December 1, 2020

The Best Way to Heal from the Family Disease of Addiction.

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“Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” ~ George Bernard Shaw


I am my mother and father’s firstborn son.

My mom was raised Catholic in an Italian and Irish home. My dad, on the other hand, was born in Texas and raised Southern Baptist.

Both my mom and dad come from a family of five children. My dad is from a wealthy and privileged background. I remember the first time we celebrated Christmas at my dad’s parents’ house. The Christmas tree went all the way to the ceiling of their three-story home and the living room was large enough to have eight separate chairs surrounding the tree, each one overflowing with toys for their eight grandchildren.

My mom was raised in a working class home. After her father’s first career in the military, he worked as a car salesman until he retired. My mom’s mom never worked, but she was an incredible cook and gave hugs with her entire being. She also always had a half-eaten box of See’s Candies in her bedroom, which is where the sound of old black and white movies played on the television all day.

I remember as a child wondering why she and my grandfather had separate bedrooms. My grandmother’s room was bright and messy. It was full of colorful clothes, big floppy hats, and pieces of jewelry strung across her dresser. My grandfather’s room was simple, clean, and his matching brown wooden furniture reminded me of a Catholic church confessional booth.

Religion played a big role in my life growing up. After my mom and dad married, they both converted to Christianity. I was raised Christian, with a tinge of Catholic guilt and sprinkle of Southern Baptist dogma.

Something else that played a significant role in my life growing up was addiction. My mom’s mom was an alcoholic. Being raised by an alcoholic mom and an “untreated Al-Anon” dad, it was almost inevitable my mom would marry my father, someone who had been battling his own addiction since he was a teenager. 

In December 2019, I regularly started attending Al-Anon meetings. I had been familiar with the 12-Step program before because of my family’s history with addiction. I tried out a few meetings after one of my father’s relapses years ago, but after he got sober again, I didn’t think I needed to go anymore, and so I stopped attending meetings. After a situation that involved someone else’s drinking last year, I decided to return.

Step one of the 12 Steps says, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” In Al-Anon, you can replace “alcohol” with people, places, or things.

I had a sense of feeling powerless for most of 2019, but I wasn’t consciously aware of why. The specific event that involved someone else’s drinking helped shine a light on how unmanageable my thinking was. It also helped me come face-to-face with why, as a 41-year-old man, I was continuing to allow someone else’s behavior to dominate my life.

After 11 months of being in the program, I’ve since discovered that I was, like my grandfather, an “untreated Al-Anon.” 

For most of my life, the belief that I’m not supported or that the world is against me has been subtly playing in the background of my mind—similar to the soft sound of music that you can hear while shopping at a department store. It was always present, but until 2019, I had been tuning it out.

I used to think that distorted thinking was a result of growing up gay in a non-affirming religious home. I’ve since discovered that distorted thinking is also connected to the confusion of growing up around active drug and alcohol abuse.

While I’ve experienced grief from learning how pervasive the family disease of addiction actually is, I’m grateful for the recent discovery because it’s no longer unconscious. It’s now something that I can feel; my awareness of it is embodied. Through working the 12 Steps with a sponsor, I’ve been able to uncover how growing up around addiction has contributed to my being on the defensive.

Distorted thinking can rear its ugly head in subtle and seemingly benign ways. For example, I recently went to Starbucks. After ordering, I realized that the person who took my order didn’t ask for my name to put on the side of my drink. While waiting for my order to be ready, I noticed the same employee who helped me, turned to the next customer in line and happily ask for his name. After I received my drink and confirmed that it didn’t have my name, I observed myself think, “I’m not supported and people are against me.” The good news is that part of healing anything, including the effects of addiction, is self-awareness.

Another example of how distorted thinking appeared recently was when I was driving and someone sped up behind me. As the driver approached my car, they began honking. Rather than thinking they were just being rude or that they must have been in a hurry, I caught myself feeling a way I’ve often felt before—as though I did something wrong.

Both scenarios are small examples of how easy it can be for distorted thoughts to manifest themselves in my day-to-day life.

The road to recovery begins by making our unconscious defense mechanisms, conscious. If I were to look at distorted thinking through a recovery model lens, I would see “people are against me” or “I’m guilty until proven innocent” as defense mechanisms from what I learned as a child growing up in a family with substance abuse.

What’s kept them alive for so many years in my unconscious is another defense mechanism—denial. In my case, when I’m willing to accept that some of the very beliefs that protected me as a child are also the same ones that create suffering for me as an adult, I heal. 

I recently heard someone say, “A change in attitude of the individual can bring about a renewal in the spirit of the nations.” It reminds me that in order to create true and lasting change, we must first begin within our own lives. The deeper we go inside ourselves, the stronger and more positive of an impact we can make out in the world.

My hope in being more open about my personal recovery is to help anyone who has ever judged themselves for thinking distorted thoughts.

Please know, you’re not alone and nothing is wrong with you for having them. If any part of my story resonates, consider that you might have been affected by the family disease of addiction.

The best way to break fear-based generational family structures is to excavate that which no longer serves us. And the best way to heal from fear-based generational family structures is to turn toward our pain, not away from it.


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