By Erica Troiani 12/08/15
Through trial and error, I’ve learned how to apply ACOA to the two most primary triggers.
It’s a common refrain every year during the holidays: Dealing with your family, particularly parents, can be a real nightmare. There’s the usual concerns. Will they talk to you like you’re still 12? How long until your weird uncle says something racist? But for anyone from an alcoholic family, the concern gets piled upon: How long til someone triggers one of those character defects from no-longer-useful childhood survival skills? What if one of those parents is still drinking? How long til we’re screaming at each other?
I used to live in denial that my father could bring out the worst in me. I’d hear other people get exasperated about visiting their families at holidays and wonder why they found it so difficult. My parents are lovely, I always thought. They’re interesting and curious. They have insightful wisdoms! And all this was true, but I conveniently forgot that around the last night of every trip home, my dad and I would land ourselves in a knock-down, drag-out fight. The kind where I don’t recognize myself as a person anymore. The kind where I can’t totally remember or understand what happened the next day because I’m never fully sure how they started.
For a long time, I blamed myself for these arguments. I didn’t know how they escalated so quickly or why I reacted with such force to the things my dad said. And I couldn’t ever remember what he’d said that initially set me off. My responses felt compulsive, as if I had no choice. It didn’t help that my hypervigilance increased exponentially in his presence. If I saw a flicker of irritation in my dad’s face, I’d mentally scroll through my every action in the previous 20 minutes to an hour trying to find what I did wrong—because, of course, I was the cause.
On one Thanksgiving, my parents came to my house in Texas. I thought having them on my turf would keep me in a place where I was just thankful to have them there and not take the fighting bait. But Thanksgiving morning, I let my dad use my computer, forgetting that it had an annoying defect that made it overheat. As he sat, carefully typing out his correspondence, I could hear my computer’s fan racing out of control. But when I asked him if I could hop on quickly so I could close my old browser tabs, he exploded at me, saying I’d broken his concentration and “made” him lose his email. And that’s when I completely lost something: my cool. We yelled at each other for another 20 minutes while my mom finished making mashed potatoes as though nothing was wrong.
It was his immediate blaming that set me off, but I didn’t realize that at the time. It took another five years, at least two of those in therapy, to really get a grasp on our dynamic and the effect that growing up in an inconsistent alcoholic household had on me. Thanks to therapy and learning to name and recognize my emotions, I slowly developed a monitoring voice in the back of my head that took every encounter that might trigger me and added in a bemused curiosity. If I felt resentful, that voice would say, “Huh. Where is this coming from? Did I agree to do something I didn’t really want to do?” Usually the answer to that question was yes.
It was probably another year before I realized that whatever blame that my dad assigned to me was his problem. It was almost always for an inconsequential matter. I wasn’t responsible for his emotions, and I didn’t have to accept his reality as mine. His blame had often made me feel defective and broken, but I’d learned that I wasn’t, and that even his asserting something as true didn’t make it so. Once I could recognize what my reality and my perception were, and learned to put words to what I felt, I was able to slow down my reactions and assess whether they were warranted by what was happening.
The first time it clicked into place was on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago. I’d gone to visit my parents back in my freezing hometown in the mountains. Excited about the gorgeous dinner my mom had prepared, my dad wanted to take an iPhone photo of it. Fickle as technology is, the camera wouldn’t work. He asked me to help him fix it, and then casually tossed out, “It’s your fault. You used the camera last.” Immediately, hot rage turned on in my stomach as I scowled back. “Why is this about assigning fault?” I spit out, adding, “You’re being irrational!” But only in my head.
For the first time, though, I really heard my own thought in a calm, logical manner: He was being irrational. The notion that I’d broken his phone was actually hilarious—who has control over that, really?—but furthermore, it wasn’t something that even warranted a response. I didn’t have to fight him. I didn’t have to assert my innocence. If my dad wanted to believe I’d broken his phone, he could. It didn’t affect me.
I set his phone down and turned to him. “This is irrational, and I won’t help fix your phone until you stop blaming me for it not working.” And I sat down without pouting or acting the victim and simply moved on to serving myself some excellent mashed potatoes. (Clearly, we eat a lot of them during the holidays.) Triumph! I swear I heard trumpets play in the background. He still pouted and this played on my guilt strings at first, but once I was able to separate his emotions from my responsibility for them, it was easier to let it go. He was entitled to his emotions, but I didn’t have to be bothered by them.
Of course, just because I was able to slow down and not react on one occasion doesn’t mean that it easily became a habit. I have to stop and assess each time something similar happens, and I doubt the need for that is going away anytime soon.
My dad still drinks quite a bit, which I hadn’t realized until a more recent trip. (Despite all the recovery work I’ve done, I’m still plenty skilled at lying to myself.) On this visit, I could tell instantly by the sound of his voice that he’d had a few on his way home from work, and that distinct pitch sends me careening backward to childhood where I react to him as though I’m seven-years-old, or—in my better moments—12.
He was jovial in this instance, but that didn’t stop me from feeling dread and rage as I talked to him. He started insisting we have a party at his favorite bar so I could meet his barfly friends, and the wounded kid inside my heart welled up with rage. Very quickly, we were teetering on a fight—or at least, I was teetering on escalating one. Couldn’t he see how frustrating it was that he’d rather arrange for me to meet his newest drinking pals than to just come and eat dinner with us? I started to react, but before I spoke, that monitoring voice caught me and pulled me back. For the first time ever, I realized: He’s drunk. He won’t even remember this conversation! What’s the point? I told him we could talk about it later, knowing full well he’d forget, and I walked away.
So often, the easiest solution is no response, to just walk away.