Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

15 Lessons learned by kids of alcoholic families

Perfect DaughtersThe following list of lessons learned by daughters of alcoholic families appears in Perfect Daughters: Adults Daughters of Alcoholics, by Robert J. Ackerman, Ph.D. A classic I just now found… in print since 1989, revised in 2002, with tons of comments by adult daughters of alcoholic families. Check it out. His research is based on a study of more than 1,200 women, a bit more than half of them daughters of alcoholic families and the remainder daughters of non-alcoholic families.

If you grew up in a family with addiction, see if some of these resonate… And pass it on to somebody you think it might help.

Did you unintentionally learn any of the following lessons as a daughter in an alcoholic family?

  • If I can control everything, I can keep my family from becoming upset.
  • If I please everyone, everyone will be happy.
  • Whatever happens is my fault, and I am to blame when trouble occurs.
  • People who love you the most are those who cause you the most pain.
  • If I don’t get too close emotionally, you cannot hurt me.
  • My responsibility is to ensure that everyone in the family gets along with each other.
  • Take care of others first.
  • Nothing is wrong, but I don’t feel right.
  • Expressing anger is not appropriate.
  • Something is missing in my life.
  • I’m unique, and my family is different from all other families.
  • I can deny anything.
  • I am not a good person.
  • I am responsible for the success of a relationship.
  • To be acceptable, everything must be perfect.

The other side of the coin: Ackerman says if we have survived our families’ illnesses, we have also learned positive lessons that we may act on less often, or that we may not even have discovered yet. Because we’ve become stuck in survival mode. Here are some positive lessons we may have learned:

  • I’m a survivor. I can survive.
  • I have developed competencies in many areas of my life.
  • I can handle crises.
  • I have a good sense of empathy.
  • I can take care of myself.
  • I’m not easily discouraged.
  • I can find alternatives to problems.
  • I’m not afraid to rely on my abilities.
  • I can be healthy when others are not.
  • I do have choices.
  • People can depend on me.
  • I appreciate my inner strength.
  • I know what I want.
  • I’m a good person.
  • I may not be perfect, but parts of me are great.

“I can be healthy when others are not…” The truth of this struck me today while I was pulling huge weeds in the garden. I’d put my iPod on random play, and a song came on that I used to listen to while I was in withdrawal… a piece of piano music that I used to put on repeat-play, for hours, to calm my nerves until I could get the next refill. One might say, the next “re-up.” The next stash. The next bottle. Like a perfume from a long time ago, like my mother’s Chanel No. 5, the music washed over me and brought back keen memories: I remembered how desperate I used to be toward the end of my addiction, how sick I was, how I used to feel like clawing my own skin off, how I would punch the mattress and scream into pillows in frustration, how I used to sweat and shake, how I used to hide in my room from everyone, whether I was in withdrawal or not—I was always fearful, people always hated me, the cops were always going to arrive at the door, I was always at fault for whatever was happening anywhere. So toward the end I just hid in order to make nothing happen.

I hadn’t heard this song in a while and it’s been quite a while since I’ve been “dope-sick,” two years to be exact, and since then the scales of paranoia and self-seeking have fallen slowly but surely from my skin… So there I was, knee-deep in the weeds I was pulling, covered with honest sweat and soil and sunshine, fit from a summer of cycling and playing tennis, and I’ve been worrying so much about whether I’m doing well enough, whether I’m working hard enough, whether I’m good enough, so many days of “nothing is wrong, but I don’t feel right,” and the piano notes just knocked me over, man. I fell face-first into the grass and as I hit the dirt I thought, This is where my mother is: in the dirt. This is where my father is. I buried both of them.

They can’t watch my kid play soccer today.

They couldn’t celebrate his thirteenth birthday last week.

They’re not here, so: he has no grandparents on this side of the ocean.

But I’m here.

Today, I’m well.

I can be healthy when others are not. Hell, I can be alive.


  1. Hey G,
    These lessons learned have been experienced by some sons of alcoholic families. And the positives on the other side of the coin, they have also been realized in my recovery. Thanks for the insight into myself.

  2. guinevere

    September 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Moe… I don’t doubt that sons of alcoholic families have had these experiences… Ackerman says his finding is that daughters are more likely to talk about their experiences, for whatever reasons. I’m glad you’re one of the sons who are willing to share… Your recovery gives me hope… much love, G

  3. Great post. It sure gets complicated when you are the child of and also the alcoholic!

    I was a little over two years sober when I couldn’t shake that feeling of uneasiness. I couldn’t put my finger on where it was coming from. It lasted for weeks.

    After some work with my sponsor I realized that what was wrong — was that there was nothing wrong! For the first time in my life everything was okay. There was no drama. There was no chaos. I was okay and content.

    I had never felt that before, so it felt like something was “wrong.” The source of my unease was that everything was okay!

  4. I grew up having many of those characteristics. I was the worrier, the one who wanted things to be perfect. I could not achieve that no matter how hard I tried. And I have many of those positive traits as a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home.

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