Addiction & Survival:
How The Disease Of Addiction Originates
Addiction & Survival: In a dysfunctional family where there is alcoholism, drug addiction, eating addiction, work-aholism, sexual addiction, gambling addiction or any other addictive disorder, the members of the family develop defence mechanisms and survival techniques on an unconscious level that make it possible for them to live in the system.
For example, if a ten-year old child lives in a family where Dad is a rage-aholic and throws things when he gets angry, children will probably develop behaviours that enable them to survive in the home. They probably know with ninety-five percent accuracy when Dad is about to rage and what precautions to take to feel safer. It may involve hiding in a closet, emotionally detaching by reading fairy tales, or it may be to eat so as not to have to feel the rage or tension in the home.
When these children grow into adults, they will take with them those survival skills that enabled them to survive. They may find themselves in situations similar to those they grew up in. Many of us from dysfunctional families are still using survival techniques from childhood in our present-day lives, but it may not be effective anymore. What it does is keep us from knowing ourselves.
The disease of addiction is a survival technique. Some may find it useful, dealing with the many unspoken feelings of fear, loneliness and shame that were not safe to share. We also may have discovered that even though our family situation was chaotic, we could control how we felt. We began to realise that there were ways to control how we appeared to the rest of the world on the outside – if we are acceptable on the outside, maybe we would begin to feel acceptable on the inside. To be in control gave many of us a false sense of security by keeping us from feeling the pain around us.
I realised that this false sense of self kept me walled away from who I really was. If the wall began to crack, the feelings of pain, shame and fear could quickly be covered by using. A substance of choice became a best friend for many years. But eventually the friend that once kept us safe and insulated began to turn on us and we were trapped in a way of life that was void of any hope for growth.
The shame of the addiction perpetuates the addictive behaviour.
I found that with alcohol I could control my addiction and feelings about my addictive behaviour. In time, I lost also to alcohol. Addicts may achieve sobriety and recovery from one substance, but find that another is becoming a problem. Switching one addiction for another is called cross-addiction. As long as we fear our feelings we will continue to cover them up.
In most families there are unspoken rules. These rules are also developed on an unconscious level and were the rules our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents grew up with. These rules perpetuate the cycle of shame that can make us vulnerable to addiction and its continuation.
Don’t Talk About What is Really Going On
When unresolved issues in a family are not discussed, they will be acted out by the members of that family. Everyone is aware that there are a number of problems in the family, but nobody feels safe enough to talk about it.
If it is ignored, it will resolve itself. I have seen seriously addicted individuals continue to live their life in their disease while the entire family denies that there is a problem – reality is not visible. If it is not discussed, it does not have to be explored. For those who are aware that there is a problem, there still may be some resistance to addressing the dysfunction, such as “I know I’m addicted, but if I talk about it, I will hurt and probably have to change”.
Certain Feelings are Not Acceptable
In this second family rule feelings are the enemy, especially feelings of anger, sadness, shame, guilt and pain. Some may even fear that their feelings will either become overwhelming and out of control or that feelings will kill them. If a small child grows up in a family where Mom loses control and rages every time she is angry, the child may grow into an adult who fears his own anger and the anger of others. When he does feel anger, he will probably try to cover it up or ignore it. Human beings were given feelings for a reason; if we do not process how we feel about what is going on around us with our feelings, they will come out in a dysfunctional manner. Getting angry does not mean losing control and raging.
Research is beginning to find that many physical illnesses are related to an inability to process feelings and deal effectively with the stress that is created by not listening to how we feel.
In a healthy family all feelings are accepted and validated.
If we are allowed to feel our feelings, we can pass through them and learn from the experience in the process. If we are denied our feelings, they will eventually come out in some form that may not be appropriate. Addiction kept me from dealing with feelings of anger, shame, unworthiness and fear.
Don’t Trust – The World is not a Safe Place
This third rule means many have an extremely difficult time with trust because it is not acceptable to talk about what is really going on around us or to experience all our feelings in a dysfunctional family. We find it difficult to trust ourselves, others and sometimes even a Higher Spiritual Power.
For example, if Mom or Dad breaks promises and denies the problems in the family that are difficult and painful to expose, children learn not to trust. In a dysfunctional family, members also learn to discount their own perception about what is taking place.
Children may also view Mom and Dad as the Higher Power because they provide food, clothing, shelter, nurturance, love and emotional support. If parents are not emotionally available for their children, the children may develop a concept of a Higher Power that cannot always be trusted to be available. Children use magical thinking: if Mom is unavailable, the children may begin to believe she isn’t available because they are bad. The children’s feeling of shame begins to build within to become a shame core. They may act out with eating disorders, using chemicals, fighting at school, sleeping difficulties or regressing to earlier behaviour such as bed-wetting.
Many of us believe that one day everything would be fixed if we just ignored it. It is hopeful we eventually discover that we have a responsibility to ourselves to break these family rules. It does not have to do with not loving our families or blaming them, but instead with learning how the family system has impacted our lives. Many of us are not capable of making changes within our lives until we know what we need to alter.
Beginning to explore the patterns in our family system is an appropriate place to start.