To begin with, a caveat. I’m obviously not saying that spending most of your formative years in an environment dominated by alcohol (or any other form of out of control behaviour/violence/aggression) is ideal. Not even close. The impact of addiction within families is often under recognised or dismissed and it is something I’d want to protect any child from at all costs. However, I do think such experiences can lead to an over-developed emotional ‘skill set’ in certain areas. And some of those skills can be quite helpful, in the right contexts.
For example, if you spend your early years constantly having to gauge the degree of intoxication in someone caring for you, you do become pretty observant. You grow skilled at noticing and remembering things. Because you have to – if you want to navigate the day as incident free as possible. Some people might call this hypervigilance, and of course it is, and sometimes it’s incredibly unhelpful and draining. But at other times, it’s a useful skill.
You’re usually fairly sensitive to the nuances of others’ emotional states. Perceptive. This can be helpful because people feel you ‘get’ them. That tends to help relationships, even if it did initially develop in a context of having to respond to frequently shifting tensions, not only within the addicted parent but also within other family members. The downside is of course being less able to notice and respond to your own emotions, and that can be tricky at times. And sometimes you get it wrong, or respond to threats that are no longer there.
You’re often acutely aware of others’ needs (sometimes at the expense of your own). This isn’t a ‘martyr’ thing. It’s more a habit borne of necessity. Obviously this tends to benefit those around you more than yourself. It can make you a good employee. Until you burn out, anyway. It can lead to problems when you do begin to recognise and respond to what you need – feeling guilty, is it selfish, are you being ‘too much’?
People who grow up with a premature awareness of ‘adult’ topics are often very ‘responsible’. Someone has to be the ‘adult’, after all. This unrelenting sense of responsibility, and/or nagging worry can persist long after the original situation has ended. I was consistently described as ‘extremely conscientious’ on school reports. Teachers take note, this is not always a good thing, and you are in a key position to notice and do a bit of gentle exploring. But, again, in the right context, in balance, conscientiousness is no bad thing.
Being empathic. This often comes with an acute sense of what it feels like to be let down, disappointed or even crushed. This can make you an attuned, caring partner, sibling, friend or colleague. It can also make you irritating and frustrating to be around – overly caring, overly careful, overly apologetic. There are certain things I don’t watch on TV. There are certain boundaries I am careful to maintain. I see that as self care rather than avoidance. However generally, I feel things deeply, and it isn’t always a bad thing.
Of course there are other words for these qualities. Hypervigilant. Over-sensitive. Submissive. And they aren’t always adaptive, in our current circumstances. Some people might call them a kind of hangover.
Sometimes, in close relationships we might relax enough to not do these things as much. Being forgetful or ‘careless’ in this kind of context might indicate that you feel safe enough to not always think, not always be aware. Sometimes that kind of forgetfulness is actually a good thing. Sometimes not being sorry is a good thing.
And of course, there are better ways to achieve these qualities, like growing up feeling secure, having consistent care, stable relationships, and being noticed. Some of us are fortunate enough to experience some form of this even in the midst of difficult childhood experiences (I certainly did) and, importantly, within our relationships as adults.
This emotional skill set doesn’t just apply to addiction. Growing up in any situation where there is frequent tension or chaos would have a similar effect. Often people say, ‘I don’t know why I have this [insert problem here], but then you look at the dynamics within their world growing up, their relationships, the positions of powerlessness they found themselves in, and it makes sense. Because we all survive the best way we know, and those ways of survival aren’t inherently bad, they don’t make us flawed or lacking. Sometimes, channelled in the right way, they can actually make us better at being human.