i am an adult child — the fine line between trauma and mental illness (is there one?)


I finally purchased the “Big Book” of the 12-step program of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA). It is like a snort of spiritual cocain. I feel seen; I can ‘get’ myself.

If we define mental illness as being unable to thrive due to mental and emotional patterns, then trauma is absolutely in this category. I think it is every bit as disabling. If, however, we define mental illness as strictly the result of chemical imbalances, trauma survivors are left to fend for themselves. So, this is what I’m chewing on.

These writings have inspired this debate in my mind by doing justice to the severity of anxiety, depression, identity confusion and complete life paralysis that has plagued my life. This on the heels of my therapist telling me at our last session that he doesn’t think I have bpd, after 2 years of re-identifying myself as a person with mental illness, and all the understanding, forgiveness and compassion I have gained from this understanding of myself. I felt devastated. If I am not mentally ill then I am even more fucked up than I’d thought. What the readings below add to this thought is, “… or, I am a survivor of trauma, and necessitate just as much support and compassion in order to live as someone with a mental illness.”

These writings counter and soothe all the protests that come up for me when I say that. “You are being a drama queen.” “You are just wanting attention.” “You have no excuse for not thriving in life; give yourself a big kick in the ass and get back to work you lazy complainer.”

Here are some of my favourite excerpts so far. I have made up my own headings here, and enclosed any alternate or omitted words I have chosen in [square brackets]:


While many adult children appear cheerful, helpful or self-sufficient, most live in fear […] Others are constantly afraid of failing finances, health problems or world disasters. They have a sense of impending doom, or that nothing seems to work out. Even the seemingly bold adult child who shows bravado can be covering up a deep sense of feeling unsafe or unloveable.


Shame is the deep sense that our souls are inherently flawed.


In some cases, adult-child shame is so pervasive that it can paralyze the person’s body and mind. Adult children have described “shame attacks,” which can cause physical illness or an age regression. During age regression, an adult child can feel physically small. Even vision can be affected when shame is released into the body. An intense shame episode can cause room dimensions to appear warped and lighting to appear odd. Many adult children have difficulty fully breathing during these moments.


The adult child syndrome is somewhat interchangeable with the diagnosis of codependence. There are many definitions of codependence; however, the general consensus is that codependent people tend to focus on the wants and needs of others rather than their own. By doing so, the codependent or adult child can avoid his or her own feelings of low self-worth. … A codependent focuses on others and their problems to such an extent that the codependents life is often adversely affected. …

In ACA, we realize that we could not have reacted another way, given our dysfunctional upbringing. As children, we focused on the odd or neglectful nature of our parents’ behaviour. We mistakenly thought we caused their moods or attitudes or could do something to change circumstances. We did not realize that we were children and that adults were responsible for their own feelings and actions. … We took responsibility for [our parents’ dysfunctional feelings and actions], thinking we could make them stop, slow down, and eventually love us. This mistaken perception, born in childhood, is the root of our codependent behaviour as adults. By living with [dysfunctional] parents, we developed a dependent, false self. Our false self constantly seeks outward affection, recognition or praise, but we secretly believe we don’t deserve it. Meanwhile, the Inner Child is driven into hiding. The false self is the adult child personality expressed in the 14 Traits of The Laundry List.

[Also on false self: ]

A false self emerges that protects the hidden True Self from harm, but at a heavy price. Without help, the destructive false self is too much for most adult children to separate from.


Our experience shows that we often lived as victims. By living as victims or with victim characteristics, adult children seek to control others and ward off potentially shaming or abandoning situations. Taking the victim position can be shrewdly manipulative for the adult child who knows how to use it […]. Many adult children, who practice being a victim, often switch over to the super-responsible role in preparation for a return to the victim role. By taking on too much work and responsibility, one can vault into a fit of rage, collapse, or isolation. The person hopes to garner sympathy and pity. The victim re-emerges.

Playing the victim or being overly responsible allows the adult child to avoid focusing on his or herself. Both roles are saturated with codependent avoidance of feelings and being responsible for one’s own feelings. By concerning ourselves with others and their chaos, we avoid doing anything about our own lives. By being overly concerned about others, adult children wrongly think they are involved in life. In reality, they are missing life. The enmeshed, codependent ACA can be so wrapped up in another person’s thoughts and actions that the adult child has no inner life or outer support when the [person, place or thing] wanes. Codependent ACA’s report feeling lethargic, disoriented and hopeless when their partners are gone. This is the high price for focusing on others.


We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that our childhood was perfect, loving, or uneventful and then act out with addition or other compulsions. People who truly care about themselves will tell you that they learned to do so in childhood. The thought of harming themselves or staying in a controlling relationship does not appeal to them. They do not live as enablers or as people unsure of their purpose in life. If these people could learn to believe in themselves as children, then why is it so hard for us to accept that we learned to disbelieve in ourselves as children? This is near the core of our woundedness. We do not believe in ourselves.

People who truly care for themselves cannot always point to a childhood event that let them know that they were valued by their parents. But their actions show they care about themselves. Conversely, we cannot always point to an incident in our childhood in which we decided we were inferior or defective based on our parental messages. Yet, our actions show that we really do not care for ourselves. Despite what we say, we believe that we are incomplete. We compare ourselves to others and usually come up short. There is a hole inside us that can never be filled with enough food, drugs, sex, work, spending or gambling. We become more aware of this hole with each failed relationship or job.


Author: innerlight

A capricorn horse. Creative dreamer, over thinker. bpd, insecure attachment and any other labels for deep and chronic wounds and other gifts of brilliance that propel intense and eclectic lives and make for good art. We are high needs and high return, all the way, all the way. Surrender, integration, repair, rebuild, connect, create, evolve. Deeply.

3 thoughts on “i am an adult child — the fine line between trauma and mental illness (is there one?)

  1. I used to know someone who worked for MIND in the UK. She said over 60% at least of the clients who used their service were known to have been abused in one way or another. They had a range of mental health issues. Research in Aukland studying the brains of peopl diagnosed with schizophrenia and people who had been sexually abused found their brains showed the same or similar differences to the norm. It’s my personal opinion that one day we will discover that all adult. (And childhood) mental health issues are due to childhood neglect and/or abuse.

    • Here, here, birdie. I would like to see it acknowledged that trauma is equally disabling to mental illness (there is no separation). Just because I suddenly don’t fit into a mental illness does not mean I am fine and should just get my shit together, think more positively, and get a job. It’s like the system is waiting for me to snap further, commit a crime, commit suicide and/or start talking to myself in public before it will help me. From where I stand, and when it comes to government and social programming, trauma survivors fall through the cracks. Oh, well, nothing new, eh. What’s another abandonment.

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