A recent rummage through a drawer I had disregarded for some time revealed old documents and greeting cards, the latter for occasions such as birthdays and holidays. They were not ones I had received, but had given. Somehow compelled by one, I opened it. It was to my father and the stick-like print I had once used, yet had long forgotten, indicated my childhood handwriting. What was more significant, however, was the sentiment inside.
“Daddy, I love you,” it said.
Immobilized, I felt caught between the child I once was and the adult I became after having endured an unstable, unsafe, and sometimes predatory, para-alcoholic upbringing.
“Daddy, I love you,” I read again.
Who, I wondered, was the person who wrote that? My life with my father apparently began that way. But, sadly, it did not end that way. Where, I wondered, had the love gone?
Like a growing weed, the disease of dysfunction had evidently encircled and strangled my soul, squeezing it from what it was into what it was not.
A look back at the painful path I was forced to follow provided many clues as to why.
My father, enacting the same abuse patterns on me that were directed at him as a child victimized by a raging alcoholic, had no understanding of the origins of his behavior, was ignorant of the difference between right and wrong, had no empathy or feeling for the harm he inflicted on me, and was just as drained of love as I.
“As children and teens, we were not given a true or consistent example of love,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 6). “So how can we know (it) or recognize it as adults? Our parents shamed us or belittled us for being vulnerable children. In their own confusion, they called it love. They passed on what was done to them, thinking they were being caring parents. What many adult children described as love or intimacy… was actually codependence or rigid control.”
One adult child stated that his parents “said they loved him, but he could not remember feeling safe or loved as a child (ibid, p. 270). “His alcoholic father threatened the family and cursed his children.”
Trying to grow up and develop as a person in the midst of such conditions is like trying to build a 100-story skyscraper in the midst of a hurricane. Discerning love within it is equally difficult, especially within and between episodes of verbal, emotional, and sometimes physical abuse.
“In order to feel as loving as we can within a relationship, we need to feel safe, and we cannot feel safe while being emotionally bullied or manipulated,” according to Peter R. Breggin in “Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions” (Prometheus Books, 2014, p. 228). “Love grows amid security and trust, and it tends to be withdrawn in their absence.”
Personal perception, as has often been said, is the determinant of reality, and repeated parental transgressions create hairpin triggers in a child and, ultimately, in an adult child, causing him to distrust his reality and robbing him of his trust in others, many of whom represent parent-displaced authority figures later in life.
“We do not need to be objectively correct when we perceive that someone is bullying or manipulating us,” Breggin continues (ibid, p. 228). “Our personal viewpoint is what counts. If we feel emotionally harmed, we have the right to act upon our feelings by demanding a stop to it or by removing ourselves.”
Those captively subjected to such treatment during childhood had no choice but to endure it, however, progressively diminished and whittled down by caregivers who served as their most important role models. That this was administered by such people only adds to the distorted definition of “love.”
“When confronted with the effects of verbal and emotional abuse… , we usually resist,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (op. cit., p.30). “We could not believe that people who said they loved us or cared for us would lie. If we were called lazy, disgraceful, or shameful, it must (have been) true, since the words came from the most important people in our lives. If we keep an open mind, we learn that this was verbal abuse presented as love, but a loving parent does not say those things to a child.”
Although children do not question their detrimental and demeaning treatment, deluding themselves into believing that it is due to their own inadequacy and flaws, it is a thin veil for parental deficiency–and a very betraying one at that.
“Love may have hurt you,” writes Breggin (op. cit., pp 222-223). “Love may have disappointed you. Love may have betrayed you. Betrayals in your family or church may have made you distrust anyone who speaks the word ‘love’ or refers to a loving God. Your pastor may have threatened you with hell, and your father may have told you that you were dammed. Having lost love too many times, you may have descended into chronic anger or numbness.”
Enduring an alcoholic and abusive upbringing is nothing short of insanity, which is virtually the opposite of love.
“It is impossible to be loving and insane at the same moment in time,” Breggin points out (ibid, p. 244). “This is because love connects us to people, and insanity is all about disconnection from people.”
Tool-less and undeveloped, an infant, defenseless against this insanity, seeks protection and refuge through the only channel available to him-namely, by burying himself deeply within, creating the cocooned inner child, which, unless realized and understood, remains timelessly suspended at the moment of creation for the duration of his life. It is replaced with the pseudo self, which, as a false construct, is unable to genuinely connect with others and God, who is the very essence of love. Like a smokescreen, it processes it as skewed static, unable to internalize it.
Alcoholism, a significant cause of this survival-augmenting action, annihilates.
“The cost of our continued allegiance to alcoholism is the loss of our ability to love,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (op. cit., p. 357). “We lose our capacity to give and receive as a result of failing to resolve the violent conflicts that threatened to destroy our families. We internalize these conflicts and carry them into adulthood, constantly seeking to control the unmanageable chaos inside.”
Unstable upbringings breed codependence, a disease of lost selfhood, that causes a person to “plug into” others in an effort to gain attention, affirmation, and love, usually from those, just like his parents, who cannot provide it.
“Our experience shows that the codependent rupture, which creates an outward focus to gain love or affirmation, is created by a dysfunctional childhood,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 60). “… This soul rupture is the abandonment by our parents or caregivers. The abandonment sets us up for a life of looking outward for love and safety that never comes.”
“Love is the world’s most precious spiritual commodity,” Breggin states (op. cit., p. 222). “At the very core of our being lies the capacity and desire to love and be loved.”
“(However), all the pain and suffering seemingly associated with (it) has to do with the flawed ways in which we human beings relate to each other,” he concludes (ibid, p. 244).
As I place the card back in the drawer, I know that I have been the product of all of this, and realize that the presence and absence of love constituted the differences between the father I had and the one I lost.
“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.
Breggin, Peter R. “Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions.” Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2014.