Fueled by Fear: An Adult Child’s Life

Fear, an internal indicator that danger is present, attempts to drive the person away from it. But for an adult child, whose development was arrested by constant exposure to alcoholism- or para-alcoholism-caused detriment, it may be persistent later in life and not rationally based. It is, however, what defines him. what causes him to avoid what may seem mundane and safe experiences others regularly enjoy, and erodes the quality of his life. Indeed, these manifestations reflect one of the adult children of alcoholics (ACA) survival traits, which states that “We became addicted to excitement (fear) in all our affairs.”

“Adult children often live a secret life of fear,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 10). “Fear, or sometimes terror, is one of the connecting threads that link the 14 (laundry list survival) traits. Two of the first three traits describe our fear of people. While many adult children appear cheerful, helpful, or self-sufficient, most live in fear of their parents and spouses in addition to fearing an employer… They have a sense of impending doom or that nothing seems to work out. Even the seemingly bold adult child who shows bravado can be covering up a deep sense of feeling unsafe or unlovable. At the core of these thoughts is usually the fear of being shamed or abandoned.”

“I suspect that if I reclaimed all the minutes, hours, and days I’ve sacrificed to worry and fear, I’d add years to my life,” echoes Al-Anon’s “Courage to Change” text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p. 10). “When I succumb to worry, I open a Pandora’s box of terrifying pictures, paranoid voices, and relentless self-criticism. The more I pay attention to this mental static, the more I lose my foothold in reality. Then nothing useful can be accomplished.”

So frequently is fear generated, that adult children are forced to negotiate the world with it, plowing through “dangerous” situations which defy logic and wrestling with it as if it were an internal enemy. Ultimately fueled by it, they harness it, as it courses through their veins just as often as does blood.

Constantly exposed to unstable, unpredictable, and even harmful home environments during their upbringings because of alcoholic, para-alcoholic, and dysfunctional parents or primary caregivers, they believe that the detrimental, developmentally-arresting experience sets the stage for what will continue in the world-at-large. This was, after all, all they knew and no one even identified the behavior as abnormal or abusive. Failing to acknowledge it, their caregivers denied it into nonexistence, and any attempt to expose it was hushed or shamed so that all the members who comprised the family system ensured its perpetuation, as if it had gathered a life of its own. That this betraying, negligent, and detrimental behavior bred mistrust is an understatement.

Subconsciously retriggered into acting out the abuse from their own chaotic upbringings, these parents animatedly demonstrated what was done to them, functioning from stored, unprocessed harm. Reduced to the sporadic, unpredictable repetitions they themselves once received during Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality shifts, they most likely doled out shame, blame, and abuse.

“We came to see our parents as authority figures who could not be trusted,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook continues (op. cit., p. 11). “We transfer that fear to our adult lives, and we fear our employers, certain relations, and group situations. We fear authority figures or become an authority figure.”

Although this occurs on the subconscious level, children learn to internalize their parent’s behavior and it places them on the road to becoming adult children as a result of the unresolved fears, emotions, and reactions that took root within this breeding ground.

Frequently gripped by them, they can be overtaken by these volatile, physiological sensations, forced to filter others and the world through them and creating a dynamic in which they fear people, places, and things.

“Worry and fear can alter our perceptions and we lose all sense of reality, twisting neutral situations into nightmares,” according to “Courage to Change” (op. cit., p. 150). “Because most worry focuses on the future, if we can learn to stay in the present, living one day or one moment at a time, we take positive steps toward warding off fear… When we anticipate doom, we lose touch with what is happening now and see the world as a threatening place against which we must be on constant alert.”

Hypervigilance is the term that expresses this state. The amygdala, the two almond-shaped nuclei that are located at the end of the hippocampus and are part of the limbic system, are responsible for emotional responses, especially and particularly fear, commanding the body’s physical functions so that the person can optimally avoid or combat the perceived danger. Continually scanning the environment, they initiate this response via two routings. The first, the shorter of them, commences in the thalamus, which receives sensory stimuli long before the person is even aware of them and can figure out what form the potential harm assumes. The second, the longer of them, routes from the medial prefrontal cortex, the bran’s area that is concerned with the first phase of fear, enabling it to react and choose what it considers the most effective safety- and survival-promoting course of action.

After the amygdala processes the sensory signals, it generates fear, which itself produces an autonomic response. Physiologically, the body is flooded with adrenalin and stress hormones that result in increased heart and blood pressure rates and involuntary muscle control.

Preparing the body to fight or flight, it produces an overload which does not subside until the danger has been eliminated. In its extreme, it produces post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), since the system, repeatedly exposed to safety- or survival-threatening circumstances, has been unable to clear itself from or reregulate itself of the original overload and believes that the danger is chronically present. It also leads the person to believe that his trauma will imminently recur.

Adult children endure these internal, very unsettling sensations, to a greater or lesser degree, on an almost-daily basis, usually without even understanding why.

There can be no greater danger than being exposed to unstable, harmful parents who, for no reason within the powerless child’s understanding, have suddenly been transformed into his predators or enemies.

Present-time fear, the emotion that primed him to survive such circumstances, indicates the recreation of the multitude of uneven parental power plays he was subjected to as a child in adulthood and becomes so prevalent that it almost reaches addiction levels. It was, after all, how he survived.

“Without help, we cannot recognize serenity or true safety,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (op. cit., pp. 16-17). “Because our homes were never constantly safe or settled, we have no reference points for these states of being.”

While twelve-step recovery programs advocate turning a person’s will over to a power greater than himself, fear, sadly, becomes the power greater than himself until he begins the process.

Because the fear response, especially on a chronic basis, is so taxing to endure, adult children have little pre-recovery recourse but to avoid whatever sparks it. For them, however, it is a seemingly unending array of activities. This, needless to say, restricts them from what others enjoy in life and underscores another axiom of the adult child syndrome-namely, that they are always on the outside, looking in or always in the audience, but never on the stage. While the mind seeks to protect, it also creates a defensive wall they cannot penetrate and can thus imprison.

With repeated retriggerings, fear and reactivity can gain momentum until they overtake them, causing them to fear the fear more than what it tries to convince them is threatening.

Although it may seem logical that children from such homes could find protection and refuge with the nonalcoholic, non-offending, or more rational parent, this hoped-for savior in their detrimental dilemma often failed to materialize.

Because he or she was equally caught up in the web of the disease and was hence just as much in denial about it as the alcoholic, he or she did nothing to protect or remove them from the environment before the damaging imprint became too indelible to reverse. He or she was often viewed with greater anger and disdain than the “sick” parent and adult children did just as much internalizing from them.

“From the nonalcoholic parent we learn helplessness, worry, black-and-white thinking, being a victim, and self-hate,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (ibid, p. 24). “We learn rage, pettiness, and passive-aggressive thinking. From this parent we learn to doubt our reality as children. Many times we have gone to our nonalcoholic parent and expressed feelings of fear and shame, (but he or she) dismissed (them). We have been called sensitive or too selfish when objecting to our drinking parent’s behavior. In some cases, this parent defended or excused the alcoholic’s behavior. The damage that some nonalcoholic parents can do through inaction or by failing to remove the children from the dysfunctional home boggles the mind.”

That inaction subtly teaches them that abuse, both in the home and outside of it, is “normal” and to be expected and tolerated, leaving them with mounting defenses, mistrust, anger, and an increasing tolerance for belittling and damage. In short, they were cultivated as victims.

Even during those occasions when they were temporarily removed, such as over a weekend, the permanence of the action is never considered. Sheer re-entry into the home environment retriggers them and causes them to re-erect their defenses.

“From this behavior, we got the message that it was normal to put aside our fears and return to our abusive or shaming parent,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook advises (ibid, p. 25).

Another source of adult children’s fears was the negative emotions transferred to them from their parents.

“As children, we were outmatched,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook continues (ibid, p. 101). “Our parents projected their fears, suspicions, and senses of inferiority onto us. We were defenseless against the projections. We absorbed our parent’s fear and low self-worth by thinking these feelings originated with us.”

Saturated with fear and having built up high degrees of tolerance for both emotional and physical pain created by others, they often attract partners later in life who exhibit their parent’s characteristics, since they are most familiar with them and sometimes subconsciously attempt to finish out or resolve with them what they believe they failed to do with their caregivers, once again trying to fix or cure them and “get it right this time.” But what is “wrong” is the belief that they can succeed with a sick person who refuses to acknowledge his plight or take action to address it.

Because another source of fear was the powerlessness they experienced during their upbringings, any present-time loss of control provides immeasurable degrees of terror. The remedy, they subconsciously assume, is gaining control by assuming their parent’s dominating persona, becoming the proverbial bully, and acting out the abuse on their offspring if correcting intervention in the form of therapy and/or twelve-step programs has not been introduced. Transformed from helpless victims to triumphing perpetrators, they become the next generation’s authority figures. Fueled by fear, they perpetuate the cycle.

Fear, especially that created by retriggers, is particularly powerful for several reasons. First and foremost, it stretches as far back as the child’s or even infant’s initial parental betrayal and the trauma it assuredly caused. Secondly, it regresses him to a helpless, undeveloped, immobilizing state, which he most likely fails to understand and which, because of it, generates even more fear than the incident itself. Thirdly, the original wound is connected to all the subsequent ones he endured throughout his upbringing, each of which contains repressed, unexpressed fear, and this lights a chain that can reach volcanic proportions. Fourthly, the brain’s neuropathways, forged during frequent or chronic retriggerings, have amassed thick, unseverable widths. And finally, their resultant reactions, fed by alcoholic toxins, are ignited by them, leaving the person hopelessly out of control when they do.

The remedy, albeit a painstakingly protracted one, entails understanding, pinpointing the origin of their fears, taking small steps, having a Higher Power dissolve their multiple layers, challenging them, risking exposure, and using newly acquired tools and strengths to overcome them.

Fear, in the end, is the brain’s attempt to protect an adult in the present from what proved detrimental to him as a child in the past.

Article Sources:

“Adult Children of Alcoholics.” Torrance, California: Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, 2006.

“Courage to Change.” Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992.

Nicole Thomas

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