Ask a Family Therapist: why is everyone pretending nothing’s wrong?

Ask a Family Therapist: why is everyone pretending nothing’s wrong?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.

Q: My brother and I both went to visit our parents during the December holidays. My brother has an obvious issue controlling his alcohol consumption but during the entire visit, while he was intoxicated and causing general chaos at dinner, nobody said anything. I felt uncomfortable, but everyone ignored the problem and pretended nothing was happening. Is this normal? Why is everyone reacting this way?

A: This is a great question because incidents like this happen more often than we realize. I think we’ve all been to a party or a wedding where there is that one person who is having trouble controlling their alcohol intake. There is a sense of awkwardness and some people may even laugh, but there is a real problem there that we aren’t considering. When it’s a direct family member, it becomes even harder to ignore, as you experienced during the holidays.

In family treatment at Renascent we call this “the elephant in the living room.”  In this situation, there is an obvious problem occurring, but everyone is prioritizing other people’s feelings over their own, so nobody says anything about it. So, for example, you knew there was a problem with your brother but you did not say anything because you were probably concerned about the feelings of your parents and everyone else in the room. You didn’t say anything because you didn’t want to “ruin” dinner and cause problems for any of your family members. The reality is that your brother was the one ruining dinner and causing problems, but your concern for other people’s feelings caused your to believe if you said anything, you would be the one ruining dinner. Also, everyone else around the table was aware of exactly what was going on but out of concern for everyone else, they didn’t say anything either. Everyone was taking care of everyone else and therefore nobody addressed “the elephant at the dining room table.”

The startling thing here is that elephant has another name, and that name is addiction. The only way to deal with the elephant is to name it, but naming it means so many things to people. For one thing, it’s the admission of a major mental health issue. In addition, family members worry that they did something to cause the addiction. At times they might do something to control it, like making sure there is no alcohol in the house. And finally, family members hope that the problem will just go away on its own. So nobody talks about it.

Addicts are not the only people to sometimes be in denial about their addiction — families suffer from levels of denial as well. The concern here is that addiction depends on not being named in order to continue. If nobody ever says anything to your brother about his addiction, then the hope for change and sobriety are slim. Maybe a holiday dinner isn’t the right place to start the conversation, but it has to get started one way or another. If this is a concern for you and you want the best for your brother, you have to be brave enough to name the addiction with the confidence of knowing you are doing the right thing for you and for everyone else concerned.

It’s not an easy position to be in, but you’re not alone. You can find support and learn how to deal with this situation by attending one of the Family Care Programs at Renascent and by finding the nearest Al-Anon meeting in your community.
To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

Video: How Substance Abuse and Alcoholism Affects the Family


There is a common misconception that substance abusers believe. They often think “I am only hurting myself.” This is not a true belief. In fact, dependency upon chemicals causes one to behave in ways that hurt the people closest to them. It:

  1. Dominates the user’s thoughts and priorities.
  2. Occupies the user’s time, money, and attention.
  3. Deteriorates the user’s values and behaviour.

What impact does this behaviour have on a family? It creates constant unpredictability. Family members struggle to adapt to the unstable ways of the user:

  1. The non-user begins to develop emotional and physical problems.
  2. Family member becomes filled with anger, guilt, shame, hurt, fear, and loneliness.
  3. They can suffer from rejection, abandonment, and other forms of abuse.
Ask a Family Therapist: why do family members need treatment?

Ask a Family Therapist: why do family members need treatment?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.


Q: Why do family members need treatment if a loved one has an addiction?


A: This is a frequently asked question. In fact, when I contact family members to ask if they’ve considered our Family Care Programs, and I’m often told “They’re the one with the problem, not me!” I believe in this case the family member has a point, in that they are not the one with the addiction issue. However, that point makes the dangerous assumption that if you “fix” the addict, all the issues in the family will magically disappear. Working with families of addicted people, I know this to be categorically false. Families are a system with dependent relationships. When one part of the system does not work, it affects all parts of the system.

During periods of active addiction, all members of the family develop coping strategies to deal with the the broken promises and the resulting chaos and instability, the addicted person not functioning in their familial role, the emotional manipulation, and even the verbal and physical violence.

When the addicted person recognizes that they have a problem and enters into recovery, their loved ones don’t automatically drop the survival strategies they’ve come to rely on, even though they are maladaptive.

They’re maladaptive because they take family members outside of themselves and cause them to literally forget who they are, their passions and loves, and their own concerns and pains. This occurs because the family’s focus is so heavily on the addict during active addiction, and often during recovery too.

Renascent’s Family Care Programs are designed to address these maladaptive coping strategies. Renascent shifts the family’s focus back onto themselves, where it belongs. This is why all family members of addicted persons should seek out their own treatment.

Picture walking into a dense forest. In this forest every plant is suffering. Nothing is blooming to its potential, no trees are bearing fruit. As I walk along, I choose one plant and I take it home with me. While at home in a controlled and safe environment, I provide this single plant with everything it needs to begin to grow again. However, as soon as it begins to grow, I take this plant and put it back into the same suffering and wilting forest with the hope that all the other plants will take notice and automatically know how to begin to bloom. This is an impossibility. Every plant in that forest needs its own special care so that it can begin to reach its potential again. The same can be said for families affected by addiction. Helping the addict and putting him or her back into the affected family does not make everyone magically better. Families need to move forward together in recovery. This is why Renascent treats addiction as a family disease.

To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

The Impact of Renascent’s Children’s Program

The Impact of Renascent’s Children’s Program

by Sunil Boodhai MSW (RSW), BEd.

I have chosen to work with children not because I believe I need to step into their lives and help them, but because their strength and resiliency is both boundless and awe-inspiring. I am in the enviable position to witness this strength and resilience as a therapist in the Children’s Program at Renascent. Children growing up in homes where addiction is present have no choice but to push their strength and resilience to the limit in order to cope and survive the challenges that come with fear, sadness, disappointment, neglect, and sometimes violence. Our concern in the Children’s Program is that a child’s resilience is used against them by the monster that is addiction. Instead of being used to create, build, and find joy, strength and resilience are used to find ways to survive, and survival becomes the norm. Survival takes the guise of perfectionism or acting out in negative ways; both serve to draw attention away from that addiction and over to the child, where attention is desperately needed. Our program’s primary purpose is to put a child’s focus back where it belongs. With the loving support of their families, children are reminded that their primary focus in life is to love, be loved, learn, and have fun.

It is my distinct privilege to see families transform as the make their way through our four-day Children’s Program, always hosted at the Wright Centre, our beautiful family treatment centre in the heart of downtown Toronto. Children nervously arrive with their parents at 9 a.m. on Thursday, not really knowing what to expect. That nervous energy is always transformed into joy and excitement by the end of their first day when children learn that addiction is a disease and they have bonded with other children who share a very similar experience. These children have usually been carrying addiction with them as a family secret and are relieved to find a place where they can speak openly with other people about this aspect of their lives. Children also learn about safe people in their lives with whom they can share their experiences and feeling (not everyone is safe), and about the 7C’s. The seven C’s state, “I did not cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it, but I can help take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices, and celebrating myself.” In this manner, children are reminded of their role and responsibilities in relation to the presence of addiction in their lives. Children are relieved to learn that none of their actions have caused an adult to use a substance (though they are sometimes given that message by the adults in their lives), there is not anything they can do to control the substance use — such as acting out or being absolutely perfect at everything — and there is no cure for the disease. Children are given a great deal of hope when they find out that there is hope even if there is no cure. They learn about abstinence-based treatment and twelve step programs and they meet counsellors and other adults who have lived long periods of time free from substances. Children are also given hope for the future when they learn about making healthy choices, not only in relation to alcohol and other substances, but to fundamental lifestyle habits as well, such as food and sleep. They also practise and learn the benefits of communicating feelings, and how essential it is to not keep their feelings bottled up inside.

By the end of our Children’s Program at Renascent, children join their adult loved ones to work on a project together. This is where they begin to practice the skills they have learned while in the program, and are gently coached through complex emotional interactions in a safe manner. It is this safety that allows children to refocus their strengths and resiliencies again. I cannot state enough how glorious a thing it is to see children make their way through the amazing process of the Renascent Children’s Program.

Sunil is the manager of Family Programs at Renascent. His is currently the lead therapist in the Children’s Program and provides individual counselling sessions for addicts, family members, families, couples and children. Sunil did his undergraduate work and MSW at Ryerson University, as well as a Humanities degree and Bachelor of Education degree at York University. He has been working as an addictions counsellor for over 12 years.

Perspective: I Grew Up in Alateen and Al-Anon

by Shannon Luders-Manuel.

Four people describe their experiences as children in the rooms of Alateen and Al-Anon and whether it helped them cope with their family member’s addiction.

My mother has attended Al-Anon religiously for as along as I can remember. She left my dad when I was three after a particularly bad physical fight, in which he slapped her around while intoxicated. We spent that night at my grandmother’s house, and the next day my mom decided we were done for good.

As a single parent, my mom took me to Al-Anon meetings on a regular basis. As a child I could never make much sense of the stories, and I also didn’t try. I was happier spending time by myself in a corner, playing cards with my stuffed dog, Dominic. The highlight of every Al-Anon meeting were the sugar cubes laid out perfectly next to the coffee machine. Aside from those delicious mouthfuls that I tried to sneak incessantly, Al-Anon always seemed like a very bleak, secret space where men and women aired grievances with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

I didn’t understand why my mom and I had to attend these meetings since we weren’t living with my father. It felt as though we were carrying a secret shame that we were reluctant to part with. My mother and I had moved on, so why did we continue to subject ourselves to a depressive atmosphere, where members couldn’t offer advice and must nod secretly when they passed each other in the grocery store? At that age, these were questions I couldn’t answer.

When I was in my early teens, membership grew at the meetings we attended, and the room next door became a makeshift childcare center. As a shy child, I disliked the daycare room even more than Al-Anon. I stayed in the back with Dominic as usual, but instead of dejected adult voices wafting through the large room, it was filled with rambunctious children who outnumbered the older teen leaders. At a later point, a structured Alateen group was formed, but it either didn’t last long or I didn’t last long in it.

During my brief time in Alateen, a “fine” boy in his late teens came to speak to us younger ones. He told us a story involving his own struggle with addiction and encouraged us to remain vigilant in our lifelong sobriety. I felt drawn to his rough-around-the-edges exterior and his frank disclosure of personal failings. After his speech, I walked swiftly up to him in the outside hallway. I took off my necklace and handed it to him, telling him the charm would keep him safe just like it had for me. He gave me a sad smile and reluctantly took my treasure. He knew I was trying to save him, even though I hadn’t yet figured that out myself.

I never saw that boy again, but it was my first clear foray into codependency. From family stories, I’ve learned that I struggled with this personality trait from a much younger age, as childhood sexual abuse led me to seek out my abuser with desperation once I thought he had moved on. However, as I thought back on my response to the boy in Alateen as an adult, I knew it came from a desire to save my father even though he was fairly absent from my life. I did heavy therapeutic work on codependency in my early 20s, and I’m thankful for that experience in Alateen, as it demonstrated my inclination to seek out broken men.

Once I became a teenager, Al-Anon began to grow on me. Whenever my mom went to the front of the room to receive her chip, I felt a sense of pride in her steadfast commitment to the group. In fact, I began to see that my own involvement should be celebrated as well, and as a result, that Al-Anon group began giving chips to children just for surviving. I received my “13-year” chip when I was 13 years old. I stopped attending Al-Anon shortly thereafter, but the chip has always remained a secret symbol of pride.

Three women shared their experiences attending either Alateen or Al-Anon in their youth. For two, the groups helped them mature into healthy adults who have broken the cycle of addiction in their families. For one, both Al-Anon and Alateen were periodically helpful but ultimately not the support system she needed.

Jessica*: “I started attending meetings at age eight.”

I began going to Alateen (actually a preteen group) when I was about eight. My mother had recently told me about her alcoholism (an act of astonishing vulnerability and bravery). I was never forced to go, but I was encouraged to go by my mother, and the enticement of the snack bar at the venue and the soda and candy to eat while there was a draw to me.

[My mom] died from cirrhosis of the liver, kidneys and stomach when she was 35. I was 13 when she died. My father really tried to do the best he could for about six months. My dad tended to drink beer and only beer. Because of this and because he is able to hold down a job, he does not think he has a problem.

From my teens until now, he drinks at a bar after work for about three to four hours and then comes home and will drink between 12 and 24 beers that night. He would not register me for high school. He would have had to either leave work early or not go to the bar after. Neither was an option. Luckily, a friend’s mom lied and said she was my guardian so I could sign up for classes. To this day, I will not call him past noon. I tend to only call him on Father’s Day, Christmas and his birthday.

I found Alateen and later Al-Anon to be helpful to me in that I could better set boundaries and see what was “normal.” I think learning as much as I could about the disease has helped me to break the chain of addiction. Alateen and Al-Anon helped me to locate healthy adults and understand what was my responsibility and what wasn’t. Just because my childhood sucked, it didn’t mean that I could use that as an excuse for my own bad choices. My advice would be to use the program to learn as much as you can, try to apply it to as many places as you can, and find healthy people to help guide you.

Maria: “Alateen wasn’t for me.”

For Alateen, I attended briefly in 1995 when I was a junior in high school. I only went twice. I have tried Al-Anon a few times on and off during my adult years.

My mother was a drug addict (heroin, cocaine, crack) and my father was an alcoholic. My stepfather was a drug addict (coke, crack) and an alcoholic. My uncle (mother’s brother), who was also my godfather who lived with us, had been an addict (benzos and opiates) and alcoholic. He died in 1994 in our apartment of an overdose.

I had a discouraging experience at Alateen. Two of the teen boys in the group showed up high and drunk to the meetings. As a teen, I was trying to escape being around inebriated people, so it was triggering to be around them in a space dedicated to venting our feelings about the addicts in our lives. During the break, the second time I went, one of the boys made sexually inappropriate comments and innuendo to me. I never went back.

One positive thing I took from it was the adult moderator. When she asked me how I was feeling and I told her I was angry, she told me that was great. She told me to scream and I did. It felt good to scream and for once to be told my feelings were valid. It’s just unfortunate that the experience with the boys undermined that and made me feel unsafe enough to not return.

As for Al-Anon, when I went I was dealing with some stuff as an adult and it was helpful for a time. Most of my family had died (including my mother), my dad had a stroke, my longtime romantic partner and I had split, and my brother was using and drinking a lot. However, I was still put off from aspects of Al-Anon that ultimately turned me away from the program.

Many of the members were also active addicts or alcoholics themselves, or in the stages of early recovery, and while I don’t begrudge them for being there too, sometimes I felt the Al-Anon meeting was functioning more as an AA meeting, and again, that was triggering for me as someone who is the only sober person in my family who was trying to be around more sober people.

I discovered that it’s important to reach out when you need support and help, but also, it’s good to know your limits and not fear being independent or alone. I realized I was stronger than I gave myself credit for, both in my ability to reach out and in my ability to also acknowledge when something was no longer helpful and assert my boundaries. You don’t have to go through it alone, but Al-Anon doesn’t have to be the definitive answer.

Julie: “I chose Al-Anon over Alateen, and it saved my life.”

I started going to Al-Anon when I was barely 17. My grandfather passed away and I chose to volunteer at the American Cancer Society. A woman who worked there asked me a series of questions and then recommended strongly that I go to a meeting, just from random conversations we had as I did stuff around the office. I volunteered every Wednesday, and I went to Al-Anon every Tuesday night, so she knew I was keeping my promise of going to meetings. I went by myself and I was the youngest member in the group.

My mother was a pretty heavy drinker from about 8 a.m. My dad tried Al-Anon but it didn’t work for him, he said. My sister tried Alateen but she said it didn’t do anything to help her feel better or different about our family situation.

Al-Anon saved my life. I would have been pregnant or some dumb guy’s wife, and I probably would never have gone to college if I didn’t feel the support of the adults in that meeting. I needed adults who didn’t hold back their truth and treated me like an equal to grow; I always felt I had to be the parent to my parents, so the love of those people helped balance out my life.

[Through Al-Anon], I learned I cared too much what people think of me. I try to people-please all the time and I felt responsible for everyone. Al-Anon has taught me to stop and consider my situation so I don’t let old behaviour patterns run my life. I preferred Al-Anon as a teenager because I felt I was a grown person for a while by the time I made it to Al-Anon, and the Alateen issues just weren’t for me.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

Reprinted from The Fix with kind permission. Click here to learn about Renascent’s Family Programs.

Video: Coping with Alcoholic Parents


Calum Best, whose footballer father George Best died from alcohol related issues in 2005, and Josh Connolly, who is a recovering alcoholic and father to four children, discuss how families cope with alcoholism.