And so never quite knowing where I stand now as an adult, before as a child, is I need that affirmation, that approval, "Chris, that's okay, this is not okay." Because I don't have that developed inside me because I didn't have the opportunity to learn that as a kid.

Dr. Dobson: Yeah, Chris, even though you recognize that now, you understand that's why you are as you are, do you still find yourself watching people, looking into their eyes, seeing if they're rejecting you or accepting you?

Chris: Oh, I am so hypervigilant. My head knows that, but my heart, or the little girl inside me doesn't know that. This little girl inside me needs the hug and say, "That's okay."

Dr. Dobson: Curt, did you look for approval in your father and not find it?

Dr. Curt Grayson: I definitely did. I feel like there were a lot of times when I would go to my father with things that I had done, pictures that I had drawn or something, and I would say, "Look at this dad. Look what I did." And sometimes he would barely look up from his book and then look back and really not respond to it and say, "Oh, that's nice," but he really wouldn't even look at the paper.

Another thing with me too is sometimes even now when I'm in a grocery store, it's kind of embarrassing to say, but I can see a mother spank a little child or yell at a little child, and even though I'm an adult, there's a part of me, that little kid inside begins to cower and actually be fearful. And I would never admit that, but other adult children of alcoholics experience the same thing.

Dr. Dobson: Were you disciplined rather severely as a child?

Dr. Curt Grayson: My parents were divorced when I was about five. My father never developed a drinking problem. He was not a very harsh disciplinarian. My mother and stepfather who were both drinkers and were actually alcoholics. The disciplining was kind of sporadic. My mother would discipline us, but she wasn't strong enough or big enough to really hurt us as we grew up. But as soon as she got my alcoholic stepfather into the scene, he didn't know limits, and when he hit, he hit for good.

Dr. Dobson: Do you know that 90% of all child abuse is alcohol related? It reduces the inhibitory function that would keep you from going too far.

Joe: You know, my dad was very abusive too. However, he also was an adult child of an alcoholic and he didn't know it. So in a sense, he was an adult but acting like a child on me, so to speak, when I was a child.

Dr. Curt Grayson: It just perpetuates itself, generation after generation.

Joe: It's a family disease.

Dr. Dobson: Your children, Joe, are going to be adult children of alcoholics.

Joe: They not only are going to be, they are.

Dr. Curt Grayson: As a matter of fact, the really, in talking about adult children of alcoholics, we find it's a three generational problem. So even if your parents don't touch a drop of alcohol, you are just as much affected because they were adult children of alcoholics and they did not learn how to parent by having no example.

Dr. Dobson: So it sometimes skips a generation doesn't it?

Dr. Curt Grayson: It can.

Joe: But it's also unconscious. I didn't try to transfer this stuff to my kids, but it was transferred; it was transferred unconsciously. The good news is today they know about it. They know that there is help. They know what happened to me and it's out in the open. There's no more secrets, not in my family.

Dr. Dobson: Ann, we're dealing with number nine on this list, adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation. Has that also been a characteristic of your life? And as a child, did you reach for adult affirmation and not get it?

Ann: Unlike Chris, I didn't strive to get those A's for approval. That probably was because my parents just about ignored me. As a child, I had no validation. I had no response from my parents. My mother was so busy taking care of the alcoholic, I was pretty much left on my own. There was no one encouraging me to do well in school or no one commenting if I did poorly in school. No help at all.

Dr. Dobson: What does it do to you all today when you do something that you feel is done well or right and another person just doesn't happen to like it? Suppose at work you're trying to do a good job and the other individual doesn't mean to reject you or be insulting, but just says, "I think we ought to do it another way." Do you still feel it today? Are you still hypersensitive to that?

Ann: You get the feelings down inside. I think you're always going to be sensitive, but today I can speak out and I can voice that feeling.

Dr. Dobson: What other items from this list of 13 jump out at you?

Joe: The one that jumps out at me, Dr. Dobson is this one whereby we're so serious. For years people used to say to me, "Joe, lighten up." And I'd say, "How?" I didn't really laugh until I was 40 years old.

Dr. Dobson: Is that right?

Joe: That's true. And I know I didn't cry until I was 40 years old, in my memory. And it wasn't until recovery that those emotions were released. You see, I stuffed my emotions and I only knew a few, and not knowing those emotions, how in the world could I laugh? How could I have joy in my life when I didn't have any joy in my life?

Joe: So we can get into a veil of tears, but the truth of the matter is, for me today, after a lot of work and a lot of recovery, recovery's a lot of fun and laughing.

Dr. Dobson: And you can laugh today?

Joe: Yeah, you bet.

Dr. Curt Grayson: I think with me, I was the one in the family who was the family clown and comic, and I was able to laugh and keep people off balance.

Dr. Dobson: That's one of the methods of coping.

Dr. Curt Grayson: That's right. That's right. And for me, besides being the one that stopped the fights, one of the ways I stopped fights in the family is I told a joke. I was able to do a somersault. I was able to juggle. I learned to juggle when I was young. I would do kind of funny little weird things to get my parents' attention off either hitting me or getting in an argument with each other.

Joe: The basis of all comedy is tragedy.

Dr. Dobson: Sure it is.

Chris: I think for me that the inconsistency of the behavior of my parents and especially my father is that I never knew when playtime would end up to be a very dangerous time, that something would go wrong. The string on the kite would break and all of a sudden my father would become extraordinarily upset and he would begin to drink more, and it turned out to be a horrendous ... end up in a hitting or beating or being sent to my room.

Dr. Dobson: So he had a low frustration tolerance even when he was sober that lent itself to more drinking.

Chris: He was never really sober. I mean always the effect of the alcohol was there. And so that playful little girl inside me, there's a part of me that's finding out she's there and it's fun to discover her. There still is some fear and it's still not okay to play because while I'm playing over here, there's some danger over here.

Dr. Dobson: Chris, let me put you through something difficult, can I?

Chris: Sure.

Dr. Dobson: Let's suppose that your father was able to visit you today and he was sober and you have an opportunity to talk to him. What would you say to him?

Chris: Wow. If I had the opportunity to see my father, what I'd really like to say to him is that I wanted him. And when he was drinking, what I had was a bottle, and I wanted him. And I wanted the safety and the playful times to be there and be there more often. But not to have the bottle.

Dr. Dobson: Chris, would you forgive him?

Chris: By faith, I have forgiven him.

Dr. Dobson: Would you tell him that?

Chris: Yes.

Dr. Dobson: Not only for drinking but for abusing you sexually?

Chris: Yes.

Dr. Dobson: You've forgiven him?

Chris: I have forgiven him by word of mouth, by confessing that and by faith. It's dropping into my heart.

Dr. Dobson: Ann, what would you say?

Ann: My dad's been dead for years now and we never said, "I love you," so I'd say, "I love you daddy."

Dr. Dobson: He never told you he loved you?

Ann: No.

Dr. Dobson: Did he love you, Ann?

Ann: I'm sure he did in his own way. But he too was the adult child of an alcoholic and didn't know how to express feelings.

Dr. Dobson: Did he ever put his arms around you? Ever take you on his lap?

Ann: I never remember that, any times like that.

Dr. Dobson: You still miss it today?

Ann: Sure do.

Dr. Dobson: It's a void all these years later.

Ann: That's right.

Dr. Dobson: Curt, what would you say to your father if you had an opportunity to talk to him?

Dr. Curt Grayson: Well, fortunately both my parents are still alive. My mother was the alcoholic, so really a lot of my issues and talking would be with her. I'm really fortunate in that my mother has had eight years of sobriety and that's been a blessing to me and to our family.

Dr. Dobson: Have you been able to reconcile?

Dr. Curt Grayson: Well, I have a little bit. She understands now that she is sober, some of the things that happened, and I'm able to really take a risk. As we talk about in our ACA support group, you can't always automatically right away go to your parents and say, "Now I know I grew up in this alcoholic home, and I demand that you make reparation and admit what you did wrong." Some people don't get a chance to talk to their alcoholic parents until many years after they've gotten some recovery themselves. But I've been very fortunate to have sat down with my mother and she's a very brave woman to listen to me in some of my anger and some of my pain and be very, very willing to hear it. And I don't think that's common, but I know it's been helpful for me.

Dr. Dobson: Joe, what would you say to your parents if you had an opportunity?

Joe: Well, to my dad, I did have an opportunity. I had a chance to sit with my dad on his deathbed and talk with him heart to heart. However, that was before alcoholism and the like. But what I would say is the truth, that he hurt me an awful lot. It made me very angry and I forgive him because I know his pain. That's how I've found forgiveness. Who am I to judge?

Dr. Dobson: Was he an adult child of an alcoholic?

Joe: Absolutely. And he was an alcoholic too. So I judged him for years and was real angry with him, but what good's that do?

Dr. Dobson: We have such empathy for a child who is deprived, abused, hurt in this way. But when that child grows up and becomes a hurting, abusing adult, then we don't have empathy for him anymore. If we could have seen your father when he was a little boy, when he needed to be held.

Joe: Sure.

Dr. Dobson: When he needed someone desperately to take him in his arms and pull him up close and tell him he's important and tell him that he's loved, and that was not there for him. There would be at least an understanding of why he was unable to meet your needs.

Joe: Even then when my dad died, I thanked God back then that the pain was over for him, because I knew even then without any education or whatever that it was painful.

Chris: There's another process to this and this is Chris as an adult dealing with a little girl inside her. I have hated her. I have wanted to dispose of her. I wanted to annihilate her. I wanted to do the exact same things to the little girl inside me that my parents did to her, and to go-

Dr. Dobson: Why do you hate her Chris?

Chris: Hated.

Dr. Dobson: That's in the past.

Chris: Yeah. That's in the past. Because she was so defiled and unacceptable and she was the scapegoat of the family and she was emotionally thrown out of the family when she was raped at age four. I no longer became the daughter that my mother and my father desperately needed me to be for them. I could not be me.

Dr. Dobson: I had such a marvelous relationship with my parents, especially the relationship with my father. I've done a lot of talking about it, and people will write me and say, "I didn't have that. I envy that. I wish I could have had it." You spend the rest of your life thinking about it if you didn't have it, don't you?

Ann: I so longed for this loving, happy family and thought I was going to create it when I broke away from that home, when I got married and went out on my own, I was going to create that loving, happy family.

Dr. Dobson: And found yourself facing the same kind of thing. So you feel cheated in that way, Ann?

Ann: Sometimes I do.

Dr. Dobson: Yeah, and it will be remembered for a lifetime because there is that need and it will still be there.

Chris: There are those two kinds of tears that I have. I have the tears of the things that happened to me; the abuse, and I have the tears of what didn't happen, and now that I know some families enjoy and that does happen. I still believe that part of my heart's desire to be married is to have a little piece of that in my life.

Joe: Relative to meeting the child, myself in the past, I've done that in a way.

Dr. Dobson: Have you really, have you thought that thought before, Joe?

Joe: Absolutely. A main ingredient of recovery for an ACA is to go back, find the memories, find the pain, so that in essence, we can experience the healing of forgiveness and then to begin to re-parent ourselves. I know that little kid that was back then very well today, finally.

Dr. Dobson: And what was he like Joe?

Joe: He's a neat little kid. He was sad back then, but he's a neat little kid. He's the one that allows me to laugh. He's the one that gives me spontaneity. He's the one that allows me to love and to play. He's the one that didn't get the play. And today, I take him to baseball games and things like that. I've never done that before and nor did my parents. I begged my dad to take me to baseball games. He would never do that. And today, I can take me to a baseball game. As simple as that might sound, that really works because I'm learning how to love myself.

Dr. Dobson: In the right way.

Joe: Absolutely.

Dr. Dobson: Not self-aggrandizing.

Joe: And God taught me that. The first time I experienced love, real love, is the first time I experienced God in my life.

Dr. Dobson: Chris said that for a time as an adult, she hated the memory of the little child inside of her. Did you hate-

Joe: Not consciously, but unconsciously. I mean, after all, I tried to poison him with alcohol. Think about that. It was slow suicide, it was killing myself. What's that about? And so in answer to your question, yeah, but I wasn't really, really aware of it.

Dr. Dobson: Curt, what the adult child of an alcoholic does not want to do is bottle it up inside.

Dr. Curt Grayson: That's absolutely right. And I agree with Joe, I think in some ways, part of my being an adult now and having come out of an alcoholic home, is that to parent myself better or to re-parent and take care of my little boy inside, is to sometime look at my very busy schedule and learn to say no and learn to set aside time for me to play.

Dr. Curt Grayson: Now, for me, play is playing tennis, it's playing guitar, it's playing basketball. And I have to learn how to schedule in those times to just be this frolicsome, silly little kid. Because the rest of the time I'm too responsible.

Joe: Which is fun.

Dr. Curt Grayson: That's right.

Dr. Dobson: And fun is a curse. You can't have it, right? In addition to these 13 characteristics of an ACA, there are also behaviors that are typical. The compulsive kind of behavior. Ann you developed an eating disorder, didn't you?

Ann: That's right. I've struggled with a weight problem now for about nine or ten years.

Dr. Dobson: Chris, you had the same situation, didn't you?

Chris: Yes, I did. Yes. I turned to sugar to try to feel better. And at one time in my life I was obese.

Dr. Dobson: Well, I was not a child of an alcoholic. I've turned to sugar too, so I don't know what excuse I have. Joe, you turned to alcohol. All of these are ways of dealing with pain, obviously. Curt, what are some of the other approaches to dealing with this pain inside? What are some of the other compulsive behaviors?

Dr. Curt Grayson: Well, I think it's important to let people know that maybe people are feeling a lot of the emotions that we're feeling here today and they're trying to think, "Was my father an alcoholic? Was my grandfather an alcoholic?" And maybe they're saying no, but maybe they're still identifying very much with what we've said here today. And there are other addictions. I mean there are parents that are workaholics, they're foodaholics, exerciseaholics and various other kinds of compulsive behaviors that would, I feel, equally qualify people to be in a support group and deal with these issues. And the way I look at it is, anything that made the parent preoccupied with themselves and not with raising the child and being there emotionally-

Dr. Dobson: Deprived you in the same way.

Dr. Curt Grayson: Exactly.

Ann: When you were talking about that Curt, it made me think that there are people out there that are going to say, "Well, my parent wasn't an alcoholic because my parent was responsible. My parent attended work every day; never missed a day of work. My parent was a civic leader, my parent wasn't a skid row bum." And we tend to think of an alcoholic as being somebody that's unable to hold down a job that is unable to keep them self, physical appearance, and is constantly drinking and under the influence and may be passed out cold. Whereas, that is not that stereotype of what an alcoholic is.

Dr. Curt Grayson: I think the word there that I would use is there's some people that are called functional alcoholics. And what that means is just like you're saying, Ann. As far as somebody who has a job, they are very responsible in the community, but they are still just as addicted to the alcohol. It could even be another legal medication. Some people are addicted to a Librium, Valium, various other prescriptions that their doctors freely give them without really knowing that they're addicted.

Dr. Dobson: And their children have many of the same characteristics that we've been talking about.

Dr. Curt Grayson: Exactly.

Roger Marsh: Well, that is a rather sobering revelation for many in our listening audience of what true alcoholic parents look like. This has been a difficult subject that we've addressed on this edition of Family Talk. But we believe that by bringing these difficult topics to the surface, meaningful healing can take place for individuals who are hurting. Over the years, we've heard from many listeners who've dealt with this exact issue.

If you had or currently have an alcoholic parent in your family, we have a resource for you. It's a book by Daryl Quick called The Healing Journey For Adult Children of Alcoholics. You'll find a link to this book by going to our broadcast page at Also, if you're looking for more practical help, you can connect with the American Association of Christian Counselors at You can find additional resources and search for a Christian counselor in your area. Again, that's

Thanks so much for joining us today. Be sure to tune in again next time for the conclusion of this discussion. We'll be talking about positive steps that adult children of alcoholics can take to further process their hurt. That's coming up next time on Dr. James Dobson's Family Talk. I'm Roger Marsh. Hope you'll join us then.

Announcer: This has been a presentation of the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute.
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