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When Recovering From ACEs is Recovering From Secondhand Drinking & Visa Versa

 In 2016, I celebrated 35 years recovery from the eating disorders I’d grappled with from the ages of 16–28. I was 63 years old. But as I shared in my last post, “When ACEs are Rooted in Secondhand Drinking,” I was into my 40s before I realized my anorexia and bulimia were the symptoms of, and soothers for, my deeper, unresolved issues.

First recovery: learning to re-eat

As always, my eating disorders recovery “celebration” last year consisted of quiet kudos to self on Thanksgiving Day. I celebrate on Thanksgiving Day as it was the first major food holiday during which I’d managed not to binge and purge.

I write, “quiet kudos to self,” because back in the early 1980s when my eating disorders recovery began, there was little understanding, let alone treatment for people who either didn’t eat (anorexia) or ate huge quantities of food and then purged (bulimia).

In fact the only thing in my area treating this condition was a phobia group led by doctor who said bulimia was a fear of getting fat. Though that was never a driving force behind my binging and purging, I went along with his “treatment” and attended a few of the group meetings. But I soon gave up. I couldn’t relate to the experiences of an agoraphobic, arachnophobic, acrophobic, and others with diagnosed phobias.

Instead, I double-downed on my commitment to do what the woman who had spent seven years eating huge quantities of food and then throwing it up had done. Her very short story appeared in a Newsweek magazine column on bulimarexia. Her recovery success secret? Exercise and nutrition. I remember the feeling of, "Oh my God – I'm not the only one," followed by, "Oh my God, if she stopped, maybe I can, too."

Though I learned to re-eat (the details of which are beyond the scope of this article), I had no idea there was something far deeper that still needed to be fixed. And that something was the emotional underpinning – namely trauma – for my embracing eating disorders in the first place.

And that’s because back in the day (early 1980s), I’d never had words to describe let alone deal with my mother’s alcoholism and the resulting secondhand drinking* dysfunction in my family. Back in the day, there was little understanding that children coping with secondhand drinking often have multiple relationships with alcohol misusers over the course of their adult life.

*Secondhand Drinking (SHD) refers to the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others. Drinking behaviors include verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect; blackouts; unplanned/unwanted sex, sexual assault; breaking promises to stop or cut down; shaming, blaming, denying; unpredictable behaviors; and driving while impaired, to name a few. Drinking behaviors are caused by a number of drinking patterns, including: binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism. People engaging in these drinking patterns are referred to as alcohol misusers. The negative impacts a person coping with SHD experiences are related to toxic stress.

As importantly, critical research about the human brain and emotional health had yet to be discovered.

So while I’d learn to re-eat, I’d never dealt with my secondhand drinking-related trauma; SHD-related trauma that had multiplied in the ensuing decades as my close relationships with other alcohol misusers multiplied.

Thus the “voice” that had previously ruled my life with bulimia settled on attacking me for not being important enough, good enough, lovable enough – just plain, enough. Enough to make my various loved ones want to stop drinking and thus stop the crazy, convoluted drinking behaviors it spawned.

In order to shout down, block out the “voice,” I became a workaholic, married, became a supermom and workaholic, divorced, re-married and created a blended family, and divorced again. Along the way, I turned into a hawk who saw every move of every person in my compulsion to “fix” the various alcohol misusers in my life. And it wasn’t just the alcohol misusers. I was equally compelled to “fix” the scores of others whose lives were crumbling in the wake of their own and my secondhand drinking behaviors.

I didn’t understand that my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors had deeply, deeply intertwined (enmeshed) with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of my loved ones. I had no understanding we were locked in a dance, The Dance of the Family Disease of Alcoholism.

Thus I never dreamed of looking at my ”SELF” for answers. I just kept frantically doing something, anything to keep the judging voice – my inner critic – at bay. Thus my 30s rolled into my 40s without my finding the real relief I so desperately sought. When asked how I was, I’d answer, “I’m fine,” with absolutely no idea of, let alone ability to name, how I really felt.

“True” recovery: healing my heart and soul by rewiring my brain

And then one of my loved ones entered a residential treatment program for alcoholism in 2003, and my “true” recovery began. I was plunged into the world of being labeled a codependent, an enabler, and informed addiction* was a disease.

*Addiction is the common term used to describe a dependence on alcohol or other drugs. The common terms for these addictions are alcoholism and drug addiction. New language based on new brain science now refers to addiction as a substance use disorder. In the case of alcohol, it would be an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorders include a variety of drinking patterns: binge drinking, heavy social drinking, and alcohol abuse. The most severe alcohol use disorder is what we commonly refer to as alcoholism.

I baulked at that one. Cancer is a disease, I argued. All they had to do is put down the bottle. Not only that, I’d learned to re-eat and you needed food to survive – you sure didn’t need alcohol!

But I was also “done” – done – done with what I didn't know, but I knew something had to change. My life had been reduced to rigid absolutes: black or white, truth or a lie, you’re with me-or-you’re-not. And I was so, so angry.

Fortunately, I took to heart what the treatment center’s family therapist said to do. I attended as many family group programs at the center as were available and started participating in a 12-step program for family and friends of a loved one who misuses alcohol. I found a therapist who specialized in the family side of this disease and spent three years in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with him. I needed to unwire the many stress-related, unhealthy, reactionary coping skills I’d adopted in order to stay emotionally safe in the almost four decades I’d spent grappling with secondhand drinking.

It was also in this therapy I discovered the full impact on me of the sexual assault when I was a teen and the cover-up that followed –- another ACE/trauma (the details of which I don't share publicly). I had so deeply buried the stripping away of “Lisa” caused by that experience, thus healing that trauma (ACE) was as important as healing the trauma caused by SHD.

And in the midst of all this, I did what I do – I researched. I had to understand how I went so far down; why I’d tolerated secondhand drinking for so, so, so long; and on what basis treatment professionals could possibly think alcoholism (addiction) was a disease. What I learned and continue to learn has been life changing.

Finally science that puts it all together

 Advances in imaging technologies and the resulting brain research provided and continue to provide insights and answers like never before. In fact much of what we know about the human brain has been discovered in the recent 10-15 years.

Research explains:

  • how the brain works, wires, develops, and maps to control everything we think, feel, say, and do
  • that alcohol, trauma, toxic stress, genetics, and environment can negatively change or influence that wiring, development, and mapping
  • that alcoholism (aka alcohol use disorder/addiction) is a developmental brain disease that starts with alcohol misuse changing brain structure and functioning, making the brain more vulnerable to the five key risk factors for developing the disease
  • that trauma can cause toxic stress; toxic stress can actually change a child’s brain architecture, negatively affecting their lifetime physical and emotional health
  • that children growing up with alcohol abuse and related ACEs often develop alcohol use disorders and/or marry persons with alcohol use disorders
  • why a person must heal their trauma in order to heal their brain and thereby improve their lives
  • that the brain is plastic, meaning it can rewire, it can heal from the impacts of alcohol use disorders and trauma-related toxic stress
  • how nutrition, exercise, sleep, and mindfulness are critical to brain health and thus are keys to repairing, rewiring, and healing one’s brain for better thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

As important as these brain research advances and findings to my secondhand drinking recovery is the ACEs Study. This study measured the impact of adverse childhood experiences* (ACEs) on a person’s health across a lifetime. Finally! Something that explained what had happened to me AND to my various loved ones.

*Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are divided into three categories, neglect; abuse; and household challenges; and include physical, verbal, sexual abuse; physical, emotional neglect; and growing up with a relative with a substance use or mental disorder, to name a few. Click here to get your ACEs Score.

Information that set me free and allowed me to forgive

Over the course of my 13-year secondhand drinking recovery, I’ve become a speaker, educator, and trainer on the research I’ve shared in this article. The connection chart below is one I developed and use in my work to help people understand how closely the connection is between SHD, ACEs and addiction.

For example, I learned I had exposure to four of the adverse childhood experiences measured in the ACE Study.

I learned my mother, whose alcoholism had so deeply influenced my life’s trajectory, had experienced five. I realized my daughters both had 4, and they were only 14 & 15 ½ at the time I learned of this study.

I found similar ACEs history patterns repeated in my other alcohol misusing loved ones. One had 5, another 3, and a third 6.

And all of us had long-term exposure to secondhand drinking.

I found similar patterns in the stories shared with me by the hundreds of people with whom I’ve worked over this past decade.

And it wasn’t just “us” in our immediate families. It was intergenerational. When a parent does not heal their trauma, their experiences change them. Those changes in them affect their parenting and/or inter-familial relationships in profound ways.*

*Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ article,“Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma.”

Bottom line, I realized I could have developed alcoholism. Instead, I developed bulimia. Others embraced cutting, spiraled into deep depression, developed OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), or experienced a host of toxic stress-related ailments: headaches, stomach problems, skin rashes, anxiety, depression, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, muscle aches, migraines, sleep problems, changes in eating habits (causing obesity or weight loss), and dizziness.

It was all of these understandings that gave me the information – the “ah ha’s” – I needed to forgive my loved ones and to forgive myself. And it was the forgiveness that really set me free. Not the kind of forgiveness that excuses horrific behaviors, rather the kind of forgiveness that lets go of wishing for a different outcome. It is the kind of forgiveness that recognizes we were all doing the best we could with what we knew at the time. And for almost four decades, that wasn’t much. Sadly, for most Americans in this situation, it still isn’t.

Which is where my hope comes in

… for the 90 M Americans who experience secondhand drinking and the 18+ million Americans who struggle with alcohol use disorders and the thousands of communities within which we work, go to school, and live.

It is my hope that understanding the connection between SHD, ACEs and the risk factors for developing addiction emboldens us to embrace a middle ground, namely that we all have been affected and need our respective recoveries. It no longer has to be an us against them, or my hell is your fault, or stop your drinking and all will be well for me.

It is my hope that understanding this connection can be the "Oh my God” moments a person may need to start their own recovery journey.

Sure… our recoveries will be different depending on what went into developing the brain we have, but our recoveries can also be similar in that we can go on to live healthy, joy-filled lives having healed, re-wired our brains. We just need to do it differently.

We need to take advantage of the ACE study findings and modern brain science to create a new framework. In this framework we can discuss, work together, and enhance therapies, preventions, and interventions to affect real recovery from ACEs, SHD, and alcohol use disorders (addiction).

Within this framework, we can break the cycles!


I leave you with links to a few of my blog posts covering some of the details of my 13-year secondhand drinking recovery journey….

And for more on secondhand drinking:


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