by Carey Sipp
We’ve heard the quote before: “what a man thinketh, a man does; what he does, he becomes…”
When I clearly understood the importance of being a good example for my children, I revised that old quote: “What a child sees, a child does. What a child does, a child becomes.”
With help from others wiser than I, I came to understand that wanting to do a great job of raising my children meant doing a great job of raising myself. In short, like millions of other COAs, I had to grow up with my children. I also had to go back into my own childhood and heal painful memories, as I am also a firm believer that, “What you don’t feel, you can’t heal,” and “what you don’t heal, you pass on to your children.”
Children pay a high price for compulsive, addictive parental behaviours such as alcohol and drug addiction. We know genetics and home environment load addicts’ children with the highest risk of becoming abusers of alcohol or other drugs, or addicted persons themselves. COAs are also more likely than others to suffer child abuse, depression, and anxiety. We have more behavioural problems and three times as many hospital admissions.
I started my life with addiction in a violent alcoholic home. Behaviours I adopted served me well as a child: taking the blame, being the hero, being a people-pleaser, zoning out. But in adult life they backfired, leading me to struggle with work addiction, money mismanagement, a chaotic lifestyle, and alcohol.
Shortly after filing for divorce from my husband of seven years I read a quote from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and it struck me hard: “If you botch raising your children, nothing else you do really matters.” I pasted that quote on my bathroom mirror, and thought about it often.
I was at a crossroads. Faced with two bewildered little children and a failing business, I toyed with swapping my two nightly beers for a six-pack to knock the edge off the day. I couldn’t do it. I knew if I repeated the alcoholism modelled by my father, my children would end up as scarred as I had been. I needed help. Today I believe that knowing you need help is the first step to becoming a TurnAround Mom: a parent pledged to sanity, sobriety, gratitude, and responsibility. A mother who’d be proud to see her children do the same things she does.
For help with re-parenting myself and parenting my children, I turned to a program for alcoholics’ families and found instant and healing support. I devoured books on parenting and asked parents I knew and admired from church and school how they were raising their children. Studying parenting and recovery became my dual passions. I went to work with a parenting expert, attending countless workshops on parenting and personal growth. One theme kept rising to the top: if I don’t like something my children are doing, I’d better look in the mirror to see if I am doing the same thing. I can’t expect better than the example I set.
Sharing this “child see, child do” tip brought a lot of “Ah ha!” reactions from my peers, people like me who want to do a great job of parenting, but because of the hurtful, neglectful behaviours modelled to them as children, are clueless as to how.
In this time of turmoil, giving our children a sense of belonging, trust, and security is more important than ever. Without these anchors, many children seeking relief from their fears will turn to alcohol, drugs, compulsive sex, and other self-destructive behaviours, especially if parents model compulsive, addictive behaviours. For many of us who grew up in the insanity of addiction, intensity, or abuse, or became addicted, abused, or stretched to the breaking point, incredible challenges erupt. Chief among these challenges: if I don’t know what serenity feels like, what sanity looks like, how can I create a sane and loving home?
My book, “The TurnAround Mom”, is filled with experiences, processes, tips, and tools that I hope will answer that question. My hope is that it will raise awareness of the suffering that parental substance abuse brings, and comfort COAs by reminding us that sick old cycles don’t have to be repeated. Working together we could see a grassroots campaign to create an association of TurnAround Parents that would help generations of children grow up and thrive in saner, more loving homes. It would be healing for our children, ourselves, and our nation.
Carey Sipp is the author of The TurnAround Mom, a feel it, heal it guide to help survivors of family addiction and abuse stop the pain and raise happy children. It is available on amazon.ca.
by Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D.
Why should family members be involved in the treatment process of their alcoholic/addicted family member? Let me count the ways. The benefits of family treatment could go on and on, but here are eight good reasons.
- You learn that you are not alone. Family dynamics of addiction and recovery are pretty predictable. As the disease progresses for the addict, they as well as their kin become more and more isolated. Shame also isolates and keeps hurting the band of survivors silent about the disease. Spouses and parents may also have a compulsion to keep the secret in order to protect the addict from consequences that could affect the whole clan (i.e., financially, career, legal, etc.). Because the dynamics of addiction are played out in silence and isolation, each person feels that they alone have experienced the shame, guilt, hurt, sadness, loneliness, compulsion to take control and doubt about their own sanity that comes with addiction.
- You have an opportunity to recover from your own pain. No one escapes from an alcoholic system unscathed. It does not happen. Any close collection of people that has an addicted member has pain. While the relatives of the addict are focused on the afflicted’s pain and survival, they tend to ignore, downplay, or minimize their own pain. They are often oblivious to the negative effects on their own lives. They are negatively affected not only by the behaviour of the addict, but by their own attempts to cope and problem solve.
- You have an opportunity to make decisions based on strength rather than fear and desperation. The chaotic environment of the alcoholic home creates an acute stress reaction in all residents of the home. Each household member tends to get stuck in “survival mode.” Decision-making often occurs in the context of identifying the least damaging or the least scary options. Relatives often see themselves between the hard place and the rock, with no attractive alternatives. In treatment, spouses and parents are able to identify alternatives previously not considered and to begin to make choices based on knowledge rather than emotion.
- You get to find yourself again. Spouses often complain that they have lost themselves in the process of their significant other’s addiction. They find that they have become people that they not only never intended to be, but that they do not like. They often come to realize that they have acted outside their own value system by lying, manipulating and shaming the addict to get them to change. In treatment, these spouses have an opportunity to learn new ways to communicate and problem solve with their addicted significant others.
- You get to learn what is and is not your responsibility. In the treatment process, you get to learn how to let go of that which is not yours. You have an opportunity to learn to be assertive and choose your own activities. You become empowered to take responsibility for your own behaviour while allowing others the dignity to be responsible for their behaviour. Spouses often come to identify that they have been compelled to “parent” their addicted spouse during active addiction. One of the most freeing aspects of family treatment is learning how to let of that.
- You get to learn about alcoholism and other drug addictions. Most people buy into some antiquated ideas, myths and stereotypes about alcoholics and addicts. Treatment dispels those myths. Family members get to meet folks from all walks of life – brilliant, creative, charming people who are captains of industry, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, artists, house painters, entrepreneurs – who also happen to be alcoholics/addicts. Addiction is no respecter of person or position. Old notions of who is and who isn’t alcoholic/addicted will be challenged. Incorrect information that you may have learned from your family of origin (or others) about addiction being a “choice,” a “character problem,” or a “moral dilemma” will be replaced with factual data from the current knowledge base. You will have an opportunity to learn about the family dynamics of addiction and recovery so that you will know some of what to expect in early recovery. You will come to know and accept that your loved one’s addiction is not your fault and that you cannot make them relapse. Principles of cross-addiction, a very important concept for continuing recovery, are reviewed. You should also leave treatment armed with knowledge about the symptoms and process of relapse. This is crucial information to have.
- You will learn a new language. Significant others entering a treatment program often remark that there seems to be a common language being spoken in treatment, and that they feel like the “uninitiated.” A common recovery language is helpful for the addict and the family, so that they can better understand each other. Otherwise, family members often feel left behind, or like they are “on the outside, looking in.”
- You will also have an opportunity to learn about principles of family dynamics and the qualities of family systems that operate to work against continuing recovery. You will come to understand how system processes and characteristics that evolve over time to incorporate the illness into the balance and functioning of that system, also operate to keep things the same in recovery. If only one person in the system gets help, it can be difficult for the recovering person to maintain their positive changes in the midst of the old family rules, roles, and established patterns.
Not only is participation of significant others in addiction rehab important for the recovery of the addict and the family members, most family members leave treatment feeling blessed that they had an opportunity to experience the learning and healing process afforded them.
Copyright © Peggy Ferguson. Reprinted by kind permission of the author. More of her writings on the family dynamics of addiction and recovery can be found at www.peggyferguson.com.
Renascent offers a suite of Family Care programs, including Children’s Healthy Coping Skills and an Intensive Family Codependency Retreat. Learn about our Family Care programs here, and email Sunil Boodhai or call 416-927-1202, ext. 3010 for more information.
by Rabbi Shais Taub
There’s an old piece of sage advice that old-timers in recovery like to say: “No relationships for the first year.” If you hang around long enough, and watch enough people come and go, you’ll see that the old-timers are right.
But why is getting intimately involved with another person so damaging in early recovery? And if it is a threat in early recovery, why does it somehow become all right later on?
All addiction is essentially addiction to self. Recovery is a spiritual growth process that enables the self-centred person to become available to make connections outside of self.
In other words, in active addiction, every connection is ultimately a connection to one’s own ego. Even when it seems like I am connecting to you, I am really only connecting back to myself.
It’s like the old fable of the salmon who gets caught in the fisherman’s net and hears him exclaim, “Oh great! A salmon! I will bring this to the king because the king loves lox.” The salmon thinks to himself, “This fisherman is not very nice. He has taken me from my home. But he says that the king loves lox. The king will love me and be kind to me.”
The fisherman rushes to the palace and shows his catch to the palace guard, who immediately opens the doors, saying, “I will take you immediately to the royal chef, because the king loves lox.” The salmon thinks, “I hope they get me to this king who loves lox already.”
They run to the royal kitchen, and the royal chef shouts with glee, “Bring the fish to me! You know how the king loves lox.” Again, the salmon thinks, “Finally, when this lox-loving king arrives, I will be saved.”
The king enters the kitchen and watches with relish as the chef guts the fish on the table. The salmon suddenly realizes that he is to be the king’s lunch and, with his last breath, mutters to himself, “These humans don’t know what love is! They say the king loves lox, but he only loves himself.”
The inner addict is like the king in this story, and the addict’s “beloved” is like the salmon. The addict is incapable of being truly intimate with another person; the closer the addict tries to get to another, the closer he is to himself. This explains a seeming paradox: One of the best things an addict can do to start recovering is to hang out with and befriend other addicts, while one of the worst things an addict can do to start recovering is to become romantically involved with other addicts.
As the addict recovers, however, and learns life skills that enable him to move away from complete self-interest, it becomes increasingly possible for him to actually become close to another person. One of the ultimate objectives of recovery is to be able to form loving relationships with others. The ability to be involved in a romantic relationship is not just an indication of good recovery, but one of the goals of recovery.
Many times people stagnate in what we might call “the middle stages” of recovery. They basically get their lives together, but they never become capable of being involved in an intimate, loving, committed relationship. Many, unfortunately, are jaded by past heartbreaks; they say, “I’ll never love again.” That is, in my opinion, a great loss. Just as addiction is a destroyer of intimacy, recovery is the greatest catalyst for intimacy. Good recovery means good relationships. Indeed, I would venture to say – although this may be outside the scope of this article – that every troubled marriage, even when no addictive behaviour can be identified, is lacking recovery.
In the end, it all depends on how you see it. If romantic love is something we see as “icing on the cake of recovery,” then we’re probably not ready for it. If, on the other hand, we see an intimate relationship as an obligation toward the god of our understanding, then not only are we ready for it, we are actually required to give of ourselves in this manner.
Copyright © The Meadows. Reprinted by permission. Rabbi Shais Taub is a scholar and teacher of Jewish mysticism and addiction recovery, the author of “God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery From Addiction“, a compelling work for all spiritual seekers regardless of background or tradition.
Ask a Family Therapist
with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.
Q: My daughter is addicted to alcohol. She drinks every day and I don’t know what to do. She sometimes blames me for her drinking, saying that I stress her out with my nagging. I don’t know how this happened to her. She was an amazing child and teenager, but she changed drastically once she started university. What did I do wrong?
– Molly H.
A: Hi Molly. I’m glad you have written in and asked this important question. I hear this question a lot from parents and partners, and sometimes even from children of parents struggling with addiction.
What did you do wrong? In relation to your daughter’s addiction and current behaviour, I would argue that you did not do anything wrong. At Renascent we treat addiction as a disease and we believe there is both a genetic and an environmental component to developing this disease. The genetic component would be inborn and not something anyone could control. The environmental factor is the availability and use of alcohol or other substances. When these factors meet, addiction sometimes occurs and the addicted person’s life can spiral out of control before they recognize that there is a problem. Families are affected, leading the addicted people to feel guilt and shame. They lash out and blame loved ones for their situation when they cannot understand what has occurred in their own lives.
When treating family members, we often talk about the three Cs: You did not Cause it, you cannot Control it, and you cannot Cure it. It is our hope that recognizing these three C’s, you will come to an understanding of how to let go of trying to fight this disease for your daughter and redirect your focus onto your own well-being. (As for your daughter, she is going to have to take responsibility for her actions and face her alcoholism with the assistance of others who have faced the disease as well. She will have to submit to a treatment program like the one offered at Renascent, as well as continue to attend Alcoholics Anonymous as part of her ongoing daily recovery. This is her best chance for finding sobriety and staying sober.)
You did not Cause this disease and you do not cause your daughter to drink. This disease is like any other — think of it like diabetes, another chronic disease with no cure, but effective ways of treatment. There is nothing you can say to her that would cause her to drink; she drinks because her disease is dictating that she drink alcohol. She only feels normal when alcohol in in her system. She may tell you that this is your fault in order to manipulate your feelings so that you stop trying to discuss her alcoholism with her, but she is simply using your concern against you. Only speak to your daughter about her addiction when she is sober and set some clear boundaries for her regarding her consumption of alcohol. For example, you could set the boundary of not allowing drinking in your home, or refusing to spend time with her while she is drinking.
You cannot Control this disease. I have just recommended setting boundaries with your daughter regarding her drinking. That may sound like I am asking your to attempt to control her alcohol consumption, but that’s not the intention of setting boundaries. Boundaries are meant to protect you, not to control the alcoholic. There is nothing you can do to control the drinking. If left untreated, your daughter will drink when her cravings are too strong, no matter what the circumstances. Keep in mind that your daughter can’t even control her own drinking, so there’s no reason to believe you can control it for her. Your energy is better spent setting the boundaries necessary to protect yourself with the hope that your daughter will be motivated by the consequences of her actions to take the right steps to find recovery.
You cannot Cure addiction. Addiction is a treatable disease, but there is no cure. Any thought that something is going to happen that will cause your daughter to snap out of her alcoholic behaviour and quit drinking is unrealistic. This is going to be a difficult road for you and your daughter as you both seek the path to your own recovery. Waiting and hopping for a cure will leave you sad, disappointed, angry, and frustrated. Taking actions to protect your time, energy, and resources is the only thing that will keep you from being pulled under by your daughter’s addiction.
There is hope for both of you, and it begins with letting go of the idea that you caused your daughter’s addiction or that you can control or cure it for her. As you begin to take the actions to protect yourself, this may be the catalyst that encourages your daughter to take responsibility for herself and her disease. Either way, you are on your path to your own recovery.
Molly, I would urge you to get in contact with the family team at Renascent and register for one of their introductory Family Care Programs. I would also urge you to begin attending local Al-Anon meetings in your community. There you will find numerous people focused on taking care of themselves in the midst of dealing with addiction. I am sure this will be of great help to you.