Monday, March 5, 2007

The ACA Program and How it Works

We find that a difference in identity and purpose distinguishes Adult Children of Alcoholics from other 12-Step Programs and underscores the need for our special focus.

The central problem for ACA's is a mistaken belief, formed in childhood, which affects every part of our lives. As children, we fought to survive the destructive effects of alcoholism, and began an endless struggle to change a troubled, dysfunctional family into a loving, supportive one. We reach adulthood believing we failed, unable to see that no one can stop the traumatic effects of family alcoholism.

Following naturally from this pervasive sense of failure are self-blames, shames and guilt. These self-accusations ultimately lead to self-hate. Accepting our basic powerlessness to control alcoholic behavior, and its effect on the family, is the key that unlocks the inner-child and lets reparenting begin. When the "First Step" is applied to the family alcoholism, a fundamental basis for self-hate no longer exists.

Two characteristics identify the ACA Program. The program is for adults raised in alcoholic homes, and although substance abuse may exist, the focus is on the self, specifically on reaching and freeing the inner-child, hidden behind a protective shield of denial.

The purpose of ACA is three-fold... to shelter and support "newcomers" in confronting "denial"; to comfort those mourning their early loss of security, trust and love; and to teach the skills for re-parenting ourselves with gentleness, humor, love and respect.

Moving from isolation is the first step an Adult Child makes in recovering the self. Isolation is both a prison and a sanctuary. Adult Children, suspended between need and fear, unable to choose between fight or flight, agonize in the middle and resolve the tension by explosive bursts of rebellion or silently enduring the despair. Isolation is our retreat from the pain of indecision. This retreat into denial blunts our awareness of the destructive reality of family alcoholism and is the first stage of mourning and grief. It allows us to cope with the loss of love and to survive in the face of neglect and abuse.

The return of feelings is the second stage of mourning and indicates a healing has begun. Initial feelings of anger, guilt, rage and despair resolve into a final acceptance of loss. Genuine grieving for our childhood ends our morbid fascination with the past and lets us return to the present, free to live as adults.

Confronting years of pain and loss at first seems overwhelming. Jim Goodwin, in describing the post-traumatic stress of Vietnam Veterans, writes that some veterans "actually believe that if they once again allow themselves to feel, that they may never stop crying or may completely lose control..."

Sharing the burden of grief that others feel gives us the courage and strength to face our own bereavement. The pain of mourning and grief is balanced by being able, once again, to fully love and care for someone and to freely experience joy in life.

The need to re-parent ourselves comes from our efforts to feel safe as children. The violent nature of alcoholism darkened our emotional world and left us wounded, hurt and unable to feel. This extreme alienation from our own internal direction kept us helplessly dependent on those we mistrusted and feared.

In an unstable, hostile, and often dangerous environment, we attempted to meet the impossible demands of living with family alcoholism and our lives were soon out of control. To make sense of the confusion, and to end our feelings of fear, we denied inconsistencies in what we were taught. We held rigidly to a few certain beliefs, or we rebelled and distrusted all outside interference.

Freedom begins with being open to love. The dilemma of abandonment is a choice between painful intimacy or isolation, but the consequence is the same, we protect ourselves by rejecting the vulnerable inner-child and are forced to live without warmth or love. Without love, intimacy and isolation are equally painful, empty and incomplete.

Love dissolves self-hate. We give ourselves the love we seek and embrace the lonely child inside. With a child's sensitivity we reach out to explore the world again and become aware of the need to love and trust others.

The warm affection we have for each other heals our inner hurt. ACA's loving acceptance and gentle support lessen our feelings of fear. We share our beliefs and distrust without judgment or criticism. We realize the insanity of alcoholism and become willing to replace the confusing beliefs of childhood with the clear, consistent direction of the 12-Steps and Traditions, and to accept the authority of the loving God they reflect.

ACA's relationship to other anonymous programs is shared dependence on the 12-Steps for a spiritual awakening. Each program's focus is different, but the solution remains the same.

In childhood, our identity is formed by the reflection we see in the eyes of the people around us. We fear losing that reflection... thinking the mirror makes us real and we disappear or have no self without it.

The distorted image of family alcoholism is not who we are. And we are not the unreal person trying to mask that distortion. In ACA we do not stop abusing a substance, or losing ourselves in another. We stop believing we have no worth and start to see our true identity, reflected in the eyes of other Adult Children, as the strong survivors and valuable people we actually are.

Marty S., Identity Committee
Identity, Purpose and Relationship Committee: Roger N., Chairman; Marne C., Claudia P. and Marty S., members.

1 The Etiology of Combat-Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, p.16, Goodwin, Jim, Psy D., DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS, Pub,. Cincinnati.
2 Post traumatic stress is the tension of unresolved grief following the loss of fundamental security.


Check out the Orange County ACA website at: Orange County Adult Children

1 comment:

kristy said...

I think this information helps us understand why we do what we do. We are not, however, "stuck". The 12 step program teaches us to "let God do for us what we cannot do for ourselves".

No matter what our brains are or are not missing, God makes up for everything we are not, if we let Him. It is the "letting Him" that is the hardest. Releasing control and trusting are obstacles carried over from my childhood. But as I learn to let go, I am never sorry but always delighted at the results. Risking just a little pain always goes so far for me in my healing. It is so worth it!

I believe our brains can at least in part readjust by releasing more of the chemicals we are low on if we train ourselves to form new thought patterns. I decide to be thankful and start my day positive, and I'm a pessimist. I am now a much happier person, after a few years of this exercise. But I couldn't and wouldn't want to do it alone. Support is key. And now when I revert to my old ways, I get back on track in a matter of minutes instead of weeks.