I Have PTSD from Growing Up with Addicted Parents

This article was written by Lisa Basile and published by The Fix


I was convinced I wasn’t good enough—that I was leave-able, not worth staying sober for, not worth anything.

PTSD is elusive; it hides in the shadows and lurks where you least expect it. Oftentimes you’re not even sure you have it—and you’ve likened it to stories of war veterans who, no doubt, have seen some things you will never see in your life. So how could you have PTSD? It’s not like your life is a war zone.

Except that life with a loved one who is suffering from an addiction can be a war zone. You’re ducking for your life this week, and out of the woods the next. Then you’re right back in the hole, waiting for something to blow. That ‘blow’ can be your loved one’s landing in the hospital, loss of a job, loss of an apartment, or even their loss of life. And you’re there, picking up the pieces, trying to make sense of it all. How could someone you love so much hate themselves so much? How could this addiction be taking over everything?

People with PTSD due to substance issues in the family may feel, according to Reach Out Recovery:

  • Clueless about what family should feel like, or clueless around what it feels like to be loved and cared for
  • Like they spent a long time being lied to
  • Like they need to stay quiet out of shame or fear
  • Emotionally or physically damaged
  • Invisible
  • Exhausted from caring for people

Whether you come from the sort of family where summer vacations were consistently ruined by someone with alcoholism in the midst, or whether you come from the sort of family where there was no money for summer vacations—likely because your loved one couldn’t hold a job—the fact of the matter is that the circumstance of trauma is moot. Addiction-related trauma knows no boundaries or thresholds; it doesn’t care about class (although having money can help a person have access to more resources) or education or religious belief. Addiction-related trauma can affect everyone. Today I want to talk about how it affects the child of someone suffering with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

In high school, I went into foster care. I left my school and started at a new one, totally estranged from everything I knew. My parents were dealing with detox and relapse and detox again and rebuilding their lives. Any child of a parent with addiction knows there’s no one path—and it’s usually the path of most resistance when there is—to sobriety or self-love or starting again. And while foster care ended up being helpful for me in a lot of ways, it was the veritable symbol of the destruction caused by addiction. It was the end result—and I was the collateral.

I didn’t realize I was suffering from PTSD as I aged out of foster care, went to college, and even saw my mother get sober again in the coming years. She began to find life and stability, and even though I was fortunate enough to get into college and begin a life for myself, it was like I was stuck in the turbine of trauma. I was consistently reliving those fears—I felt everything I had would fall away, I worried that I wasn’t enough, I worried about drinking too much (and I did), I was angry, I had a lot of resentment, I vied for ultimate control over everything (my academics, my accomplishments, my body, and even my social encounters). I was rife with excess trauma, ripping at seams that had never been sewn up.

By the end of college, it dawned on me that I wasn’t just getting over it. I was obsessing on people close to me using drugs or drinking. I was petrified my friends or partners would leave. I was convinced I wasn’t good enough—that I was leave-able, not worth staying sober for, not worth anything. I was convinced that I needed to overcompensate for my past by working excessive hours, and gaining as much accomplishment as I could. That was my just-in-case strategy; I needed to be safe, to not lose anything, to not be evicted, to not end up a statistic.

This all came from a place of fear, shame, and blame. And it took so many years to unwrap that bundle of endlessly mangled connective tissues and nerves. Along the way I’ve spoken to therapists, meditated, used journaling—and, perhaps most surprisingly, spoke my truth out loud as a way of moving through (and sometimes, past) the pain. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:

1. PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it can affect anyone.

For me, the trauma occurred for years—we moved almost 15 times, I changed schools, I lived with different parents, I went into foster care, and we were always an inch away from eviction. Although I know my parents loved me, their condition made it impossible for me to settle and experience childhood without constant stress. My body learned that stress from a young age.

2. When you have PTSD, it’s not just you “being overly emotional.” (Some people don’t understand this). PTSD is related to our brain’s reflexive survival reactions. According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, “The classic fight-or-flight response to perceived threat is a reflexive nervous phenomenon that has obvious survival advantages in evolutionary terms. However, the systems that organize the constellation of reflexive survival behaviors following exposure to perceived threat can under some circumstances become dysregulated in the process. Chronic dysregulation of these systems can lead to functional impairment in certain individuals who become ‘psychologically traumatized’ and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

In short, people who are traumatized have to rewire their brains not to respond to that fight-or-flight we’re feeling all the time. And that can feel nearly impossible! Just knowing that there is a psychological aspect to this comforted me. It assured me that what I am feeling—even years after most of the trauma occurred—can be worked on from the inside out. (We’re not striving for perfection here—we’re just trying to get by and be strong!). The good news: We can do some of that rewiring, but it takes a whole lot of mental cognizance, time and experience.

When I become uneasy, angry, or sad, I try to become mindful and ground myself in the current moment. I also ask myself what sparked it. I turn to a journal if I have to—just to silently write the truth. I can often find the sometimes not-so-obvious root.

Example: On a vacation with my boyfriend’s family, I found myself insanely depressed. They were lovely, we were having an amazing time, and for all intents and purposes I should have felt grateful and content. Instead, I felt angry and restless. I felt lost, like an unwanted stranger in their home, and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t just be happy. For me, happiness is always hard. I have spent so many years being unhappy that it feels, well, natural. And the idea of being in someone else’s home, in someone else’s functioning family, brings up memories of foster care and family dysfunction. I immediately fall into those feelings, and they take over when they shouldn’t.

When I step back and think, “Why am I feeling this way?” I can usually pull myself back, find gratitude for my current life, and put those other feelings in a box where I can deal with them at a more appropriate time. This is NOT as easy as it sounds—and it doesn’t always work—but it is part of my own self-care tool kit.

Also, according to theories around neuroplasticity—if we want to get clinical about this—the brain needs new experiences to override all that wiring the PTSD inflicted upon on. So, we’re not “broken” or “damaged.” We’re just ever-changing.

3. Community is so vital. I found that being honest and speaking out about my life has been so freeing. It comes with some issues—for one, it makes me feel guilty for painting my parents in a bad light. It also makes me wonder if my scars will define me. However, with the right community for support, and with the knowledge of being accepted despite my past, I have found that I can heal. Not to mention, being honest with others who have addiction, as well as my family, has enabled me to defocus on myself and build compassion for others.

Everyone struggles—but the fallout is different for each of us. Community helps me see that, and it helps me be honest, grateful, and strong when I need it. Talking to others with PTSD is so key because I learn their techniques, and feel less alone. Reach out—especially if you’ve been holding that anger, fear, or heartbreak in. It doesn’t have to grow or live inside you. There are ways to manage it.

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