This is an except from Dr. Claudia Black’s best selling book, “It Will Never Happen To Me.” The book is available at http://www.claudiablack.com/
While hundreds of thousands of people are in recovery from chemical dependency, co-dependency, and adult child issues, our communities continue to be impacted by addiction. Heroin, cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and marijuana use is rampant throughout our communities. But historically the number one abused drug is alcohol.
The National Association of Children of Alcoholics has reported 76 million Americans, about 43% of the U.S. adult population, have been exposed to alcoholism in the family. Almost one in five adult Americans (18%) lived with an alcoholic while growing up. There are an estimated 26.8 million children of alcoholics in the United States. Preliminary research suggests that over 11 million of these children are under the age of 18. Compared to children of non-alcoholics: They are more at risk for alcoholism and other drug abuse. They are more likely to marry into families in which alcoholism is prevalent. Thirteen to 25% of children of alcoholics are likely to become alcoholics. We also recognize clinically, that as adults, they experience a subset of behaviors related to shame based beliefs that create depression, victimization, rage, and a lack of meaning in their lives. While children from difficult environments often show much resiliency, for many, it is at a very high price.
When the term alcoholic, or addict, or chemically dependent is used, it often is referring to people who have neither the ability to consistently control their drinking or using, nor can predict their behavior once they start to drink or use, and /or whose drinking/using causes problems in major areas of their lives and yet continue to drink and/or use. This is a person who, in his or her drinking/using, has developed a psychological dependency on a substance coupled with a physiological addiction. It is someone who has experienced a change in tolerance to alcohol/drugs and needs to drink/use more to acquire the desired effect. They have a need to drink or use which progressively becomes a greater and greater preoccupation in their lives. At one time in their lives, they had the ability to choose to drink or use. In time, it became not a matter of choice, but a compulsion.
Many people are confused about chemical dependency because there is no one specific pattern of behavior. Addicts differ in their styles of drinking/using and the consequences of the addiction vary widely. Some drink daily; others in episodic patterns; some stay dry for long intervals between binges; some drink enormous quantities of alcohol, use other drugs, others do not. Some drink only beer; some drink only wine; while for others their choice is hard liquor. Still others will drink a wide variety of alcoholic beverages.
Although addiction appears very early in the lives of some people, for others it takes years to develop. Some claim to have started drinking addictively from their first drink; many others report they drank for years before crossing over the “invisible line” which separates social drinking from addictive drinking. While the focus of It Will Never Happen To Me will remain on families where alcohol is the primary drug that is abused, it is my hope the reader will see the similarities in other substance abusing families.
The commonalities will be in living with extremes, living with the unknown, or the fears. It is the living in a system where the addiction has become central to the family and the needs of the individual family members become secondary to the needs of the addict and his or her addiction.
Commonalities To Other Addictive Disorders
Since the original writing of It Will Never Happen To Me in the early 1980s, we have not only been more adept at recognizing multi drug abuse, we are recognizing what is referred to as process addictions and the fact that both substance and process addictions often co-exist and are interrelated. Such addictions would include gambling, spending, eating disorders, sex, love and relationship addictions.
The commonalities across addictive disorders are:
- A pattern of out-of-control behavior, meaning that one is not able to predict their use once they engage in the substance or behavior, nor willingly stop their use
- Negative consequences due to the behavior
- Inability to stop, despite the consequences
- An increase in tolerance and amounts of indulgence — the need to use or engage more to get the desired effect
- Preoccupation — the anticipation of, involvement in, or reflection about their addictive behavior is the focus of their thoughts and feelings
- Denial — minimization, rationalization, denial of their behavior as a problem permeates their thinking to the point of delusional thinking
To apply this to other behaviors, know that addictive obsession can exist in whatever generates significant mood alteration, whether it is the self-nurturing of food, the excitement of gambling, or the intoxication of alcohol or other drugs.
Irrespective of the substance or object of the addiction, the co-addiction behavior follows very common routes as well.
Typically, we see the co-dependent experience:
- Loss of sense of self, how they feel, and what they need
- Being obsessed with another person that facilitates not dealing with own life
- Reacting to someone else’s behavior instead of from personal motives
- Being all-consumed with another and putting own priorities on hold
- Taking responsibility for other people, tasks, and situations
- Engaging in denial system
The dynamics of the addictive system, be the addiction alcohol, prescription pills, cocaine, heroin, gambling or sex, etc. are so similar that the impact on children is also very similar. For children in the family, the combination of addiction and co-addiction results in neither parent being responsive and available on a consistent, predictable basis. Children are affected not only by the addicted parent, but also by the non-addicted parent (if there is one) and by the unhealthy family dynamics created as a consequence to living in an addictive system.
Commonalities To Other Families
One of the gifts of what we have come to learn about people raised in chemically dependent families is that it has offered extremely useful information for people raised in other types of troubled families as well. Whether or not you were raised in an addictive family system, It Will Never Happen To Me may very well offer a framework to understand your situation. We have long recognized that people raised with physical and sexual abuse strongly identify as if they were raised with addiction. Many times they were raised with both. People who were raised with mental illness, ranging from schizophrenia to depression, to raging parents frequently identify with adult child issues. People raised with parents impacted by chronic health issues, or physical challenges may identify.
Another reason for identification is to be raised by those who were raised with addiction (to be raised by adult children), who may not manifest an active addiction, but the thinking and behavior is often characteristic of addiction. The connecting thread between these different types of families is experiencing chronic loss that fuels emotional isolation, rigidity, or shame. Whatever the circumstances, when you come from a history of loss it is like being a first cousin to the person raised with addiction. Therefore if this information can benefit others raised in troubled families, this is an added gift.
The terminology was different than it is today. Today we seldom refer to someone as alcoholic, and recognize people are often addicted to more than one substance. And we use the phrases like “chemically dependent” or “addict” to recognize that irrespective of one’s predominant substance addiction that they need to refrain from the use of alcohol and other drugs. This has occurred for two reasons, the first being it was recognized that many alcoholics were actively addicted to at least one other substance; and secondly, that even if they did not show signs of a second addiction, they needed to refrain from the use of other substances because those other substances would often lead them to relapse to their primary or secondary addiction.
In the 1970’s, spouses and partners of the alcoholic were referred to as co-alcoholics. Today they are more commonly thought of as co-dependents, or co-addicts. Originally the prefix “co” was used to describe a marriage partner who had become increasingly preoccupied with the behavior of the addict and functioned in the role of a primary enabler. It now encompasses the dynamics of giving up a sense of self, or experiencing a diminished sense of self in reaction to an addictive system.
The only acknowledgement of the impact of children was in the professional journals citing the research about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and the genetic predisposition to alcoholism. The emotional or social impact was not discussed, and the phrase “adult children” or “co-dependency” non-existent.