Although there are several types of abuse, they all lead to the adult child syndrome. Indeed, child abuse can be considered a person’s original earthquake, while its effects can be equated with its adult aftershocks.
“A child’s integrity means that the child is safe, that his body and mind and soul’s life are nurtured, that he grows neither too fast nor too slow, that he understands trust and laughter and knows that there are a few people in the world who truly care,” according to Kathleen W. Fitzgerald in her book, “Alcoholism: The Genetic Inheritance” (Whales’ Tail Press, 2002, p. 133). “It means that he is whole and that gaping wounds are not inflicted on his body, his mind, his soul.”
This may be the reality of most children, but those who grow up with alcoholism and dysfunction would consider it little more than a theory.
“Adult children are dependent personalities who view abuse and inappropriate behavior as normal,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 18). “Or if they complain about the abuse, they feel powerless to do anything about it. Without help, adult children confuse love and pity and pick partners they can pity and rescue.”
Because the brain always attempts to finish out what was done to it, it transforms the abuse survivor into the rescuer he himself once most needed and the pity he feels for others becomes the transposed emotion from himself to them.
“The essence of child abuse,” according to Fitzgerald in “Alcoholism: The Genetic Inheritance” (p. 133), “is that the integrity and innocence of a child are assaulted by the very person or persons charged with his care.”
“A child’s innocence means,” she continues (p. 133), “that he is introduced to the world when he is ready and that the world, with its guilt and violence and shame, is not allowed to assault him too early, for he is protected. He is treasured, not beaten and burned and raped.”
“Domineering and neglectful adults create unsafe circumstances in different ways, but the end result is always danger for the (child),” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 478). “The danger may be emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual. It manifests itself in many different ways, and even when not apparent, the threat of hurt is always there. Being alert in this constantly dangerous world is exhausting.”
Abuse wears many faces.
“There are different definitions of abuse and neglect and other unhealthy behaviors,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 27). “Our definition is based on adult children facing their abuse and neglect from childhood. For our purposes, (it) can be verbal, nonverbal, emotional, physical, religious, and sexual.”
But it is all damaging.
“We believe that hitting, threats, projections, belittlement, and indifference are the delivery mechanisms that deeply insert the disease of family dysfunction within us,” the textbook continues (p. 27). “We are infected in body, mind, and spirit. Parental abuse and neglect plant the seeds of dysfunction that grow out of control until we get help.”
Abuse is subtly and subconsciously cumulative.
“Child abuse means the sure, steady numbing of young and tender emotions,” wrote Fitzgerald in “Alcoholism: The Genetic Inheritance” (p. 133). “It means that a child has no time for dreams, only nightmares, and that the future is only going to get worse.
“Child abuse means that a young boy or girl believes that the world is basically ugly and violent and that there is really no one to trust. Only yourself. Keep your distance and they can’t hurt you.”
Yet, there is no choice. When you know no other way and the habitual harm you are subjected to falls within what you quickly conclude is normative, it becomes impossible to even understand your precarious situation, especially since no one labels your treatment as boundary-transcending and inappropriate, leaving little escape except the spiritual one, in which you seek protective refuge with creation of the inner child and replace it with the false, synthetic, or pseudo self.
“An alcoholic home is a violent place,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 86). “Alcoholism is a violent solution to the problem of pain, and anyone trapped in its lethal embrace is filled with rage and self-hate for choosing that form of denial. Children exposed to such violence come to believe that they are to accept punishment and abuse as a normal part of existence. They identify themselves as objects of hate, not worthy of love, and survive by denying their underlying feelings of hopeless despair.”
Fitzgerald goes so far to state that “there may be child abuse without alcoholism, but there is no alcoholism without child abuse,” (p. 132).
Forced to field, accept, and absorb their parent’s projected and transferred negativity, they can virtually adopt their persona. Chronically subjected to this transposition, they feel dehumanized and demoralized and anything but worthy and valuable. So overwhelming can these negative emotions become, in fact, that they dissociate from them and often feel null and void.
“(Abuse victims) learn embarrassment, then shame, and finally guilt,” wrote Fitzgerald in “Alcoholism: The Genetic Inheritance” (p. 133). “They learn to split the world into good and bad with no maybes; black and white with no grays. To be abused as a child means to live in a state of chronic shock and to learn a set way of behaving that keeps the shock level bearable.”
So buried can traumatic memories of child abuse become, that recovering adult children may initially be unable to access them.
“… We may be unable to fully recall our abuse, but we have a sense that something happened,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 461). “We have acting out behaviors that seem consistent with abuse, but we are not sure if it occurred. There may be somatic behaviors or a vague uneasiness in certain situations. In other words, there are flashes of images or bits of a story that make one wonder about what might have happened.”
Aside from manifesting itself as addictions, compulsions, catastrophization, hypervigilance, and post-traumatic stress disorder, mounting, retriggering charge can become uncontainable. Left without choice, remedy, or recourse during their upbringings-other than to swallow and suppress the detriment they were subjected to-abused children can progressively reach the point where the dam on the once believed “gone-and-forgotten” past weakens and finally breaks, releasing a flood of hitherto unexpressed and unprocessed emotions. Reduced to puppets, they may realize that they now function with hairpin triggers, acting out and in effect repeating the abusive behavior virtually downloaded in their subconscious minds. Completing the intergenerational link, they may ultimately re-offend their own children, perpetuating the dysfunctional disease.
“Given our dysfunctional upbringings,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 176), “we must realize we could not have turned out differently. Our behavior as adults was scripted from childhood. We repeated what was done to us by our parents… “
Integral, like cellular building blocks, to abuse is the brain’s mechanism of denial-or its uncanny, but very accurate ability to nullify realty.
“Insanity begins when children are compelled to deny the reality of pain and abuse,” states the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 355). “They have no basis for deciding what is real or for knowing how to respond to those around them. They no longer trust authority to guide or protect them from harm.”
Yet they paradoxically take responsibility for their own plights.
“They are paralyzed by indecision and grow to hate themselves for being confused and vulnerable and for needing to be safe and secure,” according to the textbook (p. 355). “They learn to survive by punishing themselves for being vulnerable and by denying their need for love.”
Family system denial serves as the final nail driven into the container of abuse.
“The (family) system allows abuse or other unhealthy behaviors to be tolerated at harmful levels,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook states (p. 22). “Through repetition, abuse is considered normal by those in the family. Because the dysfunction seemed normal or tolerable, the adult child can deny that anything unpleasant (even) happened.”
Added to the dilemma is the necessary loyalty to the abusers who serve as the child’s only channel to food and shelter.
Denial, in no small way, was facilitated by the fundamental, but unspoken “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” rules.
“Growing up in a dysfunctional family meant not trusting what you were seeing or what your parents said,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 192). “Abuse was often minimized or blamed on another cause, which resulted in the child not trusting his or perceptions.”
Damaged, diminished, and demoralized, a child abuse survivor represents a very young version of a soldier, particularly since he is subjected to his earliest detriment when he is psychologically, emotionally, physically, and neurologically undeveloped.
“It is said that… children (who grew up with abuse) show the same anxieties, depression, and confusion as men who fought in a war,” wrote Fitzgerald (p. 134). “And 95 out of every 100 of those children are thrown out into the world with no help, no hope, no healing.”
In what may be the ultimate act of illogical, but subconscious irony, adult children frequently and effortlessly attract those who share similar upbringings, because their behavioral characteristics are familiar to them. Employing what can be considered a sixth sense, they identify the same energy waves in others, detecting a kindred spirit, and enact the philosophy of the late John Bradshaw, who often stated, “When you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”
“Adult children intuitively link up with other adult children in relationships and social settings,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (p. 13). “As bizarre as it sounds, many adult children are attracted to an abusive, addicted person (who) resembles an addicted or abusive parent… Because we confuse love and pity and have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, our abusive relationships ‘fit’ with a subconscious set of traits we are looking for in a mate or significant other.”
Aside from these aspects, abuse shapes an adult child’s life in numerous, multifaceted ways.
He becomes an object of hate. Bombarded by toxic and negative emotions, which transcend his parent’s boundaries and infringe upon him, he fields and feels them.
His sense of safety is shattered. Safety is like an invisible shield of glass that separates him from the harm of others, but which he never knew he had until it was cracked.
His trust becomes tested, if not altogether lost. Like safety, it is another protective, but invisible layer he never thought about until he no longer had it. Before, he just took it for granted. After his initial parental betrayal, however, he is forced to tolerate his brain’s attempt to convince him to flee or seek refuge from what it believes will result in a replay of that betrayal experienced during his initial trauma. If he disregards its message, his emotions may range from mild anxieties to full-fledged explosions. At times it may win the battle and overtake him, leaving him little later-in-life solution but to isolate.
He has unknowingly been transferred to the wrong side of the fence. Instead of believing that he is on the same side of it as his abusive parent, he suddenly finds that he is on the opposite side of it, yet he does not understand how or why. It is from this position that he secondarily realizes that he will now be reduced to this “enemy” role, forced to live as the target of the parent who should theoretically protect him from such dangerous exposure.
During parental retriggerings or out-and-out insanity flare-ups, family member roles are decidedly amended. Instead of being the son or daughter, he or she becomes the victim. Instead of being the parents, they become the predators, and they will unknowingly serve as the original authority figures in the child’s inside, or home-or-origin, world and represent the subconsciously retriggering ones in the adult’s later-negotiated outside world.
In order to survive, he creates the inner child to escape, but this only arrests his development. Although he may physically grow, he remains emotionally and psychologically stunted, with a severed connection to his Higher Power and others, and is often subjected to reactive thoughts.
His necessary brain rewiring causes him to subconsciously adopt the survival traits, and his focus changes from “love” to just “live.”
Before he lost his safety and trust, he considered people anchors. Now, filtering them through abused eyes, he views them as threats, as his polarity reverses from “attract” to “repel.”
His family’s cohesion has equally been juxtaposed. Instead of living in one he once believed was stitched together by love, he realizes that it is often torn apart by fear, denial, and danger, and, after time, that his own thread has been so worn, that it is frayed beyond recognition.
Physiological reactions created by mostly subconscious thoughts of pending doom and danger cause him to raise his guard and prime him to run, resulting in a considerably higher degree of brain stem, fight-or-flight mechanism functioning and manifesting itself in nerve-related maladies and hypervigilance. Considering others, he will most likely bridge the thought from “Will you hurt me” to “When will you hurt me?”
Until and unless he seeks understanding and recovery, interactions with others may, at times, cause him to ride a seesaw throughout life, which pivots on a power play. Either he will sit on the down or victim side or on the up, authority figure one.
Finally, there is the injustice of it all-of having been trapped and captive in an abusive home without remedy or recourse; of being targeted the way his unrecovered and unempathetic parents once were as children; of being the innocent victim they took their anger and destruction out on; and of being forced to carry the burden of it and pay with his suffering.
This is how abuse shapes an adult child’s life.