An alcoholic parent is an absent parent in an emotional sense. Unavailability of a parent may have causes other than alcohol, for instance physical absence from the family home for long periods or mental disorders. Adult Children of Alcoholics are people who come from a dysfunctional home. One or both parents was simply not “good enough”.
The Wounded Healer archetype is a strong and necessary influence in selfhelp groups, like ACOA. But The Wounded Healer is one who has been healed. Many ACOAs are wary of seeking professional help. Paul Curtin writing for ACOA therapists, offers this opinion,
‘Just as there were many Catholic girls in 1945 who, upon seeing the movie “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, wanted to join the convent as a way of instantly fulfilling themselves, there will be many ACOAs who, upon reading this, will want to become ACOA therapists in order to heal themselves. Don’t do it! Knowledge and helping others is no substitute for personal recovery and healing. The helping professions are filled with ACOAs who are helping others while not being able to receive help themselves!’
‘This is not to say that the thirst for knowledge of ACOAs should be stifled. I am merely proposing that it be used in a self-enhancing, rather than a self-defeating, manner. This book will be of value to non-professional ACOAs only if it provides them with validation of their experience, insight into their behaviour, and an incentive to receive appropriate help.’1
Carl Jung puts it brutally and graphically, telling us that the physician with a running abscess isn’t fit to perform a surgical operation. He expresses the problem more compassionately when he says,
‘What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least amongst them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness – that I myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then?’2
Here two experts on ACOA talk about the problem. I spoke with Mike Garde3 about the characteristics of ACOAs and what happens at their meetings. Mike also spoke about seeking professional help. I then met Alan O’Dwyer  We discussed the spiritual dimension of the ACOA movement. For Alan the main purpose of the ACOA group is supportive and hope giving.
Anthony Wilson: What is ACOA?
Mike Garde: It is a syndrome whereby people who grow up in an alcoholic family have a particular set of feelings that they need to get in touch with because of growing up in that atmosphere. What we’ve also discovered is that alcoholism is only the tip of the iceberg. If the parents were dysfunctional in some way – it doesn’t matter if it was drink, there’s other dysfunctions, like over-exaggerated religion, sexuality, politics – people find they have exactly the same symptoms and identify with the same core issues as those that grew up in an alcoholic family.
AW: What are the origins of ACOA ?
MG: This movement started in the States for people who found that Al-Anon was not specific enough, whereas ACOA is for the adult children of alcoholics and dysfunctional people. Alan O’Dwyer, Odette Thompson and others began to recognise in their work with people whom they were counselling how much the syndrome of the ACOA was affecting people. ACOA started in Ireland in February, 1987 at the Hanley Centre in Dun Laoghaire after Barbara Feinstein came over to give some talks. The next group was in Trinity the following year. From there the groups have mushroomed all round the country. There are meetings in various parts of Dublin at the moment, there’s also Limerick and Belfast and Galway.
At the moment it’s got an inner group which is sometimes more functional than others. Because they are dealing with dysfunctional people the groups can find themselves getting to the point where they are dysfunctional themselves. There’s a need for a continuous reassessment and going back to basics. Some people seem to object to people going to professionals who may have some insights. Some people have an antiprofessional approach. Others are willing to learn as much as they can from professionals.
Alan O’Dwyer, George Kelly and Gwen Kelly started special six week courses on the Adult Child Syndrome. They recently set up the Adult Child Institute to try and correlate information and to go the schools to help to give people background information about these issues.
AW: Could you tell us some of the characteristics that Adult Children share?
MG: Yeah, one of them would be guessing at what normal is. If you’ve grown up in a family where there wasn’t much attention due to alcohol you really find it difficult to know what normality is. You would tend to say things like, ‘There is no such thing as a normal person; that’s an illusion.” Another thing would be the tendency to get into projects and not finish them because there was nobody around when you were a child to help you develop things. So you tend to start things and not finish them. Another is tendency to overeating. Another complaint that can also develop is problems with intimacy; a tendency to see intimacy as the same as sex. Problems with compulsive or impulsive behaviour patterns – that would be very much a common trend among Adult Children of Alcoholics. Another is extremes – either over-responsible or totally irresponsible: controlling or letting go of everything.
AW: Would you share how ACOA has affected you in your own life?
MG: For me, it came out first of all not in the family context, because I was living away from my family, but in a religious community. I found it very difficult to identify feelings. Feelings are no-no in an Adult Child situation. Also I had a tendency to over intellectualize. ACOA has brought me back to be able to identify and express feelings.
AW: What might happen at an ACOA group meeting?
MG: Commonly you’d have the reading of some literature like The Problem and the Solution, an ACOA text which identifies the problem of the Adult Child Syndrome. It says we tried to get help from professionals who didn’t understand us or gave us drugs or whatever it was instead of listening. Or because they didn’t come from that background they imposed a certain structure onto us which wasn’t safe for us. We then would have a reading of the Twelve Steps of ACOA which are very similar to AA and Al-Anon. There would be an emphasis on not interrupting people so we don’t experience what we did as children where we were never allowed by our parents to speak our words. We allow people to get their stuff out. The danger is sometimes you can get somebody who is not very well who may speak for twenty-five minutes and not give other people space. That’s always a tension. It’s open within the sixty minutes for anybody to share about their experience of growing up or a problem they’re facing at that particular time at work or in a relationship or that kind of stuff.
A W: Do you think there’s any danger someone could become addicted to going to ACOA meetings?
MG: You should go to five or six meetings before you make a decision whether this is right or wrong for you. It depends on what stage you’re at. Obviously a person fresh into it does need more than one meeting a week. I’ve been in it a number of years. I find one meeting a week quite adequate. A lot of my own work at this stage is Twelve Step work, helping new people who need support. Whereas for someone who’s just come in, who really is just getting in touch with this area, going to a number of meetings would be a way of getting in touch with stuff and helping them to make the adjustment. The problem I find is that some people who actually need to get professional help are really going round in a circle of just repeating themselves endlessly in many meetings. There’s no better way to help yourself than selfhelp meetings but if you’re just repeating endlessly stuff that you haven’t really got in touch with then it actually can become not beneficial in the long run.
AW: Do Adult Children have their own individual sponsor? MG: Theoretically they should have but sponorship is an area than hasn’t developed as well as in the other Twelve Step groups. It’s a weakness. Service has become a weakness. Often you’ll find that one person will do too many jobs and then get burnt out and then disappear altogether. Because it’s not as old a tradition as the other ones there’s been a lack of solidity. I would say that we need to confess to some weaknesses in the groups.
AW: If people think they might be affected by ACOA and they would like to read a book about it first, are there any good books available?
MG: I would recommend Twelve Steps for ACOA. That’s a good one. It goes through the syndrome. Also Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz and I am an adult who grew up in an alcoholic family by Tom Perrin.
Anthony Wilson: Please talk to us about ACOA, Alan.
Alan O’Dwyer: The main thrust of the Twelve Step organizations is the spiritual dimension. This enables people to get in touch with their sense of God as they understand him. Professionals would tend not to do that. Professionals would tend to follow a parallel route, but they would tend not to get involved with the spiritual.
AW: A Jungian would know the importance of the spiritual.
AOD: O, of course they would! One of Jung’s main driving forces was the spiritual. If you’re going to a psychiatrist or a psychologist or an analyst or a counsellor or a therapist for help, and they happen to be spiritual in themselves, they will be dealing with you in a spiritual way. Whilst it won’t be necessarily on the agenda, the spiritual in the client would pick up the spiritual in the professional.
AW: What do you mean by spiritual?
AOD: That’s a hard one! It has nothing to do with religion. Religion, in a way is mainly a type of spiritual materialism. “Big Mac” for the fearful. If you just make them more afraid and tell them that you’ll get them into heaven if they’re really good. “Do what I tell you and you will be saved”. The pure spirit would be where you’re beginning to trust in the fact that you’re alive and that there is a power out there somehow that continues to help you to breathe and that your heart keeps ticking without any conscious effort on your part. Somehow you’re part of a bigger plan even though you don’t understand it. Trying to define the spiritual is almost trying to define the indefinable. I would be at a loss for words. It’s more of a feeling and an intuition. It wouldn’t be very logical
AW: Would you say that an ACOA, selfhelp group does do some therapy as it works along?
AOD: It does, but it’s only a very gratifying by-product. The whole idea of ACOA is for people to get together and share their experience, their strength and their hope. Not to direct each other anywhere; just to follow the principles of the Twelve Steps.
There are quite a lot of Twelve Step groups: AA, Al-Anon, Al-Ateen, Gamblers Anonymous and Gam Anon – GA is for the gamblers, Gam Anon is for the wives and families. CODA – Co-dependents Anonymous. NA -Narcotics Anonymous, and there’s Nar Anon, for the families. Then there’s SLAA – Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. There’s a couple of those around, but they’re fairly new. Survivors of Incest Anonymous. Then you’d have Overeaters Anonymous which caters for all forms of eating disorders, whether it’s anorexia or overeating.
Emotions Anonymous is another one “I’m powerless over my emotions and my life has become unmanageable.” The First Step is always,
“I am powerless over … we’ll say, “alcohol”… and my life has become unmanageable.”
Once they acknowledge that, they stop fighting it. Then when they surrender they start to move forward. This is the spiritual thing. They let go and they let some other power, greater than themselves, have a go.
Twelve Step groups tend, for the greater part, to remain anonymous. They tend not to get involved with publicity. Whereas they are available and they would give talks, they would tend to play it down because one of the barriers to recovery is people trying to “fix” other people. Trying to “sell” various programmes.
I used the word, “sell”, like trying to persuade people that there is only one way to get sober and that is with AA. Of course, there are many ways to get sober. A A is probably the best one that I would know, but there are many ways. And of course there’s Adult Children of Alcoholics – and dysfunctional families. So there’s quite a range.
Interviews by Anthony Wilson
1. Curtin, P. (1985) Tumbleweeds: a therapist’s guide to treatment of ACOAs. page 4, Quotidian, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
2. Jung, C. G. (1933) Psychotherapists or the Clergy, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, page 235, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
3. Mike, who was born in South Africa, has lived in Ireland for thirty four years. He has a Maynooth theological training. Mike has been involved with ACOA since its foundation in Ireland. Currently the Field Worker and “cult” consultant with the Dialogue Centre for New Religious Movements at 7-8 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 2 (Veritas building) which works with all Churches, Mike is contactable at 01-878 81 77.
Alan O’Dwyer is an Executive Member of the Irish Association of Counselling and Therapy and a founder director of the Adult Child Institute. He has provided support, education and counselling systems for ACOAs, depressed parents and dysfunctional families for some twenty years. Alan used to be a publican. He trained at the Institute of Psychosynthesis. He runs several courses including “Breaking the Cycle” and “Passport to who I am.” Alan is contactable at 01-494 4222.