My grandfather was an alcoholic for most of his adult life. Like many alcoholics, he was functional during the day and drunk at night. My mother recently told me that she never had a meaningful conversation with her father. As a young girl, she tried to get rid of her dad’s alcohol and even went to their pastor to seek help for him.
Like many others, mom’s life was deeply affected by the loss of a healthy father-daughter relationship. Some, like mom, overcome their loss and live healthy lives. But many others never gain freedom and send their pain into the next generation.
After years of counseling others, I am convinced that most personal problems have strong connections with what I call the eighteen-year factor. This is the amount of time lived in one’s family of origin. These are defining years when we learn and experience many things that we carry with us for life.
If you grew up in a functionally healthy home, you received a gift that is becoming increasingly rare. But if your eighteen-year factor was disrupted by a significant negative experience, it could adversely affect your security, identity and future relationships. Traumatic experiences like loss of a parent or sibling, the divorce of your parents or sexual abuse, are life altering. But you must be honest about your past and the way it affected you.
Families plagued with severe dysfunctions are also especially damaging to children. If you lived under an alcoholic parent or in an atmosphere of physical or emotional abuse, or with significant neglect of nurture and discipline, your life has been deeply affected–usually beyond what you probably realize.
Emotionally aloof fathers or parents who withhold affirmation and acceptance leave deep deficits in the lives of their children. It’s not uncommon for men of all ages to battle issues related to a bad father-son relationship. And women are especially vulnerable to future instability when their fathers withhold affection and affirmation. Many pursue unhealthy male relationships. Some battle deep feelings of inadequacy and a continual sense that something is missing. Others struggle with anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.
Children develop protective mechanisms to shield themselves from pain when forced to deal with things they lack the maturity to handle. They’re often unaware of these protective instincts when they carry them into adulthood. But, in adulthood, protective mechanisms no longer protect; they destroy.
A tendency to shut down emotionally may protect a child in an abusive home, but when the same response emerges in adult relationships, it becomes harmful. Children of alcoholic parents often become enablers and co-dependents. Others find relief in anger or excessive efforts to control life. But all of these protective responses are damaging to future relationships.
Those who carry protective mechanisms into adulthood often don’t understand why they feel and act as they do. They usually remain unaware of the real effects of their upbringing until they enter intimate relationships with other adults — especially marriage. The walls they built to shield them from hurtful experiences in childhood often hinder them from enjoying meaningful and mature adult relationships.
The damages from an unhealthy eighteen-year factor must be identified for the path of healing and restoration to be effective. Although it seems easier to pretend that you have not been affected by your upbringing, denial always makes matters worse. It also assures that the next generation will continue to be hurt and perhaps perpetuate the damage.
Overcoming a problem can only begin when we admit we have it and recognize how it’s affecting (and perhaps hurting) us and those around us. Confront yourself with the truth. Do not allow yourself to drift into a state of loss by never dealing honestly with the damage done to you. Do not hide behind superficial clichés no matter how spiritual they might sound. Change is rarely an overnight accomplishment.
Overcoming a significantly dysfunctional past often requires assistance from a wise counselor. But first we must allow those closest to us to help us to see our walls and our defense mechanisms. Usually the hardest part of this is the vulnerability it requires. Those who have lived with neglect or abuse find it difficult to trust others and their fears sadly hold them in defensive postures. Their loss is multiplied as they never learn the joy of intimate relationships.
One of the dangers in identifying the failures and neglect of one’s parents is the temptation toward self-pity. When I asked my mom how she overcame her past, she said she refused to allow self-pity to control her life. She said, “I think too many people just wallow in their hurts and allow them to ruin their lives.”
The only thing we can change about the past is how we let it affect us in the future.
It’s sometimes hard to recognize that when we choose anger and bitterness, we double our loss and extend the effects of the evil done against us. I’ve observed many people who hold tightly to cherished resentments as a means of dealing with their painful experiences.
I encourage people to recognize how resentment at least indicates a level of emotional connection with the reality of one’s past and could become a catalyst to freedom. But resentment also offers a false feeling of control through a kind of emotional retaliation. Feelings of resentment can only lead to freedom and true control if processed in God-honoring way. This often requires the assistance of a wise counselor.
Mom’s father was not a violent alcoholic and she realizes it would be harder to overcome worse circumstances. A big part of her victory is her faith in Jesus Christ. Mom turned to Christ when I was eleven years old. In the early days of her faith, she thanked God for allowing her to have an alcoholic father and asked God to use her experience to help others. Beyond her eleven children, mom has had many spiritual children. These are people who look to her regularly for guidance. Mom’s life verse is:
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (III John 4).
Note: My grandfather trusted in Christ shortly before his death and experienced a short but sincere conversion.