I first entered a room of recovery in the 1980s through a door marked “Al-Anon Meeting” that was in a huge AA 24-hour club outside of Houston, Texas. I attended every week—as ordered by my sponsor—for months. I couldn’t disagree with her orders because I was carrying all the characteristics listed in the Laundry List 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, including:
A. We became isolated and afraid of authority figures and
B. We became people-pleasers and lost our identities in the process.
The woman who took me to my first meeting was my mother’s sponsor at the time. I come from a dysfunctional family and struggled with my self-worth. My mother was the primary alcoholic in my life and struggled fiercely with her dis-ease. I met her one evening “by accident” at my mother’s house. She took one look at me and said, “I’ll pick you up on Wednesday evening. We’re going to a meeting. And, by the way, I’m your sponsor. We have a lot of work to do.”
After some months in the Al-Anon Family Groups meeting (where I never shared, never spoke, and barely listened), my brother called (from Michigan) and said, “I know where we belong. Find an ACA meeting and start going!” He mailed me a copy of the ACA pamphlet, which I have kept all these years.
I couldn’t argue with my brother. He was older than I, and I adored him, but I highly resented all this time spent going to these meetings. After all, there was laundry to be done and school lunches to be made. I resented the interruptions. I had recently given birth to my fourth child, and as ACAs approval seekers, there are common characteristics of the disease such as. . .
F. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than our responsibilities to ourselves.
There is a way out
The night I changed rooms, left the Al-Anon step program, and walked into ACA, cracks in my dam, my symptoms of the family disease of alcoholism, began forming almost immediately. As one of the ACA newcomers, hearing the Laundry List (also called The Problem) read aloud for the first time felt like the proverbial ice water in the face, and my own life took a dramatic turn. Over the years, I’ve heard the same thing from newcomers, over and over again: Had someone been hiding in our closets for years and taking down our similar characteristics and then publishing it for all the world to see?
C. We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.
D. We often become addicted, marry someone addicted or both, or we find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our abandonment needs.
E. We live life from the viewpoint of victims and are attracted by that weakness in our love, friendship, and career relationships.
G. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves rather than giving into others.
H. We became addicted to excitement, preferring constant upset to workable relationships.
I. We confuse love with pity and tend to ‘love’ people we can ‘pity’ and rescue.
J. We have stuffed our feelings from our traumatic childhoods and have lost the ability to feel or express our feelings because it hurts so much. This includes our good feelings such as joy and happiness. Our being out of touch with our feelings is one of our basic denials.
K. We judge ourselves without mercy and have a very low sense of self-esteem.
L. We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold onto a relationship in order to not experience painful abandonment feelings. We received this from living with people who are emotionally inconsistent toward us.
M. Addiction is a family disease. We became co-dependents and took on the characteristics of that disease. We learned to keep our feelings down as children and kept them buried as adults. Co-dependents are reactors rather than actors, letting others take the initiative.
Looking over the traits in the Laundry List is the best and easiest way to discover if one would benefit from attending an Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families meeting (ACA or ACOA). We begin by acknowledging that we have been living our lives under the influence of these characteristics of childhood trauma that developed in us as children growing up in alcoholic environments and dysfunctional homes. Living with alcoholic families and substance use disorders creates low self-esteem, among other issues.
These traits were used as survival mechanisms and served us well as children in our dysfunctional household, but when we carried them into our adulthoods, we continued to lead lives that found us using the following characteristics:
making poor decisions in our relationships,
denying our true feelings (being inauthentic),
feeling like victims,
creating and reinforcing chaos,
possibly becoming substance abusers,
and, in general, more often than not, feeling as if life is not worth living.
The ACA program is a safe place and recognizes that most adult children are suffering from a state of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) brought on by the harmful effects of their childhood experiences.
AA got started in 1935. (Thank you, Dr. Bob and Bill W!) Over the years, friends of alcoholics started recovery groups from their own pain, such as Al-Anon, Al-Ateen, NA, GA, SAA, CA, CODA (and more) 12-Step programs. Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families started meeting about 1975 and became official in 1978. All kinds of folks have benefitted from these various 12-Step programs.
Of course, my view comes from the ACA perspective. This program has saved my sanity and my life. So, I’ll leave you with something we say in ACA all the time: Go into AA, and you can stop drinking (or using). Go into ACA, and you can figure out why you got drunk in the first place.
Note: The ACA “big book” is Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families, published in 2006 by Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. When quoting from this book, we are calling it the Big Red Book (its nickname) or the BRB.
Note: I am using the original wording of the Laundry List Traits as written in an ACA pamphlet created in the 1980s. When the Big Red Book was published in 2006, some of the wording was slightly changed, and the Traits were numbered, not lettered.
Written by: Caren S.
If you or someone you know has suffered severe trauma from someone's alcohol addiction when you were growing up, please reach out to a group member of ACA. The lasting effects of growing up in a home with substance abuse disorder can last years. You can also find official literature on the Adult Children of Alcoholics website.
If you are looking for addiction treatment centers for yourself or a loved one, SoberSpeak has a resource for you. By calling 888-831-4586, you'll be in touch with a free service that will find you the best possible solution.
Helpful links for addiction:
SAMHSA Treatment Finder at SAMHSA.gov
National Institute On Drug Abuse at DrugAbuse.gov
Mental Health & Substance Abuse at USA.gov