The True Story of Someone Raised by an Addict

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 @ 7:18 PM

In her memoir, There was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me, Brooke Shields paints an honest and vivid picture depicting her experience of being raised by an alcoholic mother.

Much of her childhood was filled with chaos, and a lack of structure and stability, which is quite common in families with addiction.

She speaks about the enmeshed, codependent relationship she shared with her mother for many years:

I never thought I could live without you. I knew and understood you better than anyone else in your life. I became the meaning in your life when it would have served you to find the meaning from within. Your approval meant the world to me, as did your happiness. That was the hard part, because I wanted your approval for my growing up independently of you, yet I feared my independence was the root of your unhappiness. But if I had not fought to differentiate myself from you and from our tight bond, I would not have been able to survive.
There are many themes in her life story that are shared by others who have lived with an addicted or mentally ill family member:

…Being constantly afraid and worried for their safety and well-being
…Feeling like it’s your responsibility to keep them sober and alive
…Becoming panic-stricken when you haven’t heard from them in a while
…Desperately trying to control their addiction…AND NOT BEING ABLE TO.

Brooke lacked a sense of confidence and security, despite becoming famous at such a young age. She never felt good enough. How could she, when she wasn’t enough to keep her mother from drinking?

She was not her own person. Her existence and purpose were for her mother, not for herself. How can you be your own person, when you spend all of your energy trying to please someone else? There’s no room for you to discover who you are. Her job was to intuit the moods and needs of her mom: “She was my barometer for joy. If she was happy, I was happy.”

Like many children of addicts, Brooke became parentified, taking care of her mother, instead of getting to be a kid. It affected her as she got older, as well. While others her age were going out and dating, she was afraid to intimately connect with another person, for fear of mom feeling abandoned. As if by loving someone else, she would somehow love her mother less. There wasn’t enough space for anyone else.

After Brooke’s mother passed away, she felt completely lost. How do you find your way in this world without someone telling you how and who to be?

Her mother had been all-knowing. She was smarter than everyone, knew better than everyone. Brooke idealized her mom, because she didn’t have the option to question or doubt her: “I loved you so much, that for so long I put you before me. I blindly defended you because you are my mom. It was often just that simple.”

Now, as a mom herself, Brooke sometimes catches herself acting like her mother with her own children…wanting them to idealize her and think she always knew best: “As a mom, I admit I sometimes wish my daughters looked up to me with the same undaunted devotion as I did you because I imagine it felt good.”

She admits moments of feeling hurt, and even indignant when her daughters question her, or point out her mistakes. Then she realizes: this is a good thing – they are secure, independent and confident – this is how you want them to be.

I also don’t want them to have to carry that burden. I carried you, mom, because I loved you and needed you, but I needed to learn to care for myself too. I remain conflicted because I felt like you never really let me in, yet you absorbed me so far in that I could hardly find my way out. I was navigating your demons. I was trying to do for you what only you could do for yourself. I was never going to ‘fix” you. I see too, that much of your happiness was independent of anything I did or was, but as a child, one carries that responsibility. I did not have faith that you would be okay, so I kept trying to be the source of your happiness and self-worth.

Brooke’s self-awareness and mindfulness allow her to break the cycle of addiction and dysfunction in relationships. She is empowered to make her own decisions and do things differently with her children.

A bad childhood mustn’t equate to a bad future.

In a letter to her mother, Brooke reminds us of a very important lesson: not only do you not have to repeat the mistakes of your parents, you get to TAKE THE GOOD, AND DISCARD THE BAD.

I learned about humor survival and perseverance. I learned the power of observation. I learned how to always work hard and try my best. I learned how to never take no for an answer and how to fight for what I want. I learned to pick myself up when I fall and never allow defeat to define me. You taught me to cast of any negative comments and not to sweat the small stuff. You taught me to look for the good in people and to admit that life could always be worse. You taught me how to adapt to my surroundings and to jump into life with both feet. You taught me how to sneak into a second movie, and be silly for a laugh. Throughout the good and the bad, I would not have traded you for any other mother. I would have exchanged some of your behaviors, sure, but I can say that about practically everyone I know, including myself. You did the best you could, and so did I.

There is hope for all of us. We can still become our true selves, even if it’s been hampered for a while. Even if it doesn’t happen until adulthood.

We get to acknowledge the parts of our life that haven’t been ideal, learn from mistakes (whether our own, or those of our parents), and then write the rest of our story. We get to make a better future for ourselves. Our past experiences need not continue to control our lives.

The rest is up to you.