Laura is What Is Known as An Adult Child of an Alcoholic — WIKACOA. These people often lived in homes rigged with laser beams that a kid could trigger with the wrong answer, the wrong thought, the wrong feeling, the wrong moment to be in the room. And of course the kid — often it is one kid (it was in her family) — that kid was blamed for setting off the alarms. The whole thing made the kid jumpy in some ways — both literally: for a good private laugh, be around Laura when a loud noise goes off — and speculatively: for a good head shake, ask her what she was thinking when that motorcade zipped by one nice spring day in Washington, DC (best sit down; there will be details, and it ends badly)– as well as extremely sensitive to cues from other people, who maybe have set a laser beam somewhere and maybe have a “tell.” This training-by-alarm cost Laura peace of mind (oh, that), along with her ability to let others take responsibility for their own messes.
WIKACOAs tend to have been raised with very wobbly guidelines – one day the rules were crazy strict and the next there were none at all — like maybe your mom was making you shoplift for her, you know? So one minute you are swimming along and the water is safe and refreshing, and the next there’s a shark that you feel a desperate need to make happy and docile. Or was it laser beams? It was all kind of hair-raising, apparently. She certainly became exquisitely attuned to the smell of shark, I can tell you that – and laser beams, which most of us can’t smell at all.
All that said, and here’s the thing: it can be a sweet deal to marry a Healthy Adult Child of an alcoholic, and I would not trade mine in for a normal person with only normal emotional intelligence. A HAC can be tremendously sensitive to what you’re feeling — and they really want you to be happy, which is usually awesome. Being happy becomes your only real job, and I tend to excel at that, so she thinks I’m great. When my spirits flag, she drops everything to serve as a backup generator. This is only occasionally annoying — as in the times when you just feel like being pissy and want to be free to enjoy that.
This kind of sensitivity to how other people are feeling, though, means that it’s sometimes hard for WIKACOAs to tell where they end and you begin. Laura has never, for example, had to go to the trouble of smoking weed herself. Someone around her takes a hit and she is instantly buzzed. She gets extra witty, but in a spacey way. She misplaces things and thinks it’s funny. Her eyes are a little glassy, in an attractive way. All without damaging her lungs or having to deal with a weird little headache in the morning.
This boundary disturbance, as we say in the biz, cuts both ways. WIKAOCAs project their feelings onto the people around them – more so than the rest of us, who do it all the time, except when we don’t. So if Laura’s grumpy, she thinks you probably are, too. Eventually you are, because you know how that goes. And if she’s feeling good, she might say something like, “On a scale of one to ten, how are you doing– 8?” before you have a chance to figure that out for yourself.
Laura will take a bit of food from her plate and offer it to the cat, saying, “Juni wants a bite of this.” That’s not generally true, but it’s nice of her to notice that the cat might feel left out from our meal. Noticing when people (or animals) might feel left out is another thing Laura is good at, because she was, in fact, left out a lot as a kid. It took me years to convince her that I rarely feel left out, and that that’s not what’s going on for me when I’m cooking, or reading, or stepping into the shower.
When the upper level atmospheric disturbance of projection meets the lower pressure system of mixed messages down at ground level, WIKACOAs create little relational weather systems. Laura came home having bought Juni some catnip, for example. “Somebody ought to be going wild around here,” she mutters as she sprinkles catnip onto the nice silk carpet. I step aside from that double-edged projection (what — I’m not going wild enough? is that it?) and watch the cat roll around in the catnip, under a luxurious spell. Eventually, Juni gets fagged out enough to just lie on the carpet, her fur flecked with catnip.
“Good God, Juni! Look at this mess!” says Laura next time she walks into the living room. She picks up the boneless, dopey cat. “You’re going outside, Missy!” she scolds. “You’ve just been lying around all day.”
I’ve tried to help Laura be more aware of when she is projecting onto the cat, but the closest we’ve come was the time she said (to the cat, mind you): “You’re thinking, ‘Stop projecting all your feelings onto me!’” I had to break the news to her gently but firmly.
“No, La. No.” I said, “The cat is not even thinking that.”