In society today, the word “addiction” often creates an image of a person falling down and slobbering drunk. Perhaps a man or woman who is unkempt and behaving deliriously, swaying and staggering from the overuse of drugs or alcohol.
But the reality is far from that visual. There still remains a lack of true understanding – within our society and some of our families – of what addiction really looks like in the family system. Children who grow up in alcoholic or addicted households experience trauma and grief; in some households there are chronic illnesses or emotional abuses and overly strict rules. Rather than remaining defeated, as adults, we can turn traumatic life experiences into resilience, wisdom, and strength.
When specializing in adult children of alcoholic, addicted, and dysfunctional family systems, dysfunction in the addicted family system is a common theme. However, many clients don’t present the addiction piece immediately when coming for treatment. Frequently, addiction in the family system is revealed later in our sessions, and is often one of the most common causes for ample grief, shame, fear, guilt, and depression.
Some examples of childhood trauma from addictive family systems begin with painful feelings a child may report because he is experiencing high anxiety in school, with the notion that “If I make a mistake, I am the mistake.” A preteen who divulges his feelings of needing to be perfect academically may say this. This child may experience disconnection with his peers, along with sadness around not fitting in that world and not quite understanding why. He meets the day with depression and a sense of not belonging. Something is quite different. Being denied a natural developmental path – as is commonly seen in addictive family systems – takes him to thoughts of suicide. Instead, his attention goes to staying safe in his dysfunctional family system rather than to meeting his developmental task and growing in his social world.
In many addictive homes, parents are not able to provide emotional safety and comfort for the child because their focus is on their own means of self-soothing (i.e., the addiction). A child may become overwhelmed with intense feelings, and to survive in his unhealthy family system, he disconnects emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. He disowns those parts of himself that can feel; to feel becomes too painful. The child takes on the denial of the dysfunction or addictive family system in order to meet his own needs, which is emotional safety. He goes deeper and deeper into himself.
This child never notices that his peers seek growth, for they are safe and do not have to defend in their family systems. The boy continues on his adolescent path into adulthood much differently than others. As he develops, his old feelings may become held in his body; muscular and psychological obstacles develop that protect him from tension in the family home.
Many people realize that if we are not able to set our own healthy limits, our emotional and physical health may be affected. Children do not have the capacity to realize their parent’s pain. They do not understand that parents may be lost too. As the parent’s preoccupation with their own needs dominates the family, confusing messages deny natural developmental needs for children. The child is set up for internal struggles that may appear later in their own relationships and families. Fear, denial, shame, or worthlessness accompany the child as he matures, and he must figure out his own emotional means of safety.
Some parents fuse into a state of conflict, and their worlds revolve around obtaining the drink or drug and avoiding life discomforts. Sometimes the child becomes the target of anger; some forms of anger are indirect. Abuse also comes in the form of rigid rules, insults, and sarcasm. Children’s defenses develop to manage the pain of parental anger. Staying stuck in anger supports depression, which keeps the child hurt, confused, isolated, and in fear. Most children choose to stay safe rather than to thrive; repetitive emotional cycles of denial occur: “There’s nothing wrong here, everything is fine; don’t talk about it.” The denial system deepens as the child learns the unspoken rules of “don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.” Addiction and abuse jumps to another generation.
Hyper-vigilance may become a means of learning to stay safe in the home. Children learn to be aware of and avoid mother or father’s anger or eruptions. These children learn by watching and listening and are always on the alert. Hyper-vigilance and avoidance becomes a mantra of self-care, creating a new norm of anxiety. Self-blame flares up and the children in the home each take on survival roles to adapt. Imprinted to their psyche becomes the belief, “No matter what I do, I won’t be good enough. If I were good enough you would tend to me, not the drug.”
In treating people who have grown up in these settings, it is important to honor and respect the fact that they made it through their childhoods with amazing strengths that once served as a survival skill. For the couple who couldn’t connect, their intimacy was an issue of not knowing how to be vulnerable and trust, which was learned in childhood. Even though each person in the partnership did not abuse alcohol or drugs, their procedural learning was how to cope with vulnerability from their addicted role models – which was not to cope at all. Avoidance is a slice of denial.
Sometimes those who have felt the craziness inside can learn to understand where some of the messages were from – this dysfunctional family system. If we can stay in the reality of our life story and learn to feel our feelings, we create openness where we can grow. Many survivors of drug or alcohol abuse don’t realize the severity of the chronic stress that was an outcome of the hyper-vigilance in the family home. One can become freed by learning the language of feelings; as we tap into our creative energy we are able to release uncomfortable feelings of fear and pain.
The pain of childhood loss, and a very special part of one’s life that has been lost due to trauma, is valid. It is the right of every child to be the center of their parent’s world and to experience their unconditional love. Period.
Soothing the wounds of the past is a challenging journey for those who have been affected by alcohol and drugs in their families, but a healthy life can be built. By building a safe connection between the adult child and the traumatized self, and noticing unhealthy behaviors and changing coping styles, the pain and fear of the past can be healed and resolved. Helping the emotional part of the child within grow up becomes a gentle journey with a qualified and empathic therapist. The part of the child that never got to grow because it was more focused on staying safe in their family system can grow today – it’s not too late. By building peer networks of support, regaining choice, obtaining a sense of self, and honoring his humanness, he can move toward an internal emotional safety that had never been present. When one finds that presence, it is quite beautiful.
A healing path is to honor all the gifts of survival that helped those once survive their childhood pain. As human beings, we applaud those survival strengths and learn gradually to have more confidence, to be more loving, and to be aware of our special humanness and capacity to slowly learn to take care of ourselves and find a new balance in life. Self-discovery is an amazing journey. To shed all the burden of the past comes with knowing and love.
To paraphrase Ernst Hemingway, resilient survivors of addicted families have become “stronger in the broken places.” Remember, help is here – you don’t have go it alone.