Thursday, January 24, 2013

Addictive Families Part 3: Don’t Talk

The Family Law: DON’T TALK ABOUT THE REAL ISSUES. The real issues: Mom is drinking again. Dad didn’t come home last night. I had to walk home from school because Mom had passed out at home and forgot to come and get me. Dad was loaded at the ball game. In the earlier stages of addiction, when someone’s drinking or using seems to become a more noticeable problem, family members usually attempt to rationalize the behavior. They begin to invent excuses. As the drinking or using increases, the rationalizations become their normal way of life. Family members focus on the problems but do not connect them to the addiction. An excuse offered to a child I had been working with for her dad’s irrational behavior was that he had a brain tumor and was going to die. The mother told the children their father wanted them to hate him before he died so it would be easier for them to accept his death when it happened. This client explains, “It didn’t feel right, but who was I to question my mom? She had enough problems as it was.” Sandy said she knew her father wasn’t alcoholic because, “My dad loved me.” She didn’t understand that addicted people are also capable of loving others. Sandy had heard about alcoholism only once at church where a recovering addict told his story. But what she heard was that particular person’s story. She could not relate this story as her father didn’t sound, look, or behave like this man. Such fragmented information is typical of children’s lack of knowledge concerning substance abuse. Fear and control often fuel the Don’t Talk rule. Skip described his father as abstinent but without recovery. He controlled himself by not drinking and controlled his family with silence. “My dad didn’t talk to me at all and my mother wouldn’t acknowledge that there was anything wrong. My life was filled with this engulfing terribleness and I thought it was me. I wanted my father to tell me there was something wrong. I wanted him to tell me it was his fault. I wanted to hear it was not my fault. Later, as I got older, I needed him to tell me he was proud of me. I didn’t get any of those things. I only got his silent rage.” Many adult children simply learned that things went much easier when they did nothing to “rock the boat.” Andrew said, “Dinner was pretty quiet. Anything we said rocked the boat. And then, if we were too quiet, that rocked the boat!” These children not only don’t talk about boat rocking issues, but they don’t talk about, or share, their fears, worries, or hurts with anyone. In many families, the rule of silence is a quiet collusion. Children will share the same bedroom with a sibling for years, both hearing the arguing taking place between mom and dad. Or, they hear mom crying night after night. But they only hear. They never speak to one another about it, although they may each cry — silently and alone. Many children believe they are betraying their parents and their family if they talk honestly. Children feel very loyal to their parents and, invariably, end up defending them, rationalizing that it isn’t really all that bad and continuing in what has now become a denial process. It is as if they are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with clouded lenses from which to view the world. Perceptions are altered, their reality distorted. They continue to discount and minimize; they learn to tolerate inappropriate behavior. They learn to live in denial.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Addictive Families Part 2: Family Rules

Thousands of children like Michael are being, or have been, raised in homes where at least one parent is addicted to alcohol or other drugs. And like Michael, these children appear to suffer no apparent ill effects. These young people usually do not leave home prematurely. They are typical in that, like most children, they leave home at the ages of seventeen, eighteen or nineteen. When they do venture out on their own, they face the task of making decisions about work, careers, lifestyles, friends, where and with whom they are going to live. They also make decisions about committed relationships and whether or not to have children.

These children, along with thousands of other young people, are beginning to make some of the most important decisions of their lives and then spend years implementing those choices. Typically, it will take the next six to eight years to implement and follow through with these career and family decisions. During this time, young adults focus on external events. It is not normally a time when they sit back and contemplate how good or poor the past years were for them. If they recognize they grew up with addiction, they breathe a sigh of relief and pat themselves on the back for having survived. They then begin going about their own lives, yet they frequently stay socially and emotionally entangled with their family.

It is about this time, when a young person reaches the mid-twenties that the effects of growing up in an addictive home become apparent. These now adult children begin to experience a sense of loneliness, that doesn’t make sense to them. They become aware of feelings, that separate them from others and often may find themselves depressed. And while this depression occurs more frequently and lasts longer, the source of the depression seems unidentifiable. Feelings of fear and anxiousness occur more frequently but they don’t know why they are having these feelings. They often feel empty and have difficulty maintaining close relationships. Many report that something seems to be missing in their relationships. A lack of meaningfulness begins to permeate every aspect of their lives. For many the repetition of the addiction has begun. Their drinking and using has become an important part of their life, or they are engaging in other behaviors in an addictive compulsive style, such as work, spending and gambling, disordered relationships with food, etc. Or they find themselves in relationships with others who are engaging in addictive behaviors. Should any of this be occurring, their ability to rationalize, deny, to tolerate inappropriate behavior coupled with low self-esteem blocks the ability to both see and respond in a healthy manner.

To break this cycle it is necessary to recognize the many processes that have occurred. For the next few weeks I will discuss the basis of children learning how not to talk honestly, how to minimize their feelings often to the point of denial, and the basis of not trusting others.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Addictive Families: The Rules

This is the beginning of a 4 part series. It begins with a poignant story of a young boy who is learning how not to openly talk about what is happening in his life that is so painful, how to shut down his feelings and how not to trust others. He is learning the dysfunctional rules – Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel.

The Best Little Boy in the World (He Won’t Tell) — Peter M. Nardi

Michael was doing very well in school. In fact, he was the brightest kid in class, the teacher’s favorite, one of the best behaved. He never created any disciplinary problems and always hung out with the good crowd. The best little boy in the world. “Why can’t we all be like Michael and sit quietly?” Sister Gertrude would say in her most melodious voice. Conform, be docile, do well, and be quiet. Hold it in. Don’t tell a soul.

And now he was waiting at the school corner for his mother to pick him up. This was always the hardest moment. What will she look like, how will she sound? Michael could tell right away if she had been drinking. The muffled voice, the pale, unmade-up face. He really didn’t know what it was all about. He just knew that when Dad came home he would fight with her. Argue, yell, scream, and run. Michael could hear them through the closed doors and over the humming of the air conditioner. He wondered if the neighbors could hear, too. Hold it in. Don’t tell anyone.

He was still waiting at the corner. She was fifteen minutes late. It was so good to go to school and get out of the house. But when three o’clock came he would feel the tension begin to gather inside him. He never knew what to expect. When she was not drinking, she would be smiling, even pretty. When drunk, she’d be cold, withdrawn, tired, unloving, and not caring. Michael would cook dinner and straighten up the house. He would search for the alcohol, like egg hunting on Easter morning, under the stuffed chair in the bedroom, in the laundry bag concealed among the towels, behind her hats in the closet. When he found it, he’d pour it down the sink drain. Maybe then no one would know that she’d been drinking. Maybe no one would fight. Don’t tell a soul.

She still hadn’t come to pick him up yet. She’d never been thirty minutes late. Sometimes she’d sleep late in the morning after Dad had already left for work, and Michael would make breakfast for his little sister and himself. Then a friend’s mother would take them to school. The biggest problem was during vacation time, especially around the holidays. He wanted to play with his friends. But he was afraid to bring them home. He was afraid to go out and play, too, because then she would drink. Michael didn’t want to be blamed for that. So he stayed in and did his homework and read. He didn’t tell his friends. Hold it in.

And still he was waiting alone on the corner. Forty-five minutes late. Michael decided to walk the ten blocks home. He felt that he was old enough now. After all, he took care of his little sister a lot. He took care of his mother a lot. He was responsible. He always did what people told him to do. Everyone could count on him for help. Everyone did. And he never complained. Never fought, never argued, never yelled. The best little boy in the world. Hold it in.

When he got nearer to home Michael’s heart felt as if it were going to explode. Her car was there. The house was locked tight. He rang the bell. He rang and rang as he felt his stomach turn inside out. He climbed through a window. No one seemed to be home. He looked around the house, in all the right hiding places. Finally, in the closet in his own bedroom, he saw his mom in her slip, with a belt around her neck and attached to the wooden rod. She was just sitting there, sobbing. She had been drinking. But maybe no one would find out. Michael wouldn’t tell anyone, ever. Hold it in.

Excerpted from It Will Never Happen to Me