A Lecture Report by Anthony Wilson
Dr. Claudia Black is a respected American therapist and author of books and videotapes including, Children of Denial, The Process of Recovery, Roles. She gave a lecture in Dublin recently, It Will Never Happen To Me (which is also one of her book titles) thanks to the Adult Child Institute of Ireland. She is known for her pioneering work with Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) believing they have a choice not a script.
In a fast paced, two hour lecture, she described the behaviour, symptoms and some underlying causes and motivations of adults from troubled families, or “families impacted by chronic loss” like those where mental illness, compulsivities, sexual abuse, or rigidity of thought abound. Such people, she says, minimize, discount and rationalize their childhood. They defend against hurt by Denial and they don’t recognize problems, they tolerate abusive behaviour, seek acceptance outside of themselves, rush through life frightened of feelings and closeness and freeze out emotion.
She gave vivid examples of denial of bizarre behaviour. Like the night an unknown, wild-eyed, drunken man burst into her house. He angrily glared at the teenage Claudia and her boyfriend sitting on the sofa as they babysat, and demanded deodorant. She unquestioningly fetched it and he sprayed his underarms and left. She calmly resumed watching television. Her disquieted boyfriend asked who was that? She replied, “Who was who?” The boyfriend asked again. “What’s it to you?” said Claudia. His “normal” response was unwelcome in her family. Denial had become a habit. She spoke of fathers collapsing in alcoholic stupor on the lawn when they came home who were still there in the morning. “Daddy’s camping.” was accepted as normal.
Claudia briefly outlined her recovery programme, which she calls “Four Steps to Freedom”.
1. Exploring the Growing up Years
Clients often struggle with loyalty especially if parents “change their ways”. They own and grieve for what was lost, with exercises like finishing incomplete sentences, “I’m angry that …”, “It hurt when …” “It wasn’t fair that …” The aim is to put the past behind.
2. Connecting the Growing up Years to Today
Client’s explore how experience influences them, for instance, making decisions or owning feelings.
3. Challenging the “shoulds”
Clients dump unhelpful internalizations such as “No one will listen to me” or “Everybody is out to get me.”
4. Learning Skills
Clients need skills like setting limits, active listening, expressing feelings, assertiveness, etc. Claudia says, “Some control” is needed, not rigid and total control. This step won’t help if the other three haven’t been worked through.
She humorously demonstrated the defensive, larger-than-life smile of some Adult Children. Then Claudia had us do the widest, cheesiest smile ever. Some ACOAs adopt this to signal that they are nice people, who love everybody and won’t bite. We had to hold this smile for about half a minute. Then Claudia said, “If your cheek muscles hurt, you’re in recovery.”
Afterwards we bought one of Dr. Black’s books, “Repeat After Me” (where does she get her titles from?) with exercises on her four steps. She inscribed it “To Sandra and Anthony hoping this may offer further freedom. Claudia Black.” Perhaps many of us are either a recovering ACOA or an ACOA in denial, for who has not been wounded? “Normal” families have plenty of abnormalities and who has ever heard of a “functional” family?
It was a good evening and encouraging to listen to this expert. Once again I reflected on the ills that were done to me and the ills I pass on to my children. Thank you for visiting us, Claudia. Thank you Adult Child Institute for inviting her.