Thursday, February 21, 2013

Addictive Families Part 5: Don't Trust

“I am always on my guard with people. I want to trust them, but it is so much easier to just rely on myself. I’m never sure what other people want.”

Children raised in addictive families learn that it is not safe to trust others with the real issues in their lives. To trust another means investing confidence, reliance, and faith in that person – virtues often missing in the addictive home. Children need to be able to depend on parents to meet their physical and emotional needs in order to develop trust. Parents are not consistently available to their children because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, physically absent, mentally and emotionally consumed with their addiction or preoccupied with the addicted person.

In order for children to trust, they must feel safe. They need to be able to depend on their parents for friendly help, concern and guidance in response to their physical and emotional needs. In addictive homes, however, children often cannot rely on parents to provide safety and are continually confronted with reasons to be insecure in their surroundings, to not trust.

Honesty is the single most important ingredient in a nurturing relationship. Addicted people lose their ability to be honest as the disease progresses. It is difficult to trust a person who constantly embarrasses, humiliates, disappoints, or puts you in physical jeopardy. It is even more difficult to trust when family members minimize, rationalize, and/or blatantly deny certain events are taking place. Children need focused attention. Focused attention represents not only physically being with a child, but also interacting with the child in a way, that says, “You have all of my attention — mentally and emotionally.” Focused attention says to a child, “I care. It’s important for me to be with you.” Children are highly sensitive to the degree of focused attention they receive.

Children need focused attention most when they are under stress. Unfortunately, in an addictive family this is when they are least apt to receive it. Stress often becomes the norm in this environment and the attention centers around the addict.

Because of broken promises and not being able to rely on the consistency of positive interaction, children are often confused. Children don’t trust the motivation behind true focused attention. Trust is one of those vital character-building blocks children need in order to develop into healthy adults. Being raised in an addictive family structure often denies or distorts this portion of a child’s development.

“I have a hard time trusting my mom.” — Chuck, age 6

Monday, February 4, 2013

Addictive Families Part 4: Don't Feel

Don’t Feel It has been my experience that by the time a child being raised in an addictive family reaches the age of nine, he has a well-developed denial system about his feelings and his perceptions of what is happening in the home. Children do whatever they possibly can to bring stability and consistency into their lives. They will behave in any manner if it makes it easier for them to cope and survive. Learning to focus on the environment, or on other people, or learning to detach oneself from the family, assists children in not feeling.

Children learn not to share and, inevitably, deny their feelings. Family members frequently discount and invalidate their feelings. “You have nothing to be afraid of.” … when in fact they may very well have something to be afraid of. “You have nothing to be angry about.”… when there are often many reasons to be angry, leading to emotional isolation. Being alone with feelings of fear, worry, embarrassment, guilt, anger, loneliness, etc., leads to a state of desperation or being overwhelmed. Such a state of being does not lend itself to survival, so children learn other ways to cope. Some learn how to discount and repress feelings, while others learn simply not to feel. These children do have access to their feelings, but only with the help of a trusted person. For the majority of children growing up with addiction, however, trust and trusted persons are not a consistent part of their lives.

These children are building up walls of self-protection. They are learning unhealthy coping mechanisms to protect themselves from the fear of their reality. The reality is that their parents are failing them. As the addiction progresses, the substance becomes the parents’ obsession. When family members experience the results of this obsession, they ask the questions, “Why?” “Why does my mom disappoint me at important times?” “Why does my dad embarrass me like that?” “Doesn’t he love me?” “Why is my dad drinking so much?” “Are my parents ever going to get better?” “Is she crazy?” “Is it my fault?” “Am I crazy?” It is frightening for family members to ask such questions of themselves. It can be even more frightening to allow themselves to answer honestly.

As a result, these children often learn to discount and inevitably deny those feelings entirely. The reason for denying is to convince themselves, as well as others, that their unhappy family life can be made happy by pretending, or denying reality. The greatest problem here is that when someone minimizes and discounts feelings for not just weeks, but months and years of their life, it becomes a skill they take with them into adulthood that will permeate every significant area of their life.

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Intimate Treason

I recently returned from an addiction symposium in Cape Cod, Sept. 6-9, 2012, where Intimate Treason was debuted. As people saw the book, many approached me and wanted to share their stories of not knowing what recovery could look like for them other than waiting for their partner to find his or her recovery. And in the cases where the relationship ended they didn’t feel that somehow there was a direction other than trying to be able to identify the behavior in another partner more quickly. So to have a book that was totally about their healing irrespective of what a partner does was extremely welcomed.

A strong response by many was that they heard the trauma of their experience validated. They experience what trauma experts call Little T traumas… what I have previously called emotional abandonment in the context of relationships. To be in a relationship with your perceptions invalidated, compared to others, being intimated that who you are is not good enough, your feelings not listened to, and honesty and respect thrown out the window are just some of the many ways that partners are traumatized. Many quickly said they identified with symptoms characteristic of PTSD and yet felt guilty because, after all, as painful as their situation was, it was only a “relationship problem compared to something horrific such as an act of war.” Partners experience Intrusion: your mind can’t stop thinking about the problem. This can occur in the form of intrusive images, nightmares, or flashbacks; Avoidance: numbing, feeling detached; Arousal: feeling on guard; Easily startled and triggered by situations that remind them of the crisis; Lower functioning: not able to perform at usual level with work, relationships, or other major areas of life.

They identified with the typical symptoms found with those having PTSD: • Betrayal of trust: Fear of trusting the addict and self. • Psychic and physical pain and anguish: Range of emotions that at times feel out of control. Increased headaches, back, and neck aches, stomach problems. • Hypervigilance: Fear that the other shoe is going to drop. • Preoccupation: Obsessing about the addiction and worrying about whether to stay or leave the relationship. • Loss of safety and security: Sexual, financial, and emotional fears grow and/or increase.

So while Cara Tripodi (co-author) and I realize not all partners identify as strongly with the trauma responses as others, to know we have nonetheless brought a validation and a framework for those that do is affirming.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Camp Mariposa

I had a wonderful experience the last weekend in September when I attended Camp Mariposa here in Washington State. This is a camp for children affected by addiction in the family. This particular one was for younger kids age 9 – 12. A few years ago I was approached by Karen and Jamie Moyer (professional baseball player) as they have a foundation whose mission is focused on children in need. The outcome is that through the Bellevue based agency Youth Eastside Services (YES) they offer 6 camps a year for kids 9 – 17 years of age. The camp includes an outdoor challenge and ropes course as well as singing and s-mores! I had to laugh as one of the songs was a song I use to sing when I went bar hopping as a child with my father. (He went to the bar - I was just waited in the car for hours, but we sang between bars.) These kids tend to not come from homes with recovery, and many have needed alternative living situations. As one young boy said to me, ‘Most of us have been raised by girls.’ He meant single mothers, aunts, grandmothers, or other females. There were few family heroes, mostly they identified as lost children and family mascots. Andrea Frost from YES leads the weekends and has a staff of twelve with her for the twenty four kids. That in itself was incredible. I loved watching the tools they used to calm and refocus 24 very active kids. They actually had them knitting—and yes the boys loved it. They would do a yoga pose, and then shake out their stress, learning about letting go. I enjoyed the creativity of how they worked with kids, using analogies of trees or animals, talking about feelings, family roles, and self care. Of course when the kids acted out family scripts you realized just how much they’ve seen and internalized. It was a lot of fun for them to be on stage, to be seen and heard and to own so much of the reality of their lives. Throughout the weekend, the focus was on taking some of these new skills into their daily lives, knowing that the kids were still in some very difficult situations. To see them have so much fun while learning to trust, learn skills of self care, talk honestly…. well you get the picture. It was touching and inspiring to see these kids have such a good time in a traditional camp setting. For the staff at YES it was a weekend of great compassion, skill and commitment beyond the normal work expectation and as is often true, Karen Moyer was in attendance, actively participating. The Moyer Foundation will soon be implementing Camp Mariposa in Indiana and Florida. To learn more about Camp Mariposa and Camp Erin, a bereavement camp for children, visit the Moyer Foundation.