Artwork © 2015 Jocelyn Patrick

Survivors: Who are They?

According to Friel & Friel (2010):

Who are these adult children of dysfunctional families of whom we speak? Those who call themselves survivors of abuse? Where do they live? How much money do they earn? What kinds of problems do they have? Who are these people anyway?

"They" are us.

At least 90 to 95% of us, some researchers believe. Many of us are adult children of alcoholic parents who fit the characteristics listed in Janet Woititz' bestselling book Adult Children of Alcoholics (Woititz, 1983). Or we are women or men who "love" too much, as described by Robin Norwood (Norwood, 1985).

As adult children of dysfunctional families, alcoholic parents, abusive childhoods… as survivors… we operate in a world of extremes - always seeking that healthy balance, the Golden Mean, but always seeming to fall short of the mark. The pendulum swings to one extreme and we feel lonely, isolated and afraid. We tire of this, and it swings to the other extreme, where we feel enmeshed, smothered and angry. Then it swings back again. This can be true in many areas of our lives.

On their way to conduct a workshop in Texas, some public speakers for the Adult Children movement years ago generated a list of their own, which might help to describe the troubles that plague adult children/ survivors:

  1. We are people who hit 28 or 39 or 47 and suddenly find that something is wrong that we can no longer fix by ourselves. It may coincide with the normal stage crises described by Levinston (1978), Gould (1978), Sheehy (1974) and others, but its intensity and accompanying pain and confusion suggests that there are Adult Child/Survivor issues beneath the surface.
  2. We are people who gaze at our peers on the street or at a party and say to ourselves, "I wish I could be like her or him."
  3. Or we say, "If only he knew what was really going on inside of me, he'd be appalled."

  4. We are people who love our spouses and care deeply for our children, but find ourselves growing distant, detached, and fearful of these relationships.
  5. Or we feel that everything in our lives is perfect until our sons or daughters become chemically dependent, bulimic, run away from home, or attempt suicide.
  6. We are the underemployed, never seeming to be able to achieve our true work potential -- stuck in jobs we loathe because we're confused, afraid or lost.
  7. We are the chemically addicted, the sexually addicted and the eating disordered.
  8. We are the migraine sufferers, the exercise bulimics and the high achievers with troubled marriages.
  9. We are the social "stars" who feel terribly lonely amidst our wealth of friends
  10. Some of us grew up in chaotic families and were weaned on alcoholism, incest and physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
  11. Some of us are especially paralyzed now because the dysfunction we experienced was so subtle (covert) that we can't even begin to put our finger on what it was that happened to us.
  12. Some of us were compared to a brother or sister who did well in school.
  13. Others were led to believe that we could only have worth and value if we became plumbers or doctors, electricians, lawyers or psychologists.
  14. Some of us walked on eggshells throughout childhood because the family was poor, Dad worked two jobs, Mom raised five kids pretty much by herself, and everyone was tired and on edge most of the time.
  15. Many of us were emotionally neglected because no one was physically there for us; or because they were there for us with material things but were absent emotionally.
  16. Some were spoiled and smothered out of misguided love; seduced to stay in the nest years after our friends had gone out into the world and begun their adult lives.
  17. Many of us are afraid of people, especially authority figures.
  18. Others of us frighten people, especially our loved ones and demand that our loved ones live in our isolated worlds -- controlled completely by us.
  19. We are people who despise religion or despise atheism.
  20. We let others use and abuse us or we use and abuse others.
  21. We are people who have only anger, or only sadness, or only fear, or only smiles.
  22. We try so hard that we lose; or we try so little that we never live life at all.
  23. We are men and women who look "picture perfect" (Fry, 1987).
  24. We are men and women who hit skid row and feel like we finally belong somewhere.
  25. We have depression or we have rage.
  26. We think ourselves into emptiness or we feel ourselves into chaos.
  27. We are on emotional roller-coasters or in emotional vacuums.
  28. We smile while slamming the kitchen cabinets shut because we're really angry or we slam the cabinet angrily when we're really sad.
  29. We abuse ourselves but take care of everyone else.
  30. When we are unhappy we are terribly afraid to acknowledge it for fear that someone will find out that we are human; or even worse, that we are even here at all.
  31. We have trouble relating to our sons, our daughters or both.
  32. We can make love, but we can't get emotionally too close or we can't make love at all.
  33. We constantly watch others to try to figure out what's okay and what isn't.
  34. We feel less than some and better than others but we rarely feel like we belong.
  35. We get stuck in lives our hearts never choose.
  36. We hang onto the past, fear the future, and feel anxious in the present.
  37. We work ourselves to death for unknown purposes.
  38. We are never satisfied.
  39. We fear God or we expect God to do it all for us.
  40. We fear or hate people who are different.
  41. We get into friendships that we can't get out of.
  42. We get hooked on things.
  43. We project our inner conflicts onto our children.
  44. We are embarrassed about our bodies.
  45. We don't know why we're here.
  46. We suffer as much as we can.
  47. Seeing a police care can be enough to make some of us feel like we've done something wrong.
  48. We sacrifice our dignity for false security.
  49. We demand love and rarely get it.
  50. We wish for things instead of going out and getting what we want.
  51. We hope for the best, expect the worst and never enjoy the moment.
  52. We feel like the rest of the human race was here to make us feel intensely uncomfortable while eating at a restaurant alone.
  53. We ask, "Where's the beef?", but unlike Clara Peller in the TV commercial, we aren't paid to ask. And nobody answers.
  54. We run away when we fall in love or we abandon ourselves for the relationship.
  55. We smother those we love, or we crush those we love or both.
  56. Some of us will turn the tide of history with our actions, and some of us will live in obscurity.
  57. We will grow up to hate our parents, or we will keep them on the pedestals that we put them on when we were little, but we will rarely let them be the error-prone humans that we all really are.
  58. We feel guilty about the way our brothers and sisters were treated compared to us or we feel jealous and slighted about the way we were treated compared to them.
  59. We hate Dad and overprotect Mom or we hate Mom and overprotect Dad.
  60. We were sexually abused by someone when we were five years old but blame ourselves, telling ourselves that we should have known better at age five.
  61. Some of us had a parent who was chronically ill growing up.
  62. Some of us had a parent who was mentally ill when we were growing up.
  63. Some of us had no parents at all when we were growing up.
  64. We are survivors, who deep down inside pray that someday life will be more than just mere survival.
  65. We are lovers of life whose little child is locked inside of us, waiting to be set free.

Regardeless of our symptoms or circumstances, we are Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families because:
Something happened to us a long time ago. It happened more than once. It hurt us. We protected ourselves the way we knew how. We are still protecting ourselves. It isn′t working anymore.


The symptoms that we develop as a result of what happened to us run the gamut of psychiatric and stress-related disorders, from substance us disorders and other addictions to depression, phobias, anxiety, personality disorders, sexual dysfunction, intimacy disorders, overactivity, eating disorders, compulsive behavior and obsessions. Alcoholism, schizophrenia, certain kinds of depression, some forms of anxiety, some types of obesity all seem to have well documented biological roots. But it is curious to us (the authors of this - Chapter 3 of Unknown Book) that in all our years of doing therapy, we have encountered few, if any alcoholics, for example, who did not also come from dysfunctional families who were not also re-enacting that dysfunction of their own current family systems.

In fact, we can think of two people who came from healthy families but seemed to inherit the biological predisposition to become hooked on alcohol and they handled the problem in a very functional way. They both said to themselves, "I think I'm getting addicted to this stuff." They talked to their family and friends about it, and then they sought help to stop the addiction. The difference for most of us is that we're too dysfunctional to do that.

The symptoms we develop have certain characteristics that seem to hold true for most Adult Children.

Our symptoms....

Our symptoms are born out of emotional denial and they serve to maintain that denial. They are ways that we allow ourselves to live one kind of life while convincing ourselves that we have a very different kind of life from the one we are actually living. And while they serve us the illusion that we are in control, they are in fact clear indicators that what we have really done is to give up our healthy control to something outside ourselves.

By becoming trapped in an addiction or phobia, we actually trade true control over our lives for the illusion of control. It is this illusion of control that makes giving up our symptoms so frightening.

The sex addict truly and sincerely believes that if he or she gives up unhealthy sex, life will crumble into chaos. The relationship addict, most often addicted to a person who is himself an addict, sincerely believes that if he or she tries to change in healthy ways, life will fall apart. The exercise bulimic who keeps her weight under control by running, who finds his only sense of "pseudo-inner peace" by running, and who shows all the signs of withdrawal when he isn't able to run, truly and sincerely believes that his life will not be worth living without the ability to run.

Our symptoms all started out as a normal response to some perceived life stress. It is our opinion (the opinion of the authors of this -- Chapter 3 from Unknown Book) that the breeding ground for them was introduced in childhood, when we were learning how to live with other people. When those family systems in which we grew up had some kind of dysfunctional or abusive situation, whether it be obvious (overt) or subtle (covert), it is normal, logical, and reasonable for a child in that family or environment to protect himself or herself. Just as the physical body will isolate an infection and protect the rest of the body by creating a cyst around it if it is left untreated for too long, our childhood minds will isolate the source of psychological pain in a safe blanket of denial or dissociation to maintain some kind of balance.

These symptoms form as a way of protecting us from a pain that we as children had no power to remove. From the early beginnings of denial grows a pattern of splitting ourselves in two for some survivors. Perhaps the competent, high- achieving child on the outside splits from the frightened, hurt, lost little child on the inside. The longer a coping mechanism such as this continues, the more adept a child will become at denying their true feelings. And the more we deny our feelings, the worse we feel.

And so our symptoms are about the denial of feelings, too. We shut off the hurt and the fear. We bask in the praise of "outsiders" who can only see the public image that we present. We take pride in being "the strong one" or "the rebel" or the "cutie pie" and all the while we are dying inside because noone really knows who we are, and they probably don't. Thus our symptoms are also relationship and intimacy blockers.

By supporting our denial and helping us to maintain our "family secrets", they also keep us from ever getting close to anyone else in healthy ways. We always have to keep our guard up in the hopes that no one will find out what's really inside, which means that our symptoms are also about shame. They are about the shame of "being found out," or "discovered", of being emotionally naked in front of others and being laughed at, criticized, or rejected.

The list of symptoms that can develop in adult survivors is quite long. In many of us there are several of these present at the same time. We (author of Chapter 3 of the book, Title Unknown) have never met a compulsive overeater, for example, who does not have an unhealthy dependency on food. We have rarely seen the spouse of an alcoholic who is not literally addicted to the relationship with their spouse, who is not compulsive in several other areas of life, who does not have an unhealthy dependency on other people or things and how does not have problems with depression.

It is not the label one puts on people that determines what kind of family problems they will have or what kind of parents they will make. It doesn't matter to the child whimpering in her bedroom after being screamed at by her frustrated, lonely mother whether or not her mother is labeled as being a relationship addict, a co-dependent or a compulsive overeater. What matters to that child is the fact that Mom and Dad aren't happy, that Mom and Dad scream at her all the time, that Mom and Dad put her in the middle of their fights and that Mom and Dad won't let her feel her real feelings.

These children grow up and we are them.
They are still alive - inside us.
And now, they are our way out.

Friel, J. and Friel, L (2010). Adult children: The secrets of dysfunctional families. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc. Retrieved from: