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The Craziness With Addiction and Family

When addiction is present in a family, all kinds of crazy behavior can develop as a way of coping.

fighting parents over addicted loved one

Addiction is a Family Disease.

Years ago, I heard the saying "Addiction is a Family Disease", I thought, well that makes sense because it affects the whole family, or addiction can be genetic and passed down through the generations of a family; I figured it meant something like that. Many years later I figured out that it meant something entirely different. The whole stinking family can become sick, that's what it can mean. Sick how? Crazy sick, dysfunctional sick, irrationally sick.

Yes, addiction of a loved one can take an emotional and physical toll on a person, it can be a very traumatic experience. One crazy event after another, constant chaos. You may keep your blinders on for a while, not wanting to admit what is really going on. It is a difficult pill to swallow, especially with the harder drugs; there is a lot of stigmas around certain addictions, not something that you want the neighbors to catch on about. So, you may just keep your head in the clouds for a while, telling yourself it is something different; depression, a mental condition, an illness of some sort or telling yourself they are just in a funk. You may choose not to see the obvious signs, their dilated eyes, sleeping all the time or being awake, missing work, or their lack of hygiene or caring about anything. I know I remember being so perplexed: Why am I always out of foil when I need it? Why is there always black marks on my nice bathroom towels, what could he be possibly doing to get so dirty? When is the last time he took a shower, why does he look so greasy all the time? I thought for sure he had an undiagnosed condition. I was constantly scratching my head but not really looking for the answers. I just was not ready to see it for what it was.

Please Pass the Potato Salad.

I will never forget one weekend we were having a family barbeque, my dad (who was in law enforcement) was in town with his girlfriend (who was a nurse) we all just sat down at the table to eat when my son and his girlfriend walked in late. They both had bandages around their arms because they had just come from giving blood at a blood bank. Mind you, both had jobs, but they had started doing this recently for "extra money" because neither of them could ever make it to their payday. They both looked grimy, mumbled hi to everyone and were avoiding eye contact. My father and his girlfriend muttered a couple of off-color comments to each other about this current situation under their breath to each other, which caused everyone else at the table to look at each other with some wincing faces. That made me so mad, I mean furious! I could not believe the gall of those two, I thought, how dare you make insinuations about my kid at the kitchen table during Sunday dinner! I mean REALLY? But I did not show my anger, instead, in my most motherly, polite, housewifey way, I smiled and asked them to "please pass the potato salad" and said, "boy, this chicken turned out wonderful, don't you think?" As a way to say, HELLO, eyes over here, there is nothing to see over there!

I fumed over that for days. So upset with my dad. Of course, if he had handled it differently, maybe taken me aside... privately, and had a sensible conversation with me, then maybe I would have dad a different response. Maybe I would have been able to face the issue at the time. But families often do not work like that. Addiction makes people uncomfortable; I think it is hard for people to be sensible. Often people are just doing what has always been done with addiction in their family in the past. Often it is ignored or talked about behind others' backs with clucking tongues. Crazy outrageous behavior is witnessed by others with tight lips, no one wanting to speak up, or mention the obvious.

Then there are those closest to it, who has the hardest time accepting it as their reality because it is a really hard reality to be in. Once you see it, you can't unsee it, once it is spoken out loud, it can't can't be taken back. Little by little your actions become crazier and crazier, we turn ourselves into master detectives, constantly looking for clues. You find yourself reacting in ways that you never have before, not recognizing the person you have become, the whole family takes on roles and before you know it your home has become a runaway circus and you are the conductor, thinking that you are controlling the situation.

A typical day in a life would look like: the addict does this, and dad reacts in that way, mom runs to the rescue, angry at dad for acting that way, mom and dad are then are going at it, while sibling is off in their bedroom with headphones on trying to shut it all out and feeling neglected and alone, and the whole fight has given the addict a good reason to go get loaded. Then rinse and repeat. All these roles are interchangeable, but they all play out the same way, over and over. Sound familiar?

Or you could be stuck in the "pretend it's not happening phase", and the whole family plays their part, it's like an unspoken rule the whole family silently agreed to. Everyone knows that we don't talk about junior nodding off at the dinner table or we are not going to mention dad's truck is haphazardly parked on the front lawn after he ran over mom's flower bed when he came home in the wee hours the night before drunk...again. Everyone will stick to their roles and stay quiet; this becomes the survival method for the whole family, don't say anything, don't bring attention to it. It is almost like a panic that will rush over you if you feel that something or someone is not going play along and you can feel some kind of impending doom. There is so much fear wrapped up in these patterns within the family and it becomes more and more difficult to change over time, it becomes a way of life for many families.

Hmm, When Have I Felt This Way Before?

Over the years there have been many things I have said or done that I was ashamed of. His addiction brought out behavior in myself that I didn't recognize. I became erratic and on edge. I felt like I could not trust my own reality anymore, like I was losing a little piece of myself everyday. His addiction became all consuming. I mean, how could it not, it was now my responsibility to save his life, keep him alive and keep the rest of our household in one piece. That is no small feat! I could not ignore it anymore, I felt I had to take actions to control the situation at all costs.

It was during my own recovery that I realized that much of what I was doing was learned behavior. Co-dependency was alive and well in my family and it was modeled to me over and over again during my childhood. I learned that you don't speak about it, you don't draw attention to it; there was never a conversation to be had. I saw how important it was to do everything possible to keep those waters smooth and NEVER rock the boat. It was important to avoid conflict, keep the addict placated, clean up the mess, and keep things moving along; keep the family intact. So, it was really no wonder that my reaction to my son's addiction was, "please pass the potato salad" for quite some time.

Stop the Crazy Dance.

What was an incredible discovery for me was that it only takes one person in the family to stop the crazy dance. When one person stops reacting in the same predictable way, then everything changes, it's like no one knows what to do with that; everything pauses. And if you can continue making healthy changes, them there becomes a real possibility for change.

I had to learn how I was contributing to the problem, I had to learn what parts of my helping was actually enabling. I had to learn new ways to communicate, problem solve and make the effort to gain a new perspective. I had to recover from my own trauma and look at my own past and unhealthy patterns that I had developed, so that instead of reacting to these situations, I could make good choices. And let me tell you, that first time I spoke up, that first time I set a boundary or called him out on his behavior, it was HARD! It did not come naturally whatsoever, it felt the opposite of that, it was incredibly uncomfortable; every fiber of my being did not want to do it, it was like my body was fighting against it. But as time went on, I kept putting this into practice and I vowed to not let anything go unsaid in any area of my life; not just with my son. Believe it or not, it got easier and became more natural, and I did not feel like I was going to loose my lunch every time I did it. And yes, I also came to the conclusion that I could not save his life; that was not my responsibility, but what I can do is contribute to his life in a positive way that always supports his recovery; and for me, that is the best change I could have made for myself.

Change is hard! But change is possible!

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