this article is excerpted from Adult Children of Alcoholics Workbook: For Children of Addiction, Dysfunction and Adverse Childhood Experiences
It is impossible to explain to someone who has not been through it, how many little things go awry in a home where addiction has taken hold. Sure, I can say routines were thrown off; there was constant crisis that wasn’t there before, but that doesn’t fully describe it. What really hurts is that you can no longer count on anyone the way that you once did. You watch the parent you love turn the face that once smiled at you toward a bottle of alcohol or sink into a lying and degrading behavior. And then, just as mysteriously, he returns, clean-shaven, loving you once again, and remembering all the things you worried he had forgotten — that you’re in a school play, what you like for breakfast, that you are still there (even though he comes and goes). You have him back. You’re torn between letting it feel wonderful (which it does) and not letting it feel too good, because you know from experience that if it feels too good it will only hurt more when he slips away again. Then sure enough, you sense tension creeping in, you observe moments throughout the day fraying around the edges, situations devolving and unraveling before your eyes, and you know that it’s coming. You can read all the signs. The gap between the worlds that had temporarily closed up begins to widen, and your addict disappears into some crevice, some wormhole in the universe, and he is gone as mysteriously as he came. He returns to his private nowhere where you can’t find him. He hides in plain sight. And you have to lose him once again. And wait to see what happens. And go back into the family that is still there. Somewhat there. You see the disappointment on the faces around you; you see the confusion, the humiliation and the hurt. And simultaneously you see those family members shake their heads, square their shoulders, and mush on because the world is still chugging along even though the alcoholic has stepped off. You both appreciate and hate their efforts. You appreciate the ones who are able to plow through, even with blinders, because someone has to, because there are school buses to make, homework to be done, and appointments to get to. You hate it because you sense the sham underneath it. The pain inside you, inside everyone grows. But no one talks about it; because what would they say? It is too sad to look at, too much to sort out.
And changing one person might mean everyone has to change. And what would that mean — what would it look like and who would everyone be then?
The Family Illness
Think of the addicted family system as a sort of water balloon in which the balloon itself contains the disease of addiction or adverse childhood experiences (it’s in the water system, the family blood stream) but how and where that disease manifests can vary. Families like this tend to create scapegoats, one person who acts out the pain that the whole family is denying. Then parents pull together to help the kid who’s in trouble and that family has a place to pin it’s unconscious pain. Who gets “scapegoated” can change, but pathology has a way of popping out somewhere. Picture it, if you press down on one corner of a water balloon, all of the rest of it pops up and a big, obvious bulge gets created. That there is a bulge is consistent, where it appears can vary according to where there is pressure. Until the family “disease” is brought out into the open and the dynamics are understood, the amount of water inside the balloon will be consistent, where the bulge is can vary.
As the addict becomes ever more taxing to live with, those living with the addict become ever more taxed. No one escapes the pain and long term affects of addiction. Besides the addict at least can sober up, they can “leave the disease of addiction behind them.” It seems so clear. However, leaving the post-traumatic stress that comes from living with the addict behind can be an uphill battle. Untangling what pain, confusion and general life angst is part of what “the flesh is heir to,” from that directly caused by living and loving in addictions strange disease path, can be the work of a life time. Or at least a decade. And that is what this workbook is all about, making those issues easier to see and providing a process to learn more about them.
Let’s look at some of the lessons you learn when someone you love becomes an addict. You learn that you cannot count on someone’s mood any more, they may over react to simple frustrations that they once could manage. They launch into negative monologues at the drop of a hat, create conflict where there needn’t be any. Addicts are quick to get irritated if you catch them at the wrong time of day. They are not morning people, let’s say. But then as their disease progresses noon isn’t so great either. Eventually you just don’t want to catch them during any of those hours of the day when they are not letting themselves drink. And these lessons become part of the behavior in other family members as well. So you learn to avoid the people you love. This is a big and confusing lesson to learn and one that doesn’t exactly set you up for uncomplicated relationships in the future. You feel anxious being around them, you worry about saying something that will make others who are already on edge, mad, conversations that can quickly go south. You learn to be on guard, you fuse together in your head that love, mistrust and a chronic low level of anxiety are part of a “normal,” intimate relationship, part of being close. You feel like a failure because you can never seem to get it right and even if you can get it right for them, the pain loose in the family will make sure you can’t get it right for someone. It’s so confusing.
Then comes that magic window. Out of nowhere their old, affable personality reemerges; you see in front of you the smile you remember, the easy laugh, the person you once felt so comfortable with. And this makes the whole thing even more disturbing, because nothing you can do interpersonally is going to access that person when you want to see them. And the family sort of returns to normal but sort of doesn’t, because by now, everyone has the disease. The family loses faith that good actions lead to good results, they start to jockey for position and safety, they compete for the ever-dwindling supply of love. And there come to be two families, the “looking good” family that you show to the world and the “crazy” family behind the scenes. You learn to put on a false face to the world, you learn “false self-functioning”.
How Trauma Affects Our Mind and Body
When we’re traumatized, our thinking mind shuts down but our limbic world goes into high gear. Much like a circuit breaker on overload, parts of our intellectual processing equipment just flip to the off position until the heat lessens. Nature didn’t want us wondering if we should get out of the way of a charging wooly mammoth so she made it so that we wouldn’t think, so that our fight/flight instinct would just take over and we’d run for safety. Our fight/flight/freeze apparatus in governed by our limbic system. This means that our limbic brain/body which is ALSO responsible for processing our emotions and sense impressions, continues to gather data like sights, sounds, smells and even some feelings but there are big, huge gaps in our recollection of events during those high stress moments. But because the part of our brain that would have made sense of the, namely the prefrontal cortex, the part of us that thinks and reasons and creates meaning was shut down, we’re simply left with fragments of experiences, bits and pieces of the story and flashes of feelings that we can’t quite attach to anything specific. Because we weren’t thinking about what was happening as it happened, we have no storyline that pulls together these disparate pieces and makes relevant sense and meaning of them. Consequently, we may be unaware of certain emotional memories that we carry and their implications to our lives. But we carry them nonetheless. We carry them as “body memories” lodged in our limbic system but never elevated to a conscious level through translating the sense impressions and feelings into words and elevating them to a conscious level.
But those memories, though mostly unconscious, can still get triggered to the surface when we encounter something that is reminiscent, in some way, of a previous experience of unresolved pain……..
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