The Mighty Logo

Why Some Adult Children of Alcoholics Actually Feel Quite Calm Right Now

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

I followed the coronavirus (COVID-19) with a great deal of anxiety as early as January. I was sure it would reach my country and cause havoc, and I spent a lot of time ranting to my friends and family about how they should prepare.

But once it actually arrived, once we went on lockdown and I could no longer see my friends and family, or get the fresh food I needed, I felt a strange sense of calmness and I adapted to the situation quite quickly. The world is in total chaos, and most people I know are struggling to cope with the fear of either themselves or a loved one dying. Or the isolation and change to their daily routine. I understand the dangers, but for some reason, those threats being real don’t scare me as much as the potential of something going wrong when things are good. Having problems to face, such as getting food for my family and protecting my elderly relatives, makes me feel safe.

I am certainly not more resilient than most; in fact, I often find small problems quite difficult to deal with. I am the type of person who gets easily rattled about things. So why am I coping with this better than most of my friends? And why are many of my adult children of alcoholic friends having a similar experience?

I think the answer lies in my childhood. For many of us who grew up with alcoholic parents, there were no good times. Sure, there were times when we went on lovely beach holidays. There were fun mornings on Christmas. Happy times playing in the garden with my friends. But those times were riddled with anxiety. I would be hypervigilant, waiting for a warning sign things were about to turn. Sometimes, the better things were, the more fearful I would be. As anyone who has gotten drunk knows, alcohol has a peak. After the first couple of drinks, you may start to feel warm and bubbly, which may progress into a more euphoric feeling. If you continue to drink past this point (which many of us often do, as alcohol makes you lose your inhibitions), it’s common to get angry after taking something the wrong way, or break down into tears, or act in some other inappropriate way. This can be extremely frightening for children to witness, and devastating to their development if they see their parents drunk more often than they see them sober.

So, as adult children of alcoholics, in normal situations, we often have a background hypervigilance something terrible might happen. If things are going really well, it can trigger that red light in our brains that says, “Uh oh, everyone’s in a great mood, something bad is going to happen, this is too good.”

Trouble comes, we deal with it and then our alcoholic parent will usually disappear to bed, or pass out on the sofa and leave us in peace. At which point we know we are finally safe. We can be calm. We can talk on the phone to our friends, or play with our toys without having to worry about the alcoholic kicking something off.

Understanding this, it’s not surprising being in lockdown, away from the bad thing — in this case, the virus — is not so troubling to us adult children of alcoholics. Our brains recognize this is an OK part of the pattern. We are thinking, “Well it can’t get much worse.” And I will not be surprised if when this is all over, and things become easier, we start panicking something will go wrong again. It doesn’t actually make us safe from the virus and its effects on our family, but sadly, the human brain isn’t perfectly rational.

I’m using this time to really evaluate this side of myself. After all, it means we can’t ever fully enjoy enjoyable things. We deserve more than to feel anxious in happy moments. Maybe some of us even seek bad times so we feel like we don’t have to worry about what might happen anymore.

I believe, as with all the traits that come with being an adult child of alcoholic, sometimes just being aware it’s something we do is enough to break free of it. Just knowing the reasoning behind our thinking, and that it is not logical or helpful for our current situation, is enough. We need to revisit the child inside us with some adult rationality.

And so, I am telling my inner child: “You are in a different situation now. I have moved us to a predictable environment. You are safe to feel your feelings.”

We deserve better than to have crisis mode as our safe place. We deserve to feel joy as a positive feeling and not a warning something bad is about to happen.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Unsplash image by Brooke Cagle

Originally published: May 8, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home