“Hero child” as federal trial judge

This may read like something James Joyce wrote but without any of his talent. If so, live with it and read on, or close the page.

My mother died when she was 50 after her liver and most everything else gave out following 30 years of very hard-drinking. She was one of the smartest people I have ever known, but she was also a mean drunk. I don’t use the word “mean” as an exaggeration. Over the years, and while I was a judge, I sought help from physicians and therapists for anxiety and depression. I learned a lot along the way.

While it sounds annoyingly “new age,” I am what therapists call a “hero child.” That is, an adult who grew up as child of an alcoholic parent, typically the oldest (like me), and who responds to the chaos by serving as the self-designated family savior.

Please read this elaboration that pretty closely fits what I have learned:

The role I’m describing today is the “hero child”. It is usually taken on by the oldest child in the family. The purpose of the hero child is to bring honor back to the family’s image and identity. It’s disgraced by the presence of addiction. The hero child’s public presentation saves face for the family both to themselves and to the others.

The hero child is likely an overachiever, throws themselves into their school activities, gets high grades, and so on. They rarely get into trouble and have a longing for approval. The public good name of their family rides on their shoulders. Their desperate hope is that if they are just good enough, smart enough, responsible enough, and accomplish enough, they can drag their unhealthy family out of the pit and all will be well.

It is just a distraction, of course. The alcoholic will still be alcoholic no matter what the hero child accomplishes and no matter how clean their room is. And they are unlikely to get that approval they so desperately want. Eventually, the stress and strain of giving so much of themselves for the sake of the family – and for what?

This can sometimes be internalized as anxiety or depression. And once they realize they could never do enough, the hero child can become very resentful towards the family. The alcoholism creates a black hole that sucks the life and love away from the family, leaving a lot of pain behind.

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP, Child of Alcoholism – Hero Child, PsychCentral (2009).

As I write this, it is Sunday. I am 67 today. I have traveled out-of-state to try a civil case beginning tomorrow. Joan, my wife, was sick when I left. Given her recent bout with cancer, and despite her successful treatment, I am worried and I feel helpless. Our kids are scattered all over the world living their lives. The hotel room is odd. It is decorated in big and little images of large Elk Moose.* In the morning, I will go to work in a courthouse I have never been in before, pick a jury, and then try the case. I am both anxious and a little depressed at the thought. I am resentful too, although I volunteered for this gig.

Elk decor in hotel room

Elk Moose decor in hotel room

But here’s the deal. I am not unusual. There are a lot of “hero children” who are federal trial judges. Their drivers may be and probably are different from mine, but they have always compulsively striven no matter the personal costs. Hard and good work is never enough. Sir, may I have another?

The weird thing is that when these types grow up, they make pretty good judges. The sad thing is that they don’t have a choice.


PS You can also read this as a terribly irritating (and embarrassing) “poor me.” Honestly, that is not what I intend. But you be the judge.

*A law clerk in Lincoln and the law clerk traveling with me exchanged e-mails and advise that the critters are Moose not Elk. That’s just great. Now I am picking on poor dumb creatures, and I can’t even get that right.

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