It was a book title that spawned a movement and gave people a name for who they were and what they were feeling: “Adult Children of Alcoholics.”
Jan Woititz was a Montclair therapist who came up with the term after surveying the damage wrought by her own alcoholic marriage. Having failed to find help for her three children, she went out and invented that help herself.
Her books occupied the bestseller lists for months at a time, making her popular on the guest lecture and conference circuit. “ACOA” became a shorthand term used in recovery circles.
And what was her daughter doing while all this was happening?
As a small child, Lisa Sue Woititz said she was running away, hiding at a neighbor’s to see if anyone would notice. When they didn’t and she grew bored, she’d return home.
As a seventh-grader, she was already swiping her father’s Chevette while he was at work, driving her friends around town to the astonishment of onlookers. At one point they cut school and headed to the Shore for the day, with Woititz blasting through the tollbooths because wasn’t sure how they worked and didn’t have the money anyway.
By high school, she said she was already a drinker. She gave up alcohol after dear friends were killed by a drunk driver, and regularly attended 12-Step meetings in Nutley – yet met her friends afterwards to smoke pot.
“That’s the ironic thing about it: While she was out there talking to hundreds and thousands of people, I was back home having the biggest keg party imaginable,” she now says of her mother, who died in 1994 at the age of 55.
Woititz is now a clean and sober, law-abiding, gainfully employed mother of three who lives in upstate New York and works with homeless youth and mental health clients applying for disability.
And now, like her mother, she’s an author.
“Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family’s Cycle of Addictive Behaviors” is her contribution to the field of substance-abuse recovery. It is part memoir and part parenting advice, with previously unpublished writings from her mother spliced in as well. (Her mother is listed as a co-author.)
On a recent walk through her old Montclair neighborhood, Woititz, 50, laid out this chronology of her mother’s journey alongside the timetable of her childhood: She was eight when her father stopped drinking, and about 14 when her parents divorced. Around that time her mother published “Marriage on the Rocks.”
She was in high school when her mother attended night classes at Montclair, and went on to pursue her doctorate at Rutgers. She graduated from high school in 1983 – the same year The book spent more than a year on the bestseller list, and still sells 10,000 copies a year, according to its publisher.was published.
Woititz helped her mother transcribe interviews for her research, and later, took over managerial responsibilities at the Institute for Counseling and Training, her mother’s thriving practice in West Caldwell.
It took some heavy-duty therapy, however, for her to admit that as much as she admired and even emulated her mother, she was also angry at her for failing to protect her from her father’s drinking. Mixed in was lingering jealousy of all those patients who got more of her mother’s attention than she did, she said.
“People who grew up in an alcoholic home have issues, but they’re not ‘broken.'”
These days, as a parent herself, she’s much more at peace with the memory of her mother, whom she calls “a rock star.” She has a loving relationship with her father, who is still alive.
She knows her upbringing probably saddled her with food issues; she has recently shed 70 pounds, although not for the first time. But she also knows her “unwelcome inheritance” makes her great in a crisis.
Her book came about at the urging of a gentleman in one of the recovery groups she still attends. “You should write a book,” he told her. She viewed it as a cliché’d but meaningless compliment. After all, the group knew her only as “Lisa,” not as the daughter of the famous Jan Woititz.
The man persisted, however, saying he really meant it, and furthermore, knew of a literary agent who would be interested. The book was an easy sell to, the company that specializes in addiction tools, including publications for and about Alcoholics Anonymous.
Woititz’s book was originally going to be titled, “Adult Children Raising Alcoholics,” capturing the notion that left unchecked, this “unwelcome inheritance” can be passed to the next generation.
She changed her mind, though, because the whole point of her book is that each person can be the agent of change in their family, affecting both the generation before them and the generation after them.
In the last three decades, Woititz has seen what began as a small therapy group that met in her house turn into an international movement.
That makes her proud, as well as a bit concerned. She’s puzzled by people who talk about being “ACOA” the way others talk about being color-blind – treating it as a lifetime problem. “I just don’t agree with that,” she said.
She said her mother never intended that one’s upbringing be seen as a trait that could never be changed. “People who grew up in an alcoholic home have issues, but they’re not ‘broken,'” she said.
Instead, her mother ran a series of counseling sessions that were designed to convey the life lessons missed in a turbulent childhood. Once those sessions were completed, she said, people were supposed to get on with their lives. Towards the end of her mother’s life, when she was dying of cancer, she worried that people were getting “stuck” in the ACOA identity.
Woititz sees her own book as the next step, laying out the pathway to get unstuck.
Her mother is buried at King Solomon Memorial Park in Clifton, which Woititz describes, in classic Jersey fashion, as “right behind the Tick Tock Diner.” When her manuscript was finally done, she took it on one of her cemetery visits to show her mother “their” book.
Woititz said her mother felt fervently that anyone who has insights or information that can help others has obligation to share them. That thought was the lodestar of her writing.
“What happened in my home on Marquette Road? The whole point is so many other homes are just like mine,” she said.
— Kathleen O’Brien