Pieces of the Adult Child Picture

As a lover of the Impressionistic period of art, whose paintings, at least upon close inspection, often appear a collection of seemingly disjointed, yet sometimes very colorful shapes and sizes, I marvel at how a more distant view reveals a collective picture.

Similarly, a recent view of the numerous pieces that combine to form the adult child syndrome enabled me to extend this visual art analogy to it.

Family roles, one of them, reminded me of the need to assume them in order to restore balance or homeostasis to a dysfunctional, loosely-knit family system, and, as the default behavior subconsciously adopted to survive and restore, is usually carried into adult life–unexamined most probably because it somehow worked. Why, therefore, should it be questioned?

I am reminded of a psychology course I took many years ago in Switzerland. We were asked to identify the type of personality we thought we had, such as perfectionistic, and, after we revealed who we were to the class, we spent the rest of the program gravitating to each other, even during lunch and breaks. It was all we knew and, as an extension, we felt we knew each other.

Isolation, certainly another manifestation of the adult child syndrome, is, of course, one of its very hallmarks. Although it can be painful to be alone, it becomes the necessary tradeoff to being exposed to those who may trigger, represent authority figures, or breed varying degrees of mistrust. Its “reward,” if it can be so designated, is internal peace and stability. The adage concerning what may be one person’s pleasure and another person’s poison may be applicable here.

Nevertheless, it underscores the need to avoid the proverbial people, places, and things when they wear parental or primary caregiver faces or at least forge associations with them, especially early in a person’s recovery.

It also reflects the need, bred in childhood, to assume as much autonomy as possible. Aside from the prevalent trust factor issues, the parent-child rupture, sparking initial abandonment, teaches that child not to rely on others and dig deep within his own well for resources his psychological, physical, neurological, and emotional development scream “unavailable.” But resultant isolation necessitates them. He must, after all, survive somehow.

Insanity, another manifestation, is-to me, anyway-a subject an adult child may have little intellectual understanding about, but have first-hand experience with throughout his upbringing, since this was regularly modeled vis-à-vis the unpredictable, dual-personality behavior of the parent he most needed for nurture, direction, protection, and love. Whatever he lived inside his home-of-origin, he subconsciously expected outside of it, as his dress rehearsal, characterized by instability, alcoholism, and even danger, primed him for the “full performance” beyond his front door.

While he may have done a masterful job of squelching and denying it and then appropriately adjusting to it, it inevitably surfaces as his buried inner child clings to safety and he is unable to connect with others in any genuine way through his false self.

Twelve-step meetings, in which an adult child is ironically bonded to others and a Higher Power of his understanding through collective weaknesses and fears, provides that painfully missed kindred spirit connection he cannot forge with others and sheds light on the seeds planted in his upbringing that caused his stunted development.

It is here that he may learn the true meaning of “insanity,” who in his family had it, and how his own was whittled away. That he endeavored to fix, change, or cure that parent was just another form of it.

The disease of dysfunction is like no other. It affects a person in body, mind, and spirit. The sufferer most likely has no understanding of it, but somehow senses that he is “different” from others. It may or may not have physical characteristics, such as comorbid maladies that are so intertwined with shelved fears, traumas, and emotions, that he can no longer separate or differentiate them. Relapse does not necessarily take form as re-intensified sneezing and coughing, as occurs with colds and flus, but as a re-embrace, like a water-bound survivor to a life raft, of the laundry list traits, such as people-pleasing and isolation. And there is no bonafide cure, only a periodic return to meetings so that a Higher Power can pull him far enough out of the pit so that he can function more effectively for the next few days. While twelve-step fellowships are spiritual and not religious programs, Psalm 25 may be appropriate here. It states, “My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only He will release my feet from the snare.” He most needs to plug into his Source and this is the location of the socket.

Shame, undoubtedly another adult child manifestation, runs through such a person’s body as regularly as blood does through his veins. Progressively transferred from his parent without his awareness and regularly instructed or scolded about the incorrect ways he does, thinks, and sometimes even breathes, it become toxic to the point that he rejects himself and becomes ashamed for what he has been led to believe-namely, that is a flawed, uncorrectable mistake. Like a number raised to a higher power, he ultimately becomes ashamed of his shame.

Instead of being positively mirrored by his parent, he only sees the reflection of what they projected into him.

Shamed, suffering, and shattered, he attempts to view God through the lens broken in childhood and the only glimpse he can attain through it, especially in the initial phase of recovery, looks decidedly like the parental authority figure who molded him in his own damaged image.

I may never become a painter-of the Impressionistic movement or otherwise-but I do know that dedicated twelve-step program work has enabled me to identify the pieces of the puzzle that plagued my life. And as I assemble them and step back, I see the complete picture they formed, realizing for the first time how they formed me.

On second thought, I think I will take a drive to the nearest art store and buy a few brushes. For the first time, I have a whole picture to paint.