Saturday, June 7, 2014

A Family Disease

I have recognized for a very long time that a genetic predisposition to addiction runs in families and even wrote about a genogram I created for my family a while back.  The genogram was created for a graduate class in substance abuse and what was clear to me, in my rudimentary research, is that even where there was no addiction to a substance present in a family unit, the behaviors that characterize addictive families were present.  And if you add in process addictions (food, religion, gambling, sex, etc.), no unit of my extended family has been immune.

As I listen to the struggles of those members of my 12-step family group who are still in a relationship with an active and/or recovering addict, I have frequently expressed gratitude that I no longer live with an active addict.  And yet, I still live with an addiction-prone extended family with all of the interpersonal dynamics and behaviors that characterize life with an addict:

  • Gaslighting
  • Narcissism
  • Chaos
  • Inability to empathize
  • Projection, blame, denial, minimization
  • Instability of relationships
  • Scapegoating
  • "Don't feel and don't talk"
I still live with the fall-out of addiction.  I experience it in every interaction I have with extended family members.  It is no accident that I married an individual with an addictive personality--it is incredibly familiar to me.  I grew up during the Cold War and recall seeing signs pointing the way to the bomb shelter in my elementary school.  The shelter was designed to protect us from nuclear fallout in the event of war.  It occurs to me that because I still live in the "war zone" of family addiction, I need a shelter.  Recovery has become that shelter for me.

My daughter and I sat in our garden swing recently, enjoying the cool air of the desert where we live.  She expressed frustration that it is taking so long to grieve the many, many losses of our personal nuclear war.  I reminded her that failure to grieve life's losses creates a perfect dysfunctional environment conducive to the growth of addictions.  The healthy response to loss is to give ourselves the time and space to grieve until we are through grieving.  The unhealthy response is to deny the loss, minimize it or fail to grieve it, creating a need to numb the pain from the loss.  We either process grief, trauma and difficult emotions or we numb them.  And we have so many ways to numb emotional pain--ways that often become addictive.

My shelter from the chaos of a family impacted by addiction and trauma is in processing my emotions as they arise.  Each time I choose to process my emotions and to fully experience them appropriately, I am choosing health and embracing a fully functional way of living.  When I carefully yet assertively express what I need or hold a boundary, I am opting for a new and different way to be in this world.  When I clearly delineate between what is on my side of the street and what is not on my side of the street, I am forging a new way of living.  This is my antidote to the family disease of addiction.  This is my shelter from the fall-out of that disease.

It is a choice to be fully present in each moment, embracing the complexity and variety of my emotional experiences and discarding those familiar coping mechanisms that allowed me to stay safe in a chaotic world.  It is a resolve to stand firm in my truth and to advocte for myself, to accept responsibility for my character defects and to refuse to carry the responsibility or shame of another's character defects.

My family heritage may include the disease of addiction but that does not have to be the legacy that I hand down to my children and grandchildren.  I am a pivot and my choices will impact the lives of those who will follow me.  My march to a healthier way of living is their march as well so I am determined to continue this journey of recovery.  There is too much at stake to quit now.

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