I saw it again last night as I faced an audience of drug addicts and alcoholics in treatment and their family members, all of whom were present to hear my lecture.
I saw the crushing emotional pain that surrounds this family disease on their faces, in their body language, in the way they did or did not look me in the eye or venture a tentative smile.
For the addicts | alcoholics, it crossed the spectrum: shame, defeat, anger, embarrassment, defiance, sadness, regret, fear. Shame. For the family members, it crossed the spectrum: shame, defeat, anger, embarrassment, defiance, sadness, regret, fear. Shame.
Some were numb, some still detoxing, some only there because it’s what they were supposed to do. For some, there was hope. For others, it was a last ditch effort. For some, it just was.
Later that evening, after the program, one young girl sobbed the pain of having her alcoholic father scream at her that very afternoon, yelling at her to, “Shut the @#!* up!” when she tried to explain why the person giving her a ride to visit him could only stay two days and not the three he demanded. He’d ended the call telling her not to come at all, that he was done.
Between sobs, the young girl pleaded, “How does a father do this? How can a father threaten to cut his daughter out of his life for something over which she has no control? And I know he’ll do it, and I don’t want that. God, I hate this @#!*ing shit – he’s been doing this my whole life! How does a father do this!?!?!”
It was that young girl, especially, who tore my heart open. They all do to some degree. But sometimes there’s one that really hits me harder than others, for one reason or another. After decades of my own experiences with family members and friends who abused or were dependent on alcohol, a decade of my own secondhand drinking recovery work and years of trying to help others on both sides of this family disease, I think it was her raw, gut-wrenching, core-stripping pain that left me crushed by my powerlessness to help her in that moment. It took me back to my own moments of that kind of pain.
So I wrapped her in my arms. She let me and then wrapped me back. And I held her tight, while she sobbed through her rage and her pain. But I had no words. There are no words at times like that because there are no words that can possibly touch the pain and make sense of the nightmare.
But when I got home, I wrote this post in the hopes that she will read it someday, when her pain is less raw, on a day when she will be able to let these words into her heart – actually into her brain – because it’s in her thoughts that words such as these must sink in order for her to ease her pain.
Six Suggestions to Shatter the Shame of Addiction
1. Know it is not your Dad – the real person he was before his disease corrupted the very neural networks and neural network opportunities he needs to show you, his daughter, the love, respect, understanding, pride and joy you so rightly deserve. He has a brain disease – one that is difficult to understand without understanding the disease.
For this, consider these two websites:
“The Addiction Project,” created by NIAAA, NIDA, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO
Drugs, Brains and Behaviors: The Science of Addiction,” created by NIDA.
2. Know it is not You – his daughter – you are the anyone or anything that interacts with his diseased brain that is now missing most of its normal functionality. It is not You – his daughter. The decades of chemical and structural changes that have occurred as a result of his disease make it so he cannot, nor will he ever, be the Dad you want him to be as long as he drinks any amount of alcohol and does not treat his disease. You are sadly the unwitting partner in The Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction.
3. Know neither you nor your Dad is alone. Your dad is one of the 23.2 million Americans struggling with addiction – of which only 10% seek treatment. You are one of the one in four children who live with a family member’s alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Yet this disease is so shrouded in secrecy and shame, we often feel alone and struggle to sort and live through the host of conflicting emotions that comes with this Family Disease.
4. Understand that all you can do to help your Dad is to help yourself. Believe it or not, this will break the cycle because your exchanges are a cycle – they are “The Dance.” More importantly, it will help you live a sane and joyful life in spite of your Dad’s untreated brain disease. This help can be through therapy work with a counselor trained in addiction and its impacts on family members, a 12-step program for family members, mindfulness practices, and believe it or not, nutrition, exercise and sleep. On this route, you will meet people who know the road you’ve traveled and are trained and/or have the personal experiences and recovery that can support you in your journey. Above all know – you are powerless over his brain on alcohol.
To begin this journey, I encourage you to learn more about the disease of addiction from the resources listed in #1.
5. And when you can – when you are able – Forgive. Forgive him because he knows what he’s doing and hates himself for not being able to control his drinking, for not remembering but knowing something bad must have happened, for not having any friends, no job and only estranged family ties. He hates himself because he cannot, for whatever reason, take the necessary steps to start treating his disease – likely because of the secrecy and shame that still surrounds it.
Forgive him to set yourself free, and know, that forgiveness does not mean erasing the pain or accepting the behavior. It means letting go of the hope of a different past and a different outcome. Your Dad has a brain disease – a disease that robs him of his capability to think, feel, say and do the things a father does when that father does not have this disease. Forgive.
6. Know there is always hope. This brain disease can be successfully treated and people can live happier lives in recovery. To learn more about people who are doing this, today, check out:
…know that I’m here and will do what I can to help you find resources and information. My confidential email is lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com and my confidential voice mail is 650-362-3026. There is no charge.
And to anyone else reading this post, who find themselves in a similar situation, I extend the same offer to you.