The family disease of addiction affects all members in a family — not just the addict / alcoholic.
As my daughters took charge of making dinner last night, I sat on the tall white stool in our kitchen and beamed. This Mother’s Day was a testament to the power of breaking the cycles of the family disease of addiction, whether it’s to drugs or alcohol. In our case, it was a testament to what can happen when you heal the family or friend’s “side” of this disease.
By a fluke of timing and schedules, both of my daughters were able to come home for Mother’s Day this year — one on break between law school and her summer job in D.C. and the other en-route from training in Oregon to her home base in southern CA. It felt wonderful to be the three of us, again, driving home from the airport, catching up on each other’s lives, laughing and oh so very happy, which is not how it used to be.
Back in the day, when we did not understand the brain disease of addiction, nor what happens to the brains of the family members or friends who love someone with the disease when it’s not treated, understood or healthily discussed, time together was a minefield. We didn’t understand secondhand drinking. One of us was usually on edge. I was usually wallowing in self-pity or ranting about the latest transgression, and the tension and fear were something you could cut with a knife. There was always the pall of impending doom because doom was usually pending. Mind space and conversations were generally consumed with shares or tirades about what someone else was or was not doing or the good times we’d have when so and so or such and such got fixed or did this or that.
Not anymore. For those who don’t know my story, in 2003 I finally started to unravel what happens to a family member or friend when they are chronically faced with a loved one’s untreated, unhealthily discussed, misunderstood brain disease of addiction. It took many years and involved a great deal of research, intensive therapy with an addiction’s specialist, participation in a 12-step program for family members, and a lot of lot of work to RE-WIRE my brain from its grooved reactions to all emotions as if they were facts.
Individually and together, my daughters and I worked to understand the science of the brain disease of addiction – that the drinking/drug use behaviors weren’t them, they were a symptom of their brain disease. We learned the science of what happens in the brains of family members and friends, as a result of their chronically coping with the drinking/drug use behaviors and believing those behaviors were something within their control to control. (Yikes! Talk about crazy making!!) Most importantly, we learned addiction is a family disease.
Healing from the Family Disease of Addiction
Over the years, all three of us have done a great deal of work to break the cycle. We’ve learned the power to change rests within each of us. It rests within our power to control our own brains and what we let into our lives. We learned of the health impacts of secondhand drinking. Other people have brains, and we have brains. But the only brains we can control and heal (re-wire) are our own. With this awareness and understanding (and work), my daughters and I now spend our time together doing things we like to do (like scuba diving!) and talking about things we like to talk about.
I’m sharing these reflections to give hope to family members and friends that it really can and does get better, but the journey starts with learning about the brain disease of addiction. This website, created by NIAAA, NIDA, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO, hosts a great deal of the new research on the brain disease of addiction, http://www.hbo.com/addiction/