In this episode of our addiction and recovery podcast, we offer a discussion about the impact of a dysfunctional family in childhood on future adulthood. We like to think that what happened in our past doesn’t affect our adult lives. However, one of the most significant predictors for problems in adult relationships is childhood trauma.
Trying to understand how childhood affects adulthood was the earliest idea of psychology, an idea proposed by Sigmund Freud, which seems to have endured over the years, even as new research and understanding of this idea have changed what we understand about that relationship.
Indeed, after 100 years, the process of therapy does continue to be the procedure of analyzing a patient’s childhood, trying to heal the wounds that occurred during that critical period, and helping the adult become more emotionally literate.
TRANSCRIPT: The Impact of a Dysfunctional Family
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. I’ve been wanting to do an episode for awhile on the 12-step fellowship ACOA and the disease of family dysfunction. I’m going to be pulling from several different people who are kind of experts and authors in the field of family dysfunction, including Tian Dayton, Claudia Black, and others, and I’ll let you know when I’m quoting them or referring to them, and I’m happy to introduce you to some of their work because their work is amazing.
So let’s start off talking about what is a dysfunctional family. Well there’s many types and degrees of dysfunction in families. The defining feature of a dysfunctional family is that its members experience repetitive trauma, so the types of traumatic childhood experiences that I’m referring to are called adverse childhood experiences, and I’m still hoping to get an expert on the podcast to talk about the ACE assessment, which is the adverse childhood experiences assessment. The ACE assessment includes experiencing any of the following during your childhood: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, witnessing domestic violence, a parent or close family member who was an alcoholic or an addict, a parent or close family member who is mentally ill, parents who were separated or divorced, a parent or close family member being incarcerated. So as the study of dysfunctional families has come about, one of the questions that has been asked is does what happened in the past stay in the past? And there’s a lot of people who want to believe that it does, but the real answer is absolutely it does not. One of the most significant triggers for childhood relationship trauma are adult relationships. So there’s a saying “Children live in the three feet surrounding their parent. What happens to the parent happens to the child.” Now emotions predate reason, so our emotional wiring, that is our limbic system, is in place from birth. This is what allows us to breathe, it’s what allows us to respond or react, but our thinking wiring isn’t in place until we’re around 12, and even then, we’re only beginning to learn how to use it. So because of this discrepancy in development, young children cannot use their thinking to make sense of and to regulate their emotional responses to life. We learn the skills of self-regulating initially through being in the presence of an adequate external regulator, say a mother, father, or an attuned caregiver. We talked about this a little bit in the previous episode on emotional regulation. We depend on them not only to actually calm us down when we’re upset, but to show us how to do that through their own behavior, so as a child, when we get out of balance, this attuned caregiver woos us back into a state of balance. They hold us physically and emotionally until we restore our own calm and until our nervous system settles. Gradually we absorb the ability until we can do that for ourselves. We internalize their regulation and we make it our own. Through a successful attachment, we gradually build these skills into our own self system, and we make them portable; we can take them with us. Now when our skills of self-regulation are well-learned during childhood, they feel as if they come naturally, as if we’ve always had them. When they are not learned in childhood well, we may reach to sources outside of ourselves to provide the sense of calm and good feeling that we cannot achieve on our own or to recapture that sense of calm that we remember having as a small child in someone’s arms.
Some of our society’s common self-medicators that we may reach for are drugs, alcohol, food, sex, work, technology, money. It’s not these substances or behaviors in and of themselves that create problems, but our relationship to them and how we use or misuse or abuse them. Living with or growing up with addiction is a bit like inhaling secondhand smoke. We inhale the thinking, feeling, and behavior of the addict emotionally, psychologically, and behaviorally. We take who they are while using into our own inner world. Now Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous who named the term “emotional sobriety” as the next horizon to be met once addicts became physically sober. That need for emotional sobriety actually though is one that anyone who has grown up around addiction or been the spouse of an active addict is going to relate to. So if we think about that, emotional sobriety is a necessary next step in recovery if you want to get over addictive compulsive behaviors and stay over them, stay in recovery, build a recovery worth living. Now Al-Anon, many of you may be familiar with Al-Anon. Al-Anon is the 12-step program for family members of addicts, and they used to refer to its members as co-addicts, intuitively recognizing the secondhand phenomenon. Now a lot of people who were attending Al-Anon who were family members or spouses of addicts eventually started having issues with that term “co-addict.” They felt like somehow they were collaborating in the addiction, that somehow they were to blame as much as the addict for this dysfunction instead of recognizing that that word kind of came from this idea that they were also impacted. So they were kind of the co-addict being impacted by what was happening, so that designation morphed, and in the 1980s it kind of morphed into co-dependent, and co-dependency became a movement almost overnight with people literally coming out of the woodwork to self-identify with that term co-dependency. 12-step rooms brimmed over with people who connected with the experience of being from a dysfunctional family. Books were written, conferences filled up, and for nearly a decade, co-dependency was a buzzword that meant anything from a traumatized child from a pain-filled family to one who had first-hand experience with addiction.
Simultaneously with this movement came the Adult Children of Alcoholics fellowship, and eventually the psychiatric community came forward with this concept of dual diagnosis, which means that along with a diagnosis of addiction, there is another diagnosis, for example anxiety, depression, or PTSD, and this brought forward the notion that many addicts were self-medicating underlying disorders. They were using drugs, alcohol, food, sex, etc. to manage or medicate the pain that they were in that arose from untreated disorders, including the trauma of growing up with addiction. So we started to look at addiction less as a moral failing and more as a symptom of a larger underlying issue. Now a couple of years ago, well it was several years ago, I heard Claudia Black speak about the origins of ACOA, and one of the things that I found fascinating partly because it mirrored my own experience, but she was saying that before ACOA came into existence, that would have been in the mid-80s I think the ACOA fellowship came into existence, so prior to that, people were attending Al-Anon, and like I said, Al-Anon is a fellowship for spouses or family members of an addict, and what they found was about a third of the people who were attending Al-Anon meetings did not have and identified addict in their life, so there was nobody, it wasn’t a spouse, it wasn’t a dad, it wasn’t a sibling. They couldn’t identify who this addict was, and yet they were resonating with the literature out of Al-Anon, and I’m not sure if I remember this accurately, but what I remember her saying is it kind of put Al-Anon into an identity crisis because they were an organization or they were a fellowship that was intended to treat or help family members and spouses of addicts, and particularly alcoholics, so having about a third of their members there who didn’t have this kind of prompted this identity crisis for them, and they kind of had a group conscious meeting and decided what are we going to do, and if you’ve ever been actively part of a 12-step meeting, you may find that sometimes the 12-step meetings can replicate the family dysfunction or the 12-step meetings can be somewhat rigid, which isn’t necessarily a recovery principle, but they can get sometimes rigid. Years ago when I interviewed Carver Brown, I loved what he said when he talked about however you need to look for the pockets where healthy recovery is happening within those meetings. So from what I remember Claudia saying, this kind of prompted this identity crisis for Al-Anon. They had a group conscious meeting, and they decided that in order to attend Al-Anon, you had to have an identified addict in your life. So these people, this third of the people who were attending who didn’t have that were kind of left without a fellowship, and that’s what kind of sprang up into ACOA. Now she also said that they know that about a third of the people attending ACOA meetings, which stands for Adult Children of Alcoholics, and they’ve also added “and other dysfunctions”, about a third of the people who are attending and benefitting and resonating with ACOA meetings again did not have an identified addict in their life, and so what they started to look at is this idea of maybe inner-generational trauma, and often for these people who did not have an identified addict in their life, when they went back two, three, maybe even four generations, they found the addiction, and so maybe what happens is let’s say that great-grandpa is an addict, and his son hates the fact that dad’s an alcoholic and knows that it’s impacting the family negatively and it’s destroying the family, and so son promises I will never touch alcohol. That’s the problem in my family is the alcohol addiction, and I’m not going to do it, so son gets married, starts a family, never touches a drop of alcohol, doesn’t marry anybody who has an issue with alcohol, and in his mindset, problem solved. I fixed the problem. My family’s not going to have the problem. However, we also know that there’s characteristics or behaviors of families where there’s addiction present. One of those things may be there’s not a lot of physical affection. There’s not a lot of intimate connections. These children who grow up and have their own families don’t have this ability to self-regulate, and so the lack of these skills or the lack of this ability to be emotionally sober is actually what also can create addiction. So maybe dad says I’m not going to drink and he doesn’t. But he doesn’t really know how to be close and intimate with his spouse, and he doesn’t really know how to help emotionally regulate his children, and when they’re relying on him, it triggers all of this childhood trauma, and so these characteristics of addict families tend to also… maybe not his children, but grandchildren, great-grandchildren will also see this addiction start to pop up, and so ACOA really started looking at just the disease of family dysfunction and looking at and identifying what skills were needed and what changes need to happen in order to have functional families instead of the dysfunctional families.
Now another side note, well I like history, so I like to understand how things come together. I like to understand what prompted certain things, so this story is fascinating for me. I hope it’s at least interesting for you, but another side note, what’s happening in the 80s is we’re also starting to look at this idea of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and until then, we really weren’t identifying that, but after the Vietnam War, it was kind of hard to ignore the impact that war had on an individual. I think sometimes we like to think of like… well we do, we called World War II, like my grandfather’s generation, people who fought in World War II, we call them the greatest generation, and we like to forget the part of the story that actually says they came home and they weren’t okay. They didn’t know how to come back and live normal life and just go on with marriage and family after experiencing the trauma that they experienced. But we kind of just push that aside. Actually that’s true of World War I too. There were quite a few vets who came home from World War I and weren’t okay, but for some reason in the Vietnam War, we just started seeing the dysfunction of the vets who were coming home from the Vietnam War, so we started to look at this idea that post the trauma, so after the trauma, after they’ve come back and they’ve been safe, they may have this disorder that manifests in the trauma. Now this is something that Tian Dayton talked about, I think it was in her book “Emotional Sobriety”, but I’ve read several of her books, so I’m not sure if it was in that one, but she talks about this idea of the Vietnam Vet who comes home and things that would trigger, the triggering events for his PTSD trauma from being in war were maybe things like a car backfiring, so he may be walking down Main Street USA, everything’s fine, everything’s safe, he hears a car backfire and immediately he’s kind of transported back to the jungles of Vietnam and he’s in this trauma response. Other things that may have prompted or triggered this response, this traumatic response would have been things like the smells of Asian food, so if he walks into an Asian restaurant, those smells may trigger some of that traumatic response. Hearing an Asian language may also trigger that trauma response. So she talks about for kids who grow up in dysfunctional families, what are the triggers that trigger this traumatic response? Well, as she talks about, it’s creating a family. It’s getting married, it’s having children, it’s moving into those very things that were traumatic for that child, and that’s what kind of triggers this traumatic response.
Now let’s talk for a minute about how growing up with abuse and addiction affects our development, and again, this is taken from Tian Dayton, “So she says development in the young child is a continuous interaction between the child and their primary caretakers. The hard-wiring of the child’s brain is set up through countless tiny interactions. The manner in which the child is treated affects who the child becomes and the ever-growing and changing child in turn affects the caretaker’s response. This synergy creates a fluid rather than static picture of development. Imagine then how addiction and trauma affect each aspect of the child’s developing personality. Factors that influence a child’s response to a traumatizing family environment are 1) the child’s stage of development, 2) the child’s organic structure, and 3) the available support network of the child. Young children are particularly vulnerable to developmental deficits as their personalities are yet relatively unformed and their primary support network is the family, which in the case of abuse and addiction, is causing them damage. They may be forced to confront their personalities in a variety of ways to maintain a sense of connection and some semblance of stability. So they live in two worlds: the sober world and the using world. In addicted or abusive families, there is a front stage that appears to the world and a back stage that often remains hidden and the rules, morals, thinking, feeling, and behavior are often very different for both stages.”
Now the effect of trauma on the family, so a family that is containing trauma in the form of addiction or abuse can produce relationship dynamics that perpetuate relationship trauma. According to Stephen Krugman, the impact of trauma on the family system has three main components. First is construction leading to a meshment, second is avoidance leading to disengagement, and third is impulsive behavior that leads to chaos. So construction of emotional and psychological expression can make the authentic expression of pain feel threatening. Family members learn not to talk about what’s going on right in front of them. They learn to hold on to painful emotion that could rock the boat. If it’s going to rock the boat, I just hold onto it and I try to suppress it. In avoidance, family members see the solution to keeping pain from their inner worlds from erupting as avoiding subjects, people, places, and things that might trigger it. This leads to an emotional disengagement among family members. With impulsive behavior that leads to chaos, that inner world is surfacing in action. Painful feelings that are too hard to sit with explode into the container of the family and get acted out in dysfunctional ways that engender chaos. Construction, avoidance, and impulsive behavior are dysfunctional attempts at dealing with pain. So this family becomes fertile ground for producing trauma-related symptoms in its members. In addition, it strict taboos against genuine and authentic expression of the emotional pain and psychological angst that family members are engendering, assured that the pain does not get talked about. Consequently, it does not get processed, worked through, and put into any context that might allow family members to move through it. If you remember in our EMDR episode, and if you haven’t listened to that you might also want to listen to that in conjunction with this. In that episode, we talked about that we need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end to large events that happen to us, and in trauma, we don’t get any resolution, so we might have a beginning. It’s hard to determine if we’re in the middle, and there’s no resolution, so it kind of leaves that event current and able to come out and impact us because it hasn’t been resolved. There hasn’t been kind of an ending to that, so instead it just kind of sits within the family system, and it’s this buried land mine waiting to explode whenever it gets stepped on. So it’s no wonder that families such as these produce a range of systems in its members that can lead to problems later in life, and this is how the mantle of dysfunction gets passed down through generations.
Now the dilemma of the child who grows up with a parent who is addicted or a parent who’s dysfunctional for any reason is they carry this feeling that something is terribly wrong and they’re helpless to fix it. Children in dysfunctional families often become parentified, and they take on adult responsibilities that their parents have neglected. This heightened sense of responsibility lends itself to our belief that we’re responsible for fixing other people’s problems and that we need to be in charge while not actually be able to effect change. So often what this can lead to is some rigidity. It can lead to control. I often say that control is a response to fear, and in dysfunctional families, kids live with a lot of fear and powerlessness. So at the heart of these control issues is difficulty trusting others. In alcoholic families, adults aren’t always reliable and trustworthy. There’s deep denial of the alcoholism and dysfunction, and children are often told that nothing’s wrong, but something’s very wrong. The alcoholic is busy drinking or sleeping it off, and his or her spouse is preoccupied with efforts to fix the problems and mitigate the damage done by the alcoholic. This leaves the children confused and emotionally neglected, sometimes physically neglected or abused, and when children can’t trust their parents, they respond with an intense need to control things themselves.
So what are some of the ways untreated ACOAs might play out their part of the family illness? Tian Dayton talks about this too. She says, “One of the resulting hallmarks of trauma is problems with self-regulation. We have trouble regulating or right-sizing our emotions, moods, behaviors. This can contribute to food addiction, sex addiction, anger management, workaholism, drug and alcohol abuse, obsessive behaviors, depression and anxiety. Although I have painted a rather grim picture for ACOAs, the truth is that growing up with childhood trauma is just one more of life’s challenges that needs to be faced and tackled. Experiences that challenge us can deepen and strengthen as well. Children of alcoholics widen their container of human experience beyond the norm, which is not a bad thing. We learn lessons of self-reliance, ingenuity, and creativity as we struggle to respond to situations that overwhelm us, and we learn it as kids, which means we learn it well. The skills that we develop in attempting to manage the unmanageable can translate themselves into success in many areas of life. Positive psychology is full of stories of the gains of overcoming painful life experiences, describing ah-ha moments and the feeling of one door closing while another flies open. If we can deal with the residue of pain so that it doesn’t undermine our ability to have nourishing relationships, the rest can fall into place for us. The thing that we can’t do, though, is to pretend that nothing happened. Something did happen, and it can and it needs to be addressed if we truly want to turn the tide of the legacy of addiction.”
In her 1983 landmark book “Adult Children of Alcoholics”, the late Janet Woititz outlined 13 of the characteristics and personality traits that many children of alcoholics develop. Dr. Jan, as she is known, was a best-selling author, lecturer, and counselor who was also married to an alcoholic. Based on her personal experience with alcoholism and its effect on her children as well as her work with clients who were raised in dysfunctional families, she discovered that these common characteristics are prevalent not only in alcoholic families, but also in those who grew up in families where there were other compulsive behaviors such as gambling, drug abuse, or over-eating, or where other dysfunctions occurred, such as the parents being chronically ill or held strict religious attitudes. She cited that adult children of alcoholics often guess at what normal behavior is, have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end, lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth, judge themselves without mercy, have difficulty having fun, take themselves very seriously, have difficulty with intimate relationships, overreact to changes over which they have no control, constantly seek approval and affirmation, feel that they’re different from other people, are super responsible or super irresponsible, are extremely loyal even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. They’re impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Now of course if you’re a child of an alcoholic or you come from a dysfunctional family, that doesn’t mean that everything on this list will apply to you, but it’s likely that some of it will. Now before Dr. Jan’s book was published, an adult child of an alcoholic, Tony A. published in 1978 what he called the laundry list. It’s another list of characteristics that can seem very familiar to those who grew up in dysfunctional homes. Tony’s list has been adopted as part of the ACOA world service organization’s official literature and is a basis for the article “The Problem” published on the group’s website. According to Tony’s list, many adult children of alcoholics can become isolated, fear people and authority figures, become approval-seekers, be frightened of angry people, be terrified of personal criticism, become alcoholics, marry them, or both, view life as a victim, have an overwhelming sense of responsibility, be concerned more with others than themselves, feel guilty when they stand up for themselves, become addicted to excitement, confuse love and pity, love people who need rescuing, stuff their feelings, lose the ability to feel, have low self-esteem, judge themselves harshly, become terrified of abandonment, do anything to hold onto a relationship, become para-alcoholics, which is people who take on the characteristic of the disease without drinking, become reactors instead of actors.
Now as Claudia Black said in her book “It Will Never Happen to Me”, alcoholic and dysfunctional families follow three unspoken rules, and you will hear that that’s also things that Tian Dayton was writing about. Rule #1 is don’t talk. We don’t talk about our family problems to each other or to outsiders. This rule is the foundation for the family’s denial of the abuse, addiction, illness, whatever. The message is act like everything is fine and make sure everyone else thinks we’re a perfectly normal family. Now this is extremely confusing for children who sense that something’s wrong but no one acknowledges what it is, so children often conclude that they are the problem. Sometimes they are blamed outright, and other times they internalize a sense that something must be wrong with them. Because no one is allowed to talk about the dysfunction, the family is plagued with secrets and shame. Children in particular feel alone, helpless, and imagine no one else is going through what they’re experiencing. The “don’t talk” rule ensures that no one acknowledges the real family problem, and when the root of the family’s problem is denied, it can never be solved. Health and healing aren’t possible with this mindset of denial.
Claudia Black talked about rule #2 in dysfunctional families: Don’t trust. Children depend on their parents or caregivers to keep them safe, but when you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you don’t experience your parents and the world as safe and nurturing, and without a basic sense of safety, children feel anxious and have difficulty trusting. Children don’t develop a sense of trust and security in dysfunctional families because their caregivers are inconsistent and undependable. They’re neglectful, emotionally absent. They break promises, and they don’t fulfill their responsibilities. In addition, some dysfunctional parents expose their children to dangerous people and situations and fail to protect them from abuse. As a result, children learn that they can’t trust others, even their parents, to meet their needs and keep them safe, and that’s the most fundamental form of trust for a child. Difficulty trusting others extends to outside the family as well. In addition to the “don’t talk” mandate, the “don’t trust” rule keeps the family isolated and perpetuates the fear that if you ask for help, something bad will happen. Mom and Dad will get a divorce, Dad will go to jail, you’ll end up in foster care, the family’s going to fall apart. Despite how scary and painful home life is, it’s the devil you know. You’ve learned how to survive there, and disrupting the family by talking to a teacher or a counselor might make things worse, so it makes sense to just not trust anyone.
The third rule Claudia Black identified was don’t feel. Repressing painful or confusing emotions is a coping strategy used by everyone in a dysfunctional family. Children in dysfunctional families witness their parents numbing their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, pornography, and technology. Rarely are feelings expressed and dealt with in a healthy way. Children may also witness scary episodes of rage. Sometimes anger is the only emotion they see their parents express, and children quickly learn that trying to express their feelings will at best lead to being ignored and at worst lead to violence, blame, shame, so children also learn to repress their feelings, to numb themselves and try to distract themselves from the pain.
Now Tian Dayton talks about traumatic memory, and I think it’s important to include how traumatic memory works in our brain and in our bodies. So because of the way our brain stores them, traumatic memories do not get thought about, reflected upon, and put into some sort of context. She says, “The defenses that get engaged during situations of threat are fight, flight, and freeze, all of which are associated with the amygdala, or the old part of the brain. The cortex, which is where thinking, reasoning, and long-range planning take place, was developed later in human evolution. That’s why when we’re scared stiff or struck dumb, the content of the experience that would normally get through and thought about and placed into memory storage gets more or less flash frozen instead. Because these memories are stored in the cells of the body as well as the mind, these unintegrated memories may resurface in the form of sematic disturbances, such as headaches, back problems, and queasiness, or as psychological and emotional symptoms such as flashbacks, anxiety, sudden outbursts of anger, rage, or intrusive memories. The person experiencing this may find him or herself in an intense bind in which traumatic memory stimulates disturbing physiological sensations and disturbing body sensations stimulate traumatic memory. This can create a sort of black hole and internal combustion that can send a client or a person into an ever-intensifying downward spiral that becomes fraught with fear and anxiety. Clients may experience this as panic, feeling stuck, intense fear or being flooded with feelings or memories.”
One of my favorite quotes from Bessel van der Kolk is, “Trauma manifests as a reaction, not as a memory.” So why don’t ACOAs get the help that they need, that we need? I’m one of them. Well, the focus of attention in media and even recovery circles has mostly been on the addict and the belief until recently has been that if the addict gets sober, the rest of the family magically gets better. So for a long time, the trauma of family members has not been adequately understood, and yet they take it into their families that they create. Another reason is ACOAs may have trouble accepting or even resent the idea that although they did nothing, after all they weren’t the one that drank or was active in addiction, they have been nonetheless damaged by the experience of living with addiction, and they need help. Because we grew up feeling different, we’re already worried about ourselves, and we fear being told there’s something really wrong with us. We don’t usually want to be told that we’re sick, too, and usually we’ve developed a distorted relational habit or family dynamic which is pinned to all of the dysfunction on the addict and miss the other problematic dynamics in the family. Another reason is that we feel disloyal complaining about our past. In some cases, parents have gotten sober and become different people, and so we don’t want to drudge up the past or we feel we may alienate family members by talking about these forbidden or these disturbing subjects. We don’t want to tell the secret. We also learn that asking for help can be a bad idea. ACOAs learn as kids not to rely on other people, not to expect too much, not to share their pain, and not to ask for help. Remember that the people that we’d normally go to for comfort and support are the ones hurting us, so ACOAs learn that asking for help can lead nowhere or even worse, it can lead to more disappointment. And another reason is this old saying “We don’t know that we don’t know”. The nature of trauma is that it’s unconscious. Something frightened or disturbed us enough so that we did not want to experience it. We shut down, we froze, we acted out, we ran, we did not make sense of the experience and file it away. We threw it out the window. We threw it out of our consciousness. While the unprocessed experience still influences us from within, we’re unaware of what we carry inside ourselves.
Brené Brown says, “Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy, the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Another Brené Brown quote is “Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we will ever do.” She also says, “When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
One of my favorite parts of my job or the therapeutic process is when clients begin to own their story, to start to speak what they haven’t spoken, sometimes ever. When clients begin to say “I think my mom is mentally ill, and that’s impacted me since I was a child.” or “My mom was a tough-love kind of mom, and that meant I didn’t get what I needed.” or “I was emotionally neglected as a child, and that impacts my relationships as an adult.” It was powerful for me when I began to say out loud, “I believe my dad had multiple addictions.” I couldn’t say that until he had passed away, but I believe his addictions were alcohol, sex, gambling, and smoking. What made it even harder for me to own that story is I never saw any of that. My family was Mormon. Mormons don’t do any of those things. Well we do sex, but you shouldn’t be a sex addict, so I remember I went to Louisiana State University for my Master’s degree, so I moved away from home. I was married, no kids, went to school at LSU, and I was preparing to move back home after I graduated and get a job, and so I had started like the week before I was going to be moving, I started kind of contacting some places back in Utah that I could work at, and immediately I got this one offer working with drug and alcohol addiction, and I thought, I don’t want to work with addiction. I don’t even know any addicts. I’m Mormon. Most of the people I know are Mormon. So I moved back home, and I went to that interview. They were the first one who extended the opportunity for an interview, so I went and had the interview, and by the time I came home from that interview, I had a message on my answering machine that offered me the job, but it wasn’t the job I wanted because again, I don’t know how to work with addicts. I don’t even know addicts. So I told them… I don’t remember what I told them. I’ve also acknowledged that I could lie very easily and be very believable, so I told them something and bought myself some time to find any other job that I would want to have more, and so I bought myself two weeks and I applied and I went on interview after interview after interview, and there was a lot of jobs that I really wanted, and at the end of two weeks, the only job offer on the table was that first job offer working with drug and alcohol addiction. I thought well it’s easier to get a job if you have a job, so I’ll take the job and I’ll start working there, and I loved it, and I was learning about addiction and I was learning about all these things that I was like, wow, I never would have imagined that this type of work would be so engaging, and I remember part of the job I had to take turns like going to 12-step meetings with clients, and I would sit in these 12-step meetings and I was having an experience. I couldn’t understand why I resonated with what was being talked about. Why did learning about addiction and hearing people talk about addiction seem to explain my life story? So I began to more closely examine my life and my childhood, and as I applied what I was learning to my family and my memories of childhood growing up, I realized I did know an addict. I actually grew up in an addict home, and of course I kept that new realization secret because that’s what I was raised to do. It took me several more years before I started speaking what I believed. At first it was pretty soft. Maybe my dad had addictions. Perhaps there might have been an addiction or two, maybe two, I think two. I think my dad might have had an addiction. Eventually it got a little bit stronger. I believe my dad was an addict. And finally I just started owning it. My father had multiple addictions, and it impacted me and my family.
There’s a poem that I love by Tian Dayton. She says, “If children live with parents who are high, they learn that people are unpredictable and unreliable. If children live with denial, they learn to mistrust what they feel and sense. If children live with shame, they learn to hide who they really are. If children live with rage, they learn to be afraid or act out themselves. If children live with emotional abuse, they learn to feel bad about who they are. If children live with trauma, they learn to become anxious and despondent. If children live with addiction, they learn to become addicts. If children live with recovery, they learn that people can change for the better. If children live with parents who face their issues, they learn their own problems can be overcome. If children live with amends, they learn to forgive. If children live with peace in the home, they learn to feel safe inside. If children live with dependability, they learn to trust. If children live with honesty, they learn to tell the truth. If children live with emotional maturity, they’re allowed to be children.”
In her book “Emotional Sobriety”, Tian Dayton lists the signs of emotional regulation. They’re many, and they’re good things to put on our radar and start working towards. She lists them as the signs of emotional sobriety include well-developed skills of self-regulation, the ability to regulate strong emotions, the ability to regulate one’s mood, the ability to have perspective in life, to keep the big picture in mind, the ability to regulate harmful substances and behaviors, the ability to live in the present, to attend to the present, and to expand from the present, the ability to regulate activity levels, the ability to live comfortably with both personal and social connections, the ability to roll with the punches or the ability to develop resilience skills, the ability to regulate personal behavior, the ability to process painful emotions without having to disown them, the ability to experience intense feelings, to put words on them and obtain emotional literacy, the ability to live comfortably with intimate connections and relationship connections, the ability to tolerate the feelings that the moment brings up and to make sense of them in the moment, the ability to think and feel at the same time and to make sense of the world around us while we are living in it. Doesn’t that sound awesome?
Healing also means moving beyond the rules that govern dysfunctional family dynamics. You can replace don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel with a new set of guidelines in your adult relationships. Talk about your feelings and experiences. You can break down shame, isolation and loneliness, and build more connected relationships when you share your thoughts and feelings with trustworthy people. Acknowledging and talking about your problems is the opposite of staying in denial. It opens the door to solutions and healing. Trust others and set appropriate boundaries. Trust can be a scary thing, especially when people have let you down in the past or hurt you. It takes time to learn to trust yourself, and who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Trust is an important component of healthy relationships, along with healthy boundaries that ensure you are being treated with respect and that your needs are met. Oftentimes we talk about trust in this all-or-nothing binary—we either have trust or we don’t have trust, and if we don’t have trust, we should have trust. I like to tell clients trust happens on a continuum. If somebody’s hurt you, if somebody has let you down in the past, that’s going to lessen the amount of trust you have for them, so with some if they’re coming in with betrayal trauma and they’re saying “I don’t trust my spouse,” and I’m like, “Well that makes sense”. The goal is just not to trust your spouse again because that would take you into dangerous situations where you’re likely to be hurt again, so where is that trust? Is it 20%? Less? Is it 30%? And where do you want it to be? Where does it need to be for the relationship to start moving towards healing? Last, feel all your feelings. You are allowed to have all your feelings. It will take practice to get back in touch with your feelings and realize their value. You no longer have to be limited to feeling shame, fear, and sadness. You don’t have to operate in extremes and control. You also don’t need anyone else to validate your feelings. There are no right or wrong feelings or good or bad feelings. Feelings just are. Let them exist.