Addictions are part of our culture and human experience. Some appear less harmful, like distractions or annoyances. Others destroy the addict and those around him or her. Because addictions are so embedded in our culture, it can be difficult to tell when an addiction has moved from an annoying habit to a threat to both the person and her or his family. This week, as part of celebrating the 70th birthday of Al-Anon for families and friends of people with out-of-control drinking problems, I will explore some of the many manifestations of the family disease that accompany deadly addictions.
My own story illustrates that the family disease isn’t obvious or recognized at first. Both my parents were moderate drinkers. My mom was a great baker; sweet treats were rewards and treasured. Both sugar addiction and alcohol addiction were a part of my mom’s family. My dad’s family didn’t drink for religious reasons, so sweets were a big deal there also. Over the years, I heard of an ever-increasing number of relatives with drinking problems. I also watched both grandmothers and countless aunts struggle with obesity and heart disease.
None of these family members’ addictions seemed to bother me or impact me directly. Yet, years later when I looked at my own relationship to alcohol and sugar, I saw that I, too, was impacted by the family disease. The impact was not merely physical; it included an inclination to anxiety and worry and an ongoing battle with a spiritual hole inside of me.
I initially attended an Al-Anon meeting out of curiosity, not because I thought I belonged. I had a neighbor whose husband was drunk much of the time, yet she seemed happy. I couldn’t understand why she was so happy. I learned she went to Al-Anon, so I tried a meeting. I didn’t return because I thought that I didn’t belong. Eventually, the emotional pain I experienced around the holidays caused me to try again. After a few meetings of doubting I belonged, I heard that the only requirement for membership is a problem with alcohol in a relative or friend. While still in denial about how much alcoholism was in my family, I was able to accept that there was a problem in at least one person I knew.
My story is not unique. Addictions come in many forms and go from generation to generation, sometimes appearing to skip a generation. There are of course some situations where the clues are obvious, often to everyone but the family members themselves. A spouse observes his wife increasing her wine consumption. She’s working part-time so she can be home in the afternoons to pick up their two children from school. As the drinking progresses to morning drinking, he doesn’t see it. He gets a call at work that his wife hasn’t shown up to pick up the children. She explains it away. It happens again. She says she had a headache and was taking a nap and overslept. Finally, she is in an accident, and she and the children are rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. He now is beginning to see his wife may have a problem. But he sees it as her problem. He alternates between being supportive and what he thinks is helpful and being angry and resentful. She wrecks the car two more times driving after drinking. He insists she get help and she goes to a treatment center. In a happy ending story, she is introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and he is told about the family disease and begins going to Al-Anon. The children get help to process what is happening in their family, too. Way too frequently, only the person with the drinking problem gets help or no one gets help and the pain for the whole family continues, often for decades or generations.
In the words of a son whose dad drank and worked to excess: “I lived in fear. I never knew if dad would be home for dinner. If he were there, it was only because mom badgered him and he spent the time picking a fight with Mom and then heading back out to the bar. Mom told us every day to stay out of our dad’s way and not to bother him. She never said it, but she worried about having enough money for food. As we got older, the fights became fewer. Dad was never home and mom was in her room sleeping or watching TV. As the oldest, I got my brother and sister to school and fixed most of the meals. When I was 17, I ran away from home and lived with a friend for a week. My parents didn’t seem to miss me. I came home and my younger sister asked: “Where have you been?” I started drinking after school with friends and enlisted in the Army after High School. By the time I got out of the service, I drank like my Dad.”
Not all children of alcoholics or addicts become addicts. Many become what some call “co-dependents” – people who need affirmation and approval from others to be OK with themselves. While not easy to face or admit, people who realize they try too hard to please others (whether an addicted partner, parent or friend) discover there is a lot of help available.
In addition to Al-Anon and Alateen for young people, Codependents Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics provide help for family and friends of alcoholics and addicts. Besides Twelve Steps programs, family counselors and health departments offer resources.
Have you experienced addiction in your family or with close friends? Have you wondered how it might have changed you? You may be relieved to learn you did not cause the addictive behavior, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it. What you can do is get help for yourself from support groups and professionals who understand your crazy life. There is no cost to attending Al-Anon or another Twelve Step meeting. Many have found surprising and unexpected relief and hope.
This post was published on Recovery Speakers on May 15.