I grew up in a constant state of fear of my alcoholic stepfather’s unpredictable, explosive anger. I felt like a cinder block was five feet above my head at all times and could fall on me at any second, for any reason.
Messages I came to believe as a kid:
I thought the abuse would stop if I would just behave the way he wanted or somehow prove I was a good person. It didn’t.
These messages became part of my self-image. How could they not? I spent 6000 days living like this, in the most formative years of my life, with the people that I was wired to trust and model my behavior after?
My number one life goal has always been: do not become like my step dad. I put tremendous pressure on myself to monitor every thought, feeling, and voice inflexion – to never be angry, unfair, selfish, or unempathetic. When I failed, I felt anxiety and panic that I was becoming a monster.
As a kid I tried to be unnoticeable. I learned to not have feelings, wants, never need from people, and be self-sufficient. I spent hours outside or in my room by myself. When I was left home alone it was heaven! I could finally relax and be myself.
In school I felt a sense of belonging that I was missing at home, especially with sports. But when I didn’t have a role to play, I often felt like an outsider and played class clown to feel comfortable.
In college it was hard to make new friends. I felt that if I didn’t have fascinating or funny things to say, why would someone like me? I isolated by going to movies and taking long drives.
Romantic relationships were difficult. During arguments I shut down and became unaware of my feelings and thoughts. Eventually I would go numb and leave the relationship.
Hitting a bottom.
At thirty, I quit my job to be self-employed and work from home. It felt safe with no authority figure (like being home alone as a kid). I felt powerful and safe to be self sufficient, but I became a slave to my work. I was so afraid of not doing good enough work that I would agonize over decisions, spending extra days and weeks on projects. I coped with this stress by eating, going to movies, excessive internet, video games– things that put my work further behind. The coping mechanisms that worked in my teens and twenties stopped working.
By my mid-thirties, I knew I was stuck and unhappy and desperately wanted to change. I was looking for something else but didn’t know what. Spirituality? Anything. I just knew this wasn’t the extraordinary life I always wanted and expected for myself.
A friend, who was in ACA, showed me the 14 ACA traits in the Red Book. I had every single trait (except, I thought, “fear of abandonment”, because I believed I didn’t need anybody. It turns out that’s my biggest trait). I felt a tremendous sense of relief and affirmation when I saw in print all issues I had always struggled with. I went to an ACA meeting with my friend and finally found where I belonged.
I started going to meetings every week.
At first I was out the door as soon as the meeting was over. Eventually I started developing relationships. Now I have a support network. When something upsets me (an interaction at work, fear of a potential problem, etc.) I call an ACA friend. Without fail, the problem becomes more manageable. This still difficult because I can feel shame for needing someone and for even having the problem, but it’s becoming normal.
I started learning to manage problems that before just seemed part of life. Example:
I wanted to be not so constantly afraid of people. I was afraid to ask questions of my boss or to knock on a public bathroom door. I was paralyzed, imagining people yelling at me for not “knowing better.”
Before recovery, I would avoid, isolate, eat, and keep my fears inside where they stayed big and scary.
In recovery, I learned I was expecting others to behave like my step dad and was terrified of re-experiencing traumatic childhood situations. I’ve learned to shine a light on my fears through talking or journaling, making them manageable. I talk to my inner child with encouragement to replace the old abusive messages with new healthy ones. The result is many situations no longer faze me. When they do, I manage better and I bounce back quicker.
After four years in ACA:
I still have lots of growing to do, but progress is steady. I’m so grateful to have found ACA.