Addiction In Families, being born into my family meant that there was an underlying assumption that addiction would be a part of my life. My father and mother were both children of alcoholics. Being raised by addicts created a sub-culture that hypnotized my mind to believe that the turmoil was somehow normal. When your idea of “normal” is different than mainstream, the natural tendency is to look for friends and partners that fit your idea of normal. Watching a fist fight between my parents was normal. Infidelity was normal. Having drunk men in my personal space as a teenager was normal. Having marijuana at the family Christmas party was just a part of the holiday celebration. Growing up I was constantly torn between the reality of home life and the lessons from school, my friends and church.
It was only natural that my parents both followed the paths of their parents. By the time I was 11 years old, my mother had abandoned our family and moved to Florida. My mother started small with alcohol and marijuana and then eventually graduated to a full-blown crack-cocaine addict. My mother, a 62 year old woman, remains an active user to this day. My father dove deep into his drinking addiction after my mother left. My father tried to quit drinking numerous times but it took over 25 years before he would become sober. While he was around in person, mentally he was absent from our lives. After being confronted with losing his family, my father made the choice to get help and has been in recovery for over fifteen years. Thankfully, as an adult I have been able to experience what it is like to have a “real” parent. I have forgiven my father and my mother for their circumstances and have come to accept how it all happened.
I believe that if a child is raised and surrounded by alcoholism, drugs and all of the drama that surrounds the disease, that the child will go one of two ways: a) towards the addiction (their learned idea of “normal”) or b) as far from the addiction as possible. For me, seeing my mother snort cocaine up her nose made me angry. Cocaine took my mother away from me and I grew up as a young woman without a mother, and a father that was there as much as he was able. I blamed the cocaine for taking my mother from me. In my mind there was no way that I would join forces with something that I felt ruined my life as a child. My sister, on the other hand, often did drugs with my mother. She needed my mother’s acceptance so bad that she would do anything to get it, even if that meant doing drugs with her. Unfortunately, my sister’s fate was sealed as she was not strong enough to separate and today she is an active heroin addict.
So how does one born into the cycle of addiction escape? For me, I sought out the safe people in my life as a child. My grandmother was the victim of an abusive alcoholic husband but I would call anyone a liar that said she ever picked up one drink. She was a God-fearing woman that lived her life by her interpretation of the Bible. She loved those around her that drank but would give them a good “talking to” about the evils of their actions. I spent much of my younger days with my grandmother. It was quiet and simple in her home. My grandmother helped me to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. Although I spent many years running the streets as a teenager and young adult and did my share of drinking, I always had a vision of her peering down at me with one of her “do the right thing” talks. I wish she were here to see that even though I did quit school, married an abusive alcoholic and got pregnant as a teenager that I did get it together. I got my GED and went back to college and then eventually to law school. While she did not understand such things as college, nonetheless, I think she would be proud.
My escape from the addiction cycle did not come without a price. I had to make a choice whether blood was enough to keep in me in a trap. I am a firm believer that you have to be careful who is in your close circle even if those people are your family. It took me a while to learn that the many addicts in my family expected something from me. In addition to expecting that I would give them money, they also expected a certain behavior of me. It was almost as if they wanted me to apologize for leaving the lifestyle. I cannot count the times where I have been told how I think I am better than others. When I graduated from college my own sister would not speak to me and admitted that she was angry because she had not gone to school. I did not love her or respect her any less because of her education level but somehow she convinced herself that I had formed an opinion of her. While I was not angry, I knew that if I chose to be around my family that there would be nothing I could do to make them accept me and to celebrate my successes. I was not willing to forgo my success because of their insecurities for which I had no control. I went seven years without speaking to my mother and very rarely speak to my sister. I love them both dearly but unfortunately they are not good for me. I have a family now and when they are invited into my life, it only takes a few minutes to learn that they are back for them, not me. I have accepted that I can do nothing to change them and that all I can do is love from a distance and pray for them. If I do not protect my space, I will be sucked into the drama that surrounds the life of a 62 year old crack cocaine addict and a 40 year old heroin addict.
My hope is that as we become more aware of the disease of alcoholism and associated mental illnesses, that more focus will be placed on the long term effects of this disease on children of addicts. The trauma of being raised in a family that has active users in the home exposes children to things they should never have to witness such as violence and open drug use. The damage is done as a child but follows the adult for life unless the adult seeks help. The stigma and shame associated with discussing these things keeps many from speaking out about what they have experienced and thus, no one knows the secret lives of families of addicts.
We can and we should change the outcome for many of our children living in the homes of addicts. We should be willing to share and discuss the stories of families openly and without fear so that there is an awareness element. After all, how can help be obtained if no one knows it exists?
Dena Sisk Foman, Esquire, is a partner at the law firm of McLaughlin & Stern, LLP and the author of the book Only I Can Define Me: Releasing Shame and Growing into My Adult Self.