Addiction, Recovery, and the Family

Think of your family as a circus troupe with its own mini structure. There is division of labour, responsibilities, and roles that are assigned to each member which determine the success of the overall machine. Like that travelling show, the ease of functioning, success, and longevity of the production depends on a number of factors, including: each member’s expectations, how they all communicate, how conflict is managed, and how all the members interact with the outside world.

Spending extended time on the road, performing and interacting with the public together will shape the personality and behaviour of each member. And likewise, any change in part of the troupe will affect the rest of the show. For example, if the ringmaster is very rigid and controlling, the rest of the members will respond by becoming less responsible to avoid conflict.

Now, consider the ringmaster has an active struggle with addiction. He starts to behave irresponsibly; breaks the promise he made to the acrobats to repair the trapeze because he used that money to support his habit, disappears for periods of time without telling the circus manager when he can anticipate his return, and tells the clowns they are fat and worthless. The whole troupe is affected by his choices and need to adjust themselves accordingly. Because of the nature of addiction, these changes usually happen slowly while the system makes small unconscious adjustments that add up over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, the effects of the addiction likely do not stop there. Overworked and stressed at not having a front man for the night’s performance, the circus manager takes out his anger on his wife and kids who in turn take out their feelings on others. The clowns, suffering from low self-esteem slowly develop their own chemical dependency issues. Lastly, one of the acrobats develops stress-induced insomnia and eventually injures himself on the job. I’ve seen addiction compared more than once to dropping a pebble in a still pond, perhaps you can see why?

Theories on the interaction of social experiences with the psyche form the foundation of psychology as we know it today. Although psychologists are still arguing about the exact way these experiences influence us it is clear that the family system has a profound impact on the subconscious (or the part of the mind which is just out of awareness but drives a person’s actions and feelings).

Living with addiction is living with chaos. It is nonsensical, ruthless, and unpredictable.  It is not unusual for people who live with another person’s addiction to develop their own mental, physical or emotional chronic and long-term health problems. I’m no exception – for most of my life I’ve struggled with a cocktail of painful emotions, not limited to: guilt, shame, anger, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and fear. I’ve also suffered from several chronic health issues with no clear origin. Connecting with others impacted by family addiction has shown me that I come by this honestly; it is startling how many similar stories and challenges I’ve heard.

It has shown me that anyone from any socio-economic, cultural, or spiritual background can be impacted by addiction or by someone else’s addiction.

Like many people who have lived with addiction I didn’t understand why I would need to work on myself. After all, they have the problem, amiright?! I focused on fixing my loved ones because I thought that if they got over it my life would be f-i-n-e.

Sound familiar?

The truth about addiction is this: you didn’t cause their addiction, you can’t control it, but you can unknowingly contribute to it and further suffering. We do this mostly by not having appropriate boundaries and knowledge. The most common example of this is “enabling” which is defined as doing anything for the addict they could be doing for themselves if they were sober. The reason this is bad is that it could prolong the addiction by protecting the addict from the consequences of their actions and thus their incentive to consider a different path. Enabling also inadvertently sends the message that whatever behaviour it is acting on is acceptable. In our circus example, enabling would be making excuses for the ringmaster’s poor behaviour versus a healthy behaviour like supporting him in his recovery effort by helping him look up local support group meetings.

Recovery for the family of an addict is focusing on awareness and emphasizing the things you can control: your own thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s using those things to develop a life that is whole, healthy, and fulfilling. It is finding ways to enjoy the life you have that doesn’t depend on validation from the system you have no control over. It’s learning that sometimes you need to go through a certain degree of discomfort and pain to grow. It’s understanding that the best way to break the cycle of addiction is to learn how to prioritize yourself and allow others to make choices and feel their consequences. It’s embracing the importance of healthy connections and what they look like. It’s accepting that the best way to help someone is to support them in taking care of themselves.

 

Fight, Flight, or…

You may stumble across references to the “fight or flight response”. This is the common name for a theory first introduced by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon who took advantage of the lax animal rights laws of his time to develop several famous theories that scientists still use as the basis for our understanding of the sympathetic nervous system (or crap your body does without you asking).

His theory describes a series of chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to stress; specifically an event which threatens survival. Some of these changes, include: increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure, blood clotting speeding up, and muscle tension increasing. Cognitively, the animal has an increased perception of control (this is not actual control, just the belief that they have it) and distortion of their social processing which leads to two basic emotional states: anxiety or aggression. As the name suggests, these changes occur as the body and mind prepare to fight an attacker or turn tail and run.

Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that this response was designed to help the animal respond to acute stress. For example, running the heck away from a hungry lion which presumably will be an intense but short ordeal. This response was not designed to be a steady or constant state and perhaps given the description I’ve provided it’s easy to see how spending a long period of time in an environment which promotes constant stress could impact physical and emotional health.

When I first started researching this theory I thought about dog fighting. In order to prepare a dog for the ring, handlers do not allow them to live normal lives. They chain them in place, often near but out of reach of other dogs. They are forced to exercise, are beaten, starved, traumatized and antagonized. They train them to tear apart bait animals, taunt them with objects to encourage them to bite and yank, and deprive them of affection and healthy socialization. With no trust and affection dogs will either become aggressive to the point that they fight or they are deemed unfit and often neglected or killed. A wall and a hard place.

It’s a totally barbaric and I’m glad an outlawed “sport” in many areas, but it shows us that in the absence of love, support, and socialization and with the addition of trauma and stress the dog develops chronic aggression or anxiety; stuck in fight or flight, 24/7.

I have a rescue mutt. She is of uncertain origin, adopted as an adult. I know very little about her except that she was captured running wild in the backwoods of Ohio. When  she came home with us, it was clear she’d been through some things. When we would walk her through the neighbourhood she would lunge at other dogs snarling and barking. She was also skiddish if anything or anyone was behind her and would attempt to run away.

Nothing we tried stopped her from being a Tasmanian devil of snarling fury or a panicked rabbit darting away from a loud noise.

It was clear that on the leash she felt trapped and threatened, any dog that approached was out to get her. As a last ditch effort, I decided to take her to an off-leash dog park. My local park is not fenced and runs along a highway. It is also popular and almost always packed with dogs. It was sink or swim; I had visions of her running onto the road or getting into a bloody fight with another dog.

Neither of those things happened.

She didn’t revert to fight or flight. She acted like a dog: sniffed butts, played chase and didn’t run off. I trusted her and I guess she decided to trust me back.

Such a small thing, but so significant. Truthfully, she is still not perfect on a leash, she pulls and yanks me around although she is no longer aggressive. She is also still prone to flight if someone she doesn’t trust is behind her.  But, to me, she represents hope of change; that although she is fundamentally altered by her experiences it is possible to evolve beyond basic instinct.

So, what does this have to do with codependency and recovery?

Anxiety and aggression are both responses to fear. Many people with codependent traits grew up in dysfunctional families, some with addiction, abuse or neglect. Living in a constant state of fight or flight has conditioned us to fear (among other things) rejection, criticism, conflict, failure, vulnerability, and lack of control. We live in readiness, anxiety, and/or aggression because that’s our “normal”. We subconsciously expect the attacks and abuse to continue and maybe even believe we deserve it.

Anxiety leads to overthinking and drawing away from reality. It can cause us to get caught in those “what ifs”, which causes us to magnify and distort what is actually happening in our lives. And because we are used to bad things happening we probably don’t even realize we are stuck and out of touch. We have learned not to value our feelings and repress them which also helps to increase our anxiety, sticking us more firmly in the loop of fight or flight.

But, like my dog, we can learn to override our basic programming. We don’t have to keep doing those things that we had to do to survive. We can change. It is important to remember that as hopeless and stuck as we feel, there are choices beyond kill and cower. We can choose another path by working a program that helps us relax, restores our confidence, and teaches us to trust and let it go.

Simple, not easy, but priceless and worth the effort.

Karma, For Dummies

Being spiritual is not something that comes easily to me. I don’t remember ever having anything close to what could be described as blind faith or trust in the universe.

When I was in middle school, a Christian family moved in across the street in my very small town. They had a daughter about my age. We had nothing in common, but they were kind and generous people and… well, there weren’t a lot of local playmates for any of us to choose from.

The family held daily bible readings. We would be running wild in the yard and get called inside where the mother would read us a bible passage and a second reading geared more towards children, usually a cute story with biblical morals. I don’t remember this being an unpleasant experience but truthfully I don’t think I got any spiritual substance from the practice.  Even at that age I was incorrigible and my engagement was tied more closely to the post study snack rather than any real appreciation for the divine.

I remember the day we covered Genesis and the creation of the world. I asked about dinosaurs, evolution, UFOs, and how could we possibly be the only life in the universe. To the mother’s credit, she was patient and told me that she believed those 7 days did not flow through time as we experience it today. The world was new, in Beta test. Even an omnipotent being needed time and some test subjects. Maybe all those details were not captured by the mortals who pieced together the Holy scripture.

I didn’t buy her explanations then and continue to resist anything that can’t be explained with logic, reason, and proof.  Needless to say, there is a lot that happens in life that can’t, so I find myself trying to force things into simplistic and ill-fitting boxes or obsessively trying to come up with rationalizations for things that are not rational, logic for things that are in no way logical, and for proof where there isn’t any.

If I can’t neatly sort and explain things, you ask? I dramatically crumble into a depressed existential crisis.

I acknowledge that this is part of why I struggle with letting go. I need (want) to always understand the why; even when it’s not available or knowing doesn’t make me happy either.

In recovery I have been looking for compromise; for ways to help me accept and let go of the unexplained. One concept that has helped me is Karma, or the idea that there is a relationship of cause and effect in people’s action (or inaction). Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, this idea has also been compared to Newton’s Third Law (thank goodness, some science!) which postulates that every action has an equal or opposite reaction. In other words, the universe is keeping tabs and eventually everything evens out.

I used to think that Karma was a result of justice and judgement, reward and punishment, but now I realize it’s about being accountable for yourself. Karma is supposed to encourage you to own your actions, the way you treat others, and also to trust that others should be left to do the same. Karma teaches us to be calm, emphasizing intelligent, unemotional and logical action. This leads to acceptance of reality as well as peace, calm, and surrender.

Another thing that makes this idea attractive to me is that it is often tied to reincarnation. Although I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, it does help to justify the idea of suffering. While you may not get to experience the return of energy in this life, you will in the next. Some even teach that lifetimes are like levels in a video game with each life subjected to a new lesson or obstacle to overcome. Failure results in repeating the level while passing leads to harder and harder tests until you finally face off against the big boss and are rewarded with enlightenment, peace, and ethereal rewards.

While I think it’s unlikely that I will ever formally practice religion, I do see the value of spirituality. Belief in the unseen and unexplained makes it easier to let go by suggesting things will be sorted out when I let go. And, more importantly, these ideas can inspire hope, trust, and motivation to continue in this age of uncertainty, distrust, and scarcity. Because really, we could all use that extra bit of inspiration to convince us to continue when it seems like there is no hope.

Cheese!

white ceramic bowl
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve always been an over-thinker. I replay scenarios in my head (past and future) dissecting every word, every action, and every possible outcome. I’m sure anyone reading this who suffers from this same affliction can appreciate the slow torturous hell that these loops create — you get stuck holding on to all these real and imagined moments, paralyzed and unable to appreciate the moment you are in. They can also last a shockingly long time.

I’m told this is not uncommon for people in recovery from family addiction issues. I understand that it is a form of coping, survival. Having lived through scenarios that were emotionally or physically painful, we protect ourselves from potential harm by becoming hyper-vigilant. We look for danger everywhere, we anticipate it, and in some cases we probably create it. This is part of that, the endless study of people’s words and actions and in our cases the confusing experience that these are rarely correlated.

This is why when you start digging into recovery literature and programs there is an emphasis on being present. This is a nice way of saying; “let that sh*t go!” and usually involves some combination of meditation and behaviour therapy.

When I first separated from my ex my mind would not stop. I tortured myself with endless questions, such as: was he really an alcoholic? Should I have done more to support him? What if I had done X instead of Y? And so on. An endless daisy chain of questions with no answers that would satisfy me.

I remember having a conversation with a friend where I was off on one of my circular rants. She had just been through the abrupt ending of her own relationship and engagement and I applaud her for even attempting to have the capacity for the flaming tire fire of my emotions. She had enough of her own stuff to sort through.

She stopped me mid-sentence while I was demanding that she give me answers she couldn’t possibly have and told me a story about a time when she was exiting her office and there was a single full slice of processed cheese on the floor outside her door. No one in sight, no clues, but clearly it had not been there long. She told me that when she needed a break from what was happening in her head she thought about that slice of cheese and came up with stories about how it wound up in her doorway.

I didn’t really understand the value of the gift she gave me until shortly thereafter when I found my own cheese story. A harmless event from my past, a mystery that would never be solved but caused me no anxiety and didn’t impact my sense of self worth in any meaningful way.

I still visit that scenario from time to time when I need a break from the loud mariachi band of doubt and obsession that barrels through my brain. I’ve even found that going to that place sometimes gives me just enough distance and freedom to get clarity on whatever idea I am flogging to death.

So – while you work your way up to Ghandi-esque zen, I share this strategy with you and hope that you can find the same power in cheese.

What does addiction look like?

When I met my former partner I was at a low point in my life. I was lost and unhappy in a job I didn’t like and surrounded by unhealthy relationships. I didn’t think I had anything or anyone I could count on and I approached most things prepared for failure. I had been let down enough times that I thought that was my destiny; to get close to what I wanted but never be able to hold on to it.

He was lost too and shared some intimate stories of betrayal and hardship. He told me I was beautiful and I believed him. He brought me flowers every week and showered me with attention and affection. I wanted to believe that he was the sweet, kind and thoughtful person who made me feel appreciated in a way I truthfully hadn’t felt before.

As time passed I noticed he drank frequently and in quantities that should have sent me running. We were in our late 20s and many of our friends and acquaintances were drinkers. I’d grown up thinking it was normal to have a drink after work or on the weekend and didn’t have any real understanding of the spectrum of addiction or the warning signs.

In hindsight, there were a lot of clues.

He kept changing jobs because he was being singled out, treated unfairly, and overlooked for promotions; the same explanation for several lateral moves. He grew apart from his oldest friends, saying they were always unavailable as they slowed their partying and started families. He missed payments and was caught driving without insurance and an expired license, blaming someone else for misplacing the registered letter informing him of the cancellation. There was often a justification for whatever crises arose, and they almost always involved the negligence of another person. I wish I could tell you I called him on the inconsistencies in his stories, but instead I enabled him; in the last example by paying the hefty fine he received.

He used subterfuge to work late and to stay home alone instead of doing things we had planned together. I started catching him in little and then bigger lies about where he was, money, and other things. I’ve since learned that a lot of what he told me about his past was not truthful, but the only part that shocks me now is how consistently and effortlessly he could lie, as easy as I can breathe. Eventually, he became more erratic, secretive, and adept at deflecting my concerns and manipulating me by pushing my buttons and accusing me of doing things that made him unhappy.

There were many excuses to drink. Often something was annoying him that justified coming home, flipping on the tv and eventually passing out on the couch. If I gave any indication that I was having a bad day, there was a bottle of wine waiting “for me” that he had already been opened and sampled.

His sleep patterns were always strange but became more irregular. He was napping all the time, which he justified with his physical job and inability to sleep through the night. He was often groggy and moody in the evening but sweet, disarming, and apologetic in the morning. I even remember a period where I believe he attempted to cut back himself. Our bed was soaked with sweat and he would twitch randomly throughout the day.

At several points in our relationship I found empty bottles hidden around our living space; sometimes he offered weak excuses, other times he ignored my questions entirely as if I didn’t exist. His personal grooming suffered and he showed less and less interest in me. He withdrew and so did I as it became harder and harder to make excuses that others would accept. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I believed that there was something wrong with me. That I was crazy and somehow causing his mood swings, his lying, and his lack of interest. Slowly and insidiously the sweet and kind man I loved was replaced by another person. In the last year of our relationship I would call him Jekyll and Hyde not realizing how appropriate that comparison was.

I hid what was happening from our friends and family. I sacrificed what I wanted and gave up a job I was passionate about because the money was erratic and I couldn’t count on him to make contributions to our bills. I neglected myself, my needs, and over time became obsessed with him: what he was doing, what he was spending, and trying to solve the mystery of why it always felt like my life was falling apart.

The worst part is that although he was not a good partner, I wasn’t either. He didn’t ask me to do any of the sacrifices I made. I chose them. I tried to control and change him by belittling him, begging him, giving him empty ultimatums, and bribing him. And when none of my tactics worked and I couldn’t control the relationship that would not live up to my expectations I grew bitter and resentful.

I gave up and became a husk of a person. I hated myself. I stopped taking care of me, I gained weight, avoided people, and I sunk into a functional depression. I worried all the time and I drank more than I knew was safe for me both to cope and because it seemed to be the only time he was interested in spending time with me.

Believe it or not, shouldering it all was easier than believing that I was the other woman. That I had interrupted his relationship with something he loved more than he would ever love me. I recognize now that he was an addict when I met him; I didn’t cause it and I couldn’t change it but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

As I write this now, I am grateful for the power of truth and acceptance. I’ve sat down to do this post several times since starting the blog and this is the first time I’ve made it through without tears, overwhelming embarrassment, and (I hope) without casting blame. I finally accept that as personal as everything that happened seemed, it wasn’t. We both made choices that served our own unhealthy agendas and there were consequences. The empowering thing about owning that, even if it lead to mistreatment and victimization, is the knowledge that I can make different choices going forward, I have that power. I’m also able to keep working on the process of letting go by acknowledging that although there is grief for the loss, I understand that the relationship was not healthy for either of us.

If you suspect that someone you care about is struggling with addiction, I encourage you to educate yourself. The correct way to help an addict or someone in a relationship with an addict may not be what you think. Addiction is a complex disease and its effects can ripple outwards for generations. You need to understand that so little about what is happening with the person or people you care about is logical or easy. You need to be ready for the reality that giving up the substance is just the first step in the long, difficult, but worthwhile process of recovery. You need to understand that some people never recover and what that means for you.

Addiction is a dangerous and progressive deadly disease. It’s so important that we help each other in recovery by example and by sharing our stories.

I recomend using your favourite search engine to look for local addiction resources. I guarantee there are people and groups that can help, including Anonymous groups for addicts and families of addicts, rehabilitation centres, intevention councillors, phone hotlines, and crises centres to name a few. I have also seen free online support groups and consultants. Help is closer than you think.

To get you started, here is a good article from MedicalNewsToday.com which discusses some of the common symptoms of substance addiction.