what to expect at an "ACA" meeting | adult children of alcoholics and dysfunctional families

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While I definitely enjoy writing and sharing about home design and decorating, I am also very passionate about recovery and healing. I honestly believe that the most important features of our homes come from the deep work, honesty, and healing in our “interior world.” What is inside will come out. So just as we tend to our physical environments, I believe it is equally important to take personal inventory of our inner world too.

I was raised in a very conservative Christian family-culture so “inner” spiritual work has never been a foreign concept to me. But it’s amazing how (in my personal experience) Christians tend to lack of real self-awareness and are desperately awkward when it comes to dealing with emotions and feelings. It’s like we’ve never read verses like Psalm 139:23-24:

“Search me [thoroughly], O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there is any wicked or hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.”

There are so many “hurtful ways” within us. So many anxious thoughts.

But yet I grew up in the church and reached adulthood without ever having a solid grasp on how to deal with emotional pain or trauma — you know, besides just stuffing it all down or pretending it’s not happening.

I’m assuming this is most of our experiences — religious upbringing or not — and it feels like giving an unsupervised toddler a truckload of expensive art supplies without ever teaching them how one creates art.

But anyway, before I slip into another long rant…

Last year I started going to counseling to make sure I was healing from some significant traumas in a healthy way. It was around the same time that I heard about “ACA Meetings.” Since my family has been on a recovery journey for several years now, I was familiar with 12 step meetings such as AA or NA. But the more I heard about the topics being discussed at ACA meetings, the more I leaned in to listen.

It sounded like something I could really benefit from.

For those who are hearing about ACA for the first time, “ACA” stands for Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families. From their website:

Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA)/Dysfunctional Families is a Twelve StepTwelve Tradition program of men and women who grew up in dysfunctional homes.

We meet to share our experience of growing up in an environment where abuse, neglect and trauma infected us. This affects us today and influences how we deal with all aspects of our lives.

ACA provides a safe, nonjudgmental environment that allows us to grieve our childhoods and conduct an honest inventory of ourselves and our family—so we may (i) identify and heal core trauma, (ii) experience freedom from shame and abandonment, and (iii) become our own loving parents.

Some of us instantly connect with this and some of us immediately discredit our need for a program like this because our family “wasn’t that bad” or “our parents did the best they could.” But before we go any further, I want to list some of the characteristics of an “Adult Child” and see if you can relate:

(This is taken from a reading called “The Laundry List” that is read before every meeting.)

  • We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.

  • We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.

  • We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.

  • We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc.

  • We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others.

  • We confuse love and pity and tend to “love” people we can “pity” and “rescue.”

  • We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem.

  • We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold on to a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings, which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.

These are just a few of the traits we all seem to have in common. What we might assume was “just us” really is a common experience for those of us who grow up in physically or emotionally chaotic homes. But the good news is that there is a way out of this emotional chaos that leads into emotional sobriety.

ACA has clearly listed The Problem, but also The Solution as we choose to work the steps.

When I attended my first ACA meeting, I felt both comforted and confronted with issues I was trying to ignore. This is not a place to “bash” your parents and discuss all the ways they messed up, but rather it creates a space to be honest about those experiences while giving you tools and hope to change the narrative in your story and learn how to get “emotionally sober.” Plus, you are surrounded by people who share the whirlwind of emotions you might be feeling.

ACA stands on the idea that we can learn to “reparent” ourselves.

The healing begins when we risk moving out of isolation. Feelings and buried memories will return. By gradually releasing the burden of unexpressed grief, we slowly move out of the past. We learn to re-parent ourselves with gentleness, humor, love and respect.

To some of us, this might seem like a really funky idea at first. Trust me, I can hear it: (Like, wait… is this about all that “inner child” garbage?) So I’m not gonna lie to you: yes, it is about addressing childhood grief, pain, and trauma. But it also feels like going to a really good doctor who looks at that bruise on your leg that hurts like heck and says, “Yep it’s broken and you’re gonna need surgery” when you’ve just been ignoring it and limping on that thing in frustration.

For healing to take place, first we have to face the hurt. And the hurt isn’t what’s wrong with you — it is telling you what’s right with you. And this, friends, is what ACA is all about.

In case you are curious about attending your first ACA meeting, I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it would give you courage to look up where a meeting might be taking place in your area.

My first experience attending an ACA meeting

Like I mentioned earlier, I come from a very conservative/Christian culture, so this shapes my experience a little bit. Since I was invited by a friend, I had a head’s up on the format of the meetings. But if I wasn’t already convinced that I am an “adult child,” my extreme hyper-vigilance concerning the “do’s and don’ts” of the meeting format would have given me away. I was very anxious during the first few meetings, afraid I would be called on or worse: say something stupid that I would regret.

What’s funny is that this group is made up of some of the most embracing, accepting, and understanding individuals I’ve ever met. I immediately felt “safe” by their warm smiles and vulnerable shares, even though I was still looking from face to face trying to find my place.

Like most 12 Step meetings, anonymity is protected and people share using only their first names. In the readings before the meeting it is made clear that what is said or shared in the meetings STAYS at the meeting. This protects the sacredness of the sharing time.

I highly recommend arriving to a meeting (especially your first meeting) a little bit early just so you can hear all the “rules” and format. It explains everything clearly so you can understand what is going on.

The biggest surprise for me was the “no cross-talk policy.” This simply means that you cannot interrupt, refer to, or comment on what someone else has shared. It was kinda awkward at first, but boy, I didn’t realize how much I braced myself after sharing anything emotional in preparation for someone to say, “well Kaysie, you know you shouldn’t feel that way,” or “I don’t think that’s right,” or worse, “It’s not really that bad.”

We respect what people say because it is true for them. We honor people’s stories by giving our full attention and coming back, not by giving advice or critiquing their feelings. If someone wants advice, you can ask for it after the meeting but otherwise we listen in silence and say, “thank you for sharing,” after they are done.

There are no “leaders” of the meeting, but someone within the group is asked if they want to “chair” the meeting which basically involves reading out loud the prepared materials. No one has more authority than anyone else within the group. Everyone is considered a “fellow traveler” on this recovery journey.

When I heard the literature read at my first meeting, it was both enlightening and painful. It is clear that this isn’t a program that is going to be focused on how other people hurt you, but how you can begin to find healing for yourself. It stepped on my toes in all the best ways. The more meetings I attended, the more revelation I got about my participation in the problem and solution.

And again, in typical 12 Step fashion, there is mention of a “Higher Power” whom some of us choose to call God. Coming from an overly religious background, I remember church people making fun of this idea of a “higher power.” This terminology does not offend me in the slightest because there are a lot of us still figuring out what the heck we do believe. Some of us have been deeply wounded and abused by religious individuals and “God” might seem like one of our abusers at first.

But part of the program is recognizing our “powerlessness” over our co-dependency/addictions/diseases and at some point we have to look outside of ourselves for help. We need a Power stronger than ourselves in order to recover. Some of us choose to call that “higher power” God or Jesus, some have another god or object they trust. At this point in my faith, this is not weird at all. At least we aren’t all pretending to trust in something we think we should believe in. Here, we are all honest about where we are and what we are trusting.

In the readings, it is expressed that if you can handle what comes up at six consecutive ACA meetings, you will begin to come out of denial. So I took them up on that (I remember thinking at my first meeting, “What denial?! I’m not in denial.” HA.) and I attended six meetings in a row over the course of six weeks. And I haven’t missed a meeting since then unless I was out of town or had company.

I can’t fully describe the impact this program has had on my recovery. Don’t get me wrong, it is hard work. But I get back ten-fold what I’m putting into it. I feel like I have a deeper awareness into my own inner world and emotions don’t feel “random” and I don’t feel as crazy. Plus, the people that surround me in these circles are GIFTS to my life. Their bravery, their struggles, their victories, and their grief are things I carry in my heart and it gives me courage to take another step toward healing.

It really is a special program and one I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning to heal.

I’ll leave you with a few of the promises listed in the program:

  • Our ability to share intimacy will grow inside us.

  • Fear of authority figures and the need to “people-please” will leave us.

  • As we face our abandonment issues, we will be attracted by strengths and become more tolerant of weaknesses.

  • Healthy boundaries and limits will become easier for us to set.

  • We will choose to love people who can love and be responsible for themselves.

  • We will learn how to play and have fun in our lives.

  • Gradually, with our Higher Power’s help, we will learn to expect the best and get it.


Interested in ACA literature?

I highly recommend this little devotional to get you started. It has a short devotional for every day of the year. You can also order the Big Red Book, which is the basic text for the ACA fellowship. There is also a Steps Workbook and a Laundry Lists Workbook.

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