(This essay and share is based on the July 21 daily meditation on abuse from authority figures found in “Strengthening My Recovery”)
As a recovering adult child of an alcoholic and survivor of childhood emotional and sexual abuse, I developed a fear of authority figures starting with my parents, teachers and, eventually, peers. I believe this fear was firmly ingrained in me by the time I was eight years old.
Healthy fear of authority figures normally translates to respect for authority and obedience to lawful and moral instructions, which helps us as children grow into well-rounded, rational adults. But, as an adult child, the fear became unhealthy when my reactions were motivated by an avoidance of conflict and anger directed at me in the form of yelling, criticism, or an aversion to conflict between my parents. I learned to become submissive and reactive to that fear because, as a child, that is all I could do.
This impulsive reactivity made me susceptible to further abuse outside my childhood home when an older neighbor began molesting me. The fear that originated from my family-of-origin spilled over to relationships with people outside the family which included anyone who had power over me. As a result, my reactiveness to avoid conflict out of fear of being physically, verbally, or sexually assaulted only increased my susceptibility to such attacks. Listening to my parents fight at such an early age made me develop a fear of conflict. To avoid physical and verbal reprisals, I surrendered and did whatever I was told, even when they involved doing things I didn’t want to do.
As an adult child in recovery, I can now see the pattern playing out, over and over, of me raising the white flag of surrender in situations where I felt challenged or threatened. I think of how many times in my life I fell for gimmicks or turned average interactions into acts of surrender. The end result was always the same: I put someone who has no authority over me into the “authority category” and allowed them to talk me into something I did not need, want, or should do. I can relate to the example, in the daily reading, of sales clerks at stores talking me into something I did not want to buy because they suggested it. I could not say “No,” even if I couldn’t afford it.
Working the ACA program has made it possible for me to identify the feelings I felt during those situations: timid and fearful. If a store did not have something I came there for, I was afraid to say “No” when offered a substitute. I remember thinking how the salesman might be disappointed if I did not accept his suggestion, or that if I did not purchase it, it might hurt him. This line of thinking often got me into trouble at work when I was asked if I could do a certain task that I was not experienced in. I always said “Yes” to please my colleagues and because saying “No” or “I do not know how to do this” or “I should not be doing this” would be a display of weakness.
Ultimately, not being able to say “No,” being gullible, being susceptible to suggestion, which had its origins in family alcoholism, led me to being sent to prison for committing an act I would not have done had I not been told to do it by someone I perceived as an authority figure. My impulsiveness and reactiveness led me to blindly follow someone’s instructions without thinking about the consequences of my actions, why it was wrong, and who it would be harming. That lack of control cost me six years of my life, tens of thousands of dollars, and unmeasurable grief for my family, friends, and coworkers. This was my rock bottom, but it was not the end.
Thanks to ACA, I am in recovery from the effects of parental alcoholism and childhood trauma. I am learning to replace my old impulsiveness and reactiveness with quick internal checks before I do things so I can recognize how I respond to people and if what they are saying to me is healthy or unhealthy. As an adult child, I may always need more time to stop and examine situations, but this will become a routine part of my new thought process because I want to maintain control over my life and my choices and not cede them to people who are not authority figures; and, if they are an authority figure, I want to respond with informed, healthy reactions and no longer react as a wounded child.