The Addicted Family

It is not surprising that the disease of addiction affects families too. They don’t sleep. They don’t eat. They become ill. They blame themselves. They feel rage, overwhelming worry, shame. Many people keep their suffering to themselves. If your child had cancer, the support from your friends and family would flood in. Because of the stigma of addiction, people often keep it quiet. Their friends and family may try to be supportive, but they may also communicate a subtle or unsubtle judgment.

Imagine the family of an addict as a mobile hanging from a ceiling. In the center is a paper-doll figure, which represents the addict. Smaller dolls float around the central figure. These smaller figures dangling off to the side represent siblings of the addict. They’re on the periphery, helpless, but inextricably tied to the moods and whims and drug-taking of the central figure. Two other figures hang precariously between the addict and his or her siblings. These are the parents. Sometimes, one of the parental figures hangs closer to the addict, seemingly between the addict and the other parent. This is the enabling parent, propping up what the addict does; making excuses; bending over backward. Yet trying to keep everyone all connected to one another.

The first thing for the parent to understand is it’s not their fault. There are addicts who were abused and addicts who, from all accounts, had ideal childhoods. Yet still many family members blame themselves. Another thing they do is try to solve it. They hide liquor bottles and medication and search for drugs in their loved one’s clothes and bedroom, and they drive the addict to AA or NA meetings. They try to control where the addict goes and what they do and who they hang out with. It’s understandable, but it’s futile. You cannot control an addict.

An addict can take over the family – take all of the parents’ attention, even at the expense of other children and of one’s spouse. Family members’ moods become dependent on how the addict is doing. People become obsessed. It’s understandable, but it’s harmful. They become controlling in ways that they never were before, because they are so afraid. People lose their identity because nothing matters except their addicted spouse or child or parent or whoever it is. There is no joy left in their life.

For all their tears and heartache and desperately good intentions, most families of addicts are defeated in the end. Addicts persist in their self-destructive, addictive behavior until something within themselves – something quite apart from anyone else’s efforts – changes so radically that the desire for the high is dulled and ultimately deadened by the desire for a better life. This was truly the situation in my family. Despite being able to quit drinking, smoking marijuana, and snorting cocaine, I struggled with an addiction to opioid painkillers. My family tried everything, including holding a family intervention. When I relapsed twice following a 21-day stay at a rehab facility, they washed their hands of me.

This does not mean that families have no role to play in the miraculous process of recovery. On the contrary, families can have a powerful impact on their addict’s struggle for recovery. Studies have shown that addicts who feel connected to a family that supports their recovery (even if that family is just one person) have a better chance of staying clean than those who believe that no one cares. However, there is a catch. The families themselves must be healthy if they hope to have a positive influence on their loved one. Although this may seem self-evident, it is easy for families to lose sight of this truth as the disease of addiction threatens their own mental health.

The process of addiction creates an alternative reality in the addict’s mind. Thinking becomes distorted and values get twisted as the search for the next high takes precedence over every other consideration. To this day, I find it hard to believe how I lost complete touch with God and with right behavior. I rationalized stealing and abusing narcotic pain medication because of the level of physical pain I was suffering, but I failed to see that I wanted to control my addiction. I wanted to have mastery over my pain. I didn’t want to “feel” anything, let alone constant physical anguish. Of course, as I sought to justify my continued drug use, I essentially put my pain under a magnifying glass.

The more enmeshed family members become in their addict’s life, the more twisted their thinking is likely to become. As a result, their efforts to help the addict grow increasingly futile, and their own well-being is compromised. A relationship that many professionals call co-dependency is established, harming both the addict and his or her family. To prevent this unhealthy relationship from occurring, or to extricate themselves from such a relationship, families must arm themselves with as much knowledge about addiction as possible. They must understand what they can do to support the recovery process and learn successful strategies for coping with addictive behaviors. They must recognize common mistakes that may actually prolong addiction and avoid getting trapped in unhealthy patterns.

I realize none of this is easy. Not for the addict. Not for the family. Addicts’ families walk an unhappy path that is strewn with many pitfalls and false starts. Mistakes are inevitable. Pain is inevitable. But so are growth and wisdom and serenity if families approach addiction with an open mind, a willingness to learn, and the acceptance that recovery, like addiction itself, is a long and complex process. Families should never give up hope for recovery. Nor should they stop living their own lives while they wait for that miracle of recovery to occur. For me, I have to be just as patient and understanding of my family’s need to pull away, recover, and heal as I need to give myself, if not more. Ultimately, both the family and the addict have to accept the things they cannot change, as well as courage to change the things they can.

Going Back Home

Kendall Rob once wrote, “Home is where you go to find solace from the ever changing chaos, to find love within the confines of a heartless world, and to be reminded that no matter how far you wander, there will always be something waiting when you return.”

When you think of the word “home,” your mind might go to a picture of the house you grew up in. It may jump through memories of your hometown from your first day of school to your first kiss to your first car. (Mine was a 1971 Chevy Van.) For those who were constantly moving, it may conjure nothing at all, images as black as the macadam roads you know so well. Yet in both cases, there is the idea of home, of a place you’ll one day return to or one day find for yourself.
Upon returning “home,” wherever that may be, it often seems entirely foreign. Your perceptions become refracted through the new feelings, insights, and personality you’ve acquired while away, and, upon returning, there’s the realization that the change you feel isn’t so much the place as it is you. After all, life is only the way it is on account of the way we feel. Remember, our emotions lie to us, telling us all is wrong, or we’re sad, or that we’ll never amount to anything.

When you look at your bookshelf from when you were younger, or the music you used to listen to, or when you return to that café in which you spent so many afternoons, you see that life isn’t so much a series of chapters as it is entirely different books. Each time you go home, the life you’ve been living begins to fade, becoming smaller and smaller in your rear view mirror, until it’s merely a speck, indiscernible as a life at all. The characters in your life begin to change, and past lives become like a dream until there’s nothing real about it. And that’s perhaps the scariest phenomenon.

Upon returning home, it seems that time has never passed. That the world has stood still waiting for you to return to this life. That somehow the place where you grew up is the default setting that’s constantly being reverted to even as you’ve worked so hard to leave. There’s nothing that instills the fear of death quite like seeing how quickly time flies, and there’s nothing that shows how much time flies as returning home.

Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy coming home, but it often feels like a return home is no different than sliding down a ladder I’ve worked so hard to ascend. The world has continued to spin, but it feels as though it has changed directions and begun to move backwards. Yet as we move from city to city, or friend group to friend group, or career to career, there’s the feeling that there’s actually no such physical place as home. That home is a feeling rather than a place. As much as we love our families, it doesn’t mean we belong where we were born. Instead, where we belong is something we decide for ourselves.

What does it feel like when you are back at your parents’ home after you realize you’re an adult? As you might know from reading my blog posts or my “About” page, I was facing homelessness in 2008 while in active addiction. I was struggling with alcohol and drugs, moving from job to job and apartment to apartment, divorced for the second time in my life. Mom and dad agreed to let me move in with them in order to help me get my act together. I attended AA meetings regularly, was seeing a therapist, and became involved in a local church. I managed to put together a number of years without drinking or smoking pot. Unfortunately, I developed an opiate addiction due to abusing Percocet I was taking for severe back pain.

My father passed away in December 2015 after a long battle with emphysema. I am ashamed to say I had started stealing narcotic pain pills from several family members. I was also abusing my anxiety medication. This was a time when my family should have been able to count on me. Instead, my behavior was becoming rather bizarre. My family held a family intervention. At the end of the intervention, I agreed to go to a drug and alcohol rehab for three weeks. When I was discharged, my mother said I could not return to live with her. She was very hurt, and said she couldn’t live through any more of my lies, my drug abuse, my drama. I lived with a friend from AA for four months. Amazingly, my mother recently asked me if I’d like to come back home. She needed help caring for and keeping her house. Just today I moved back home. It feels so good to be trusted again.

Now I realize that even if where you are isn’t the place you’d like to call home, it doesn’t have to be lonely or sad. Home is in the mind, and the only reality that can be truly counted on is your imagination. Whether you’re on a beach at the Delaware shore, or living in a tenement building,  working a dead-end job in a city you hate, your happiness isn’t decided for you. Home and belonging are inextricably linked to your sense of happiness, of purpose, of community, and it’s only you that can decide how you feel. You didn’t have a say over where you were born, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a say over where home is, even if it’s in your imagination. But I have to say, it sure does feel good to come back home and to be trusted again.