Family law discrimination against recovering alcoholics | addicts is pervasive, mostly because family law attorneys, judges and the clients themselves do not understand addiction (to alcohol or drugs) for what it is – a chronic, but TREATABLE, brain disease, nor do they understand addiction recovery. And so they see the person – the addict | alcoholic – as their active disease, rather than a person with a treatable disease, for which they are in active recovery. As such, they still associate that individual’s pre-recovery, pre-treatment behaviors as intentional, rather than an outcome of the chemical and structural brain changes associated with the brain disease of addiction.
This is totally understandable.
For until you understand the disease, you can only assume the person who is abusing drugs or alcohol does not have the willpower, the love for their family members, the integrity or the whatever else you consider to be their underlying reason for not changing, thus you have no reason to trust their recovery because it makes no sense the person didn’t do this “recovery thing” before the marriage fell apart.
And, here’s another wrinkle.
If you do not understand the disease of addiction, it’s unlikely you understand secondhand drinking and therefore the contribution of the non-addict | alcoholic spouse to the “muck of it all.” If the person on “that side” of this family disease treat the secondhand drinking impacts they’ve experienced, it’s doubtful they’ll ever be able to appreciate that addiction recovery is real, it works and it can be trusted (or if not trusted, then addressed through stipulations for outcomes if relapse occurs).
Why I Am Writing About This
Decades ago, I was the mother of two and divorcing an alcoholic who was not in recovery. I was desperate to keep my daughters safe but had no tools, and as you can imagine back then – neither I nor the family law process had any understanding of alcoholism as a brain disease. That’s because there was none. So how was I to agree to custody arrangements that put my daughters at risk? And what kind of damage to my daughters was this conflict causing because no matter what, he was their father, and there was no way they could wrap their little minds around what I’d failed to pound into submission (his drinking). Granted, I’m talking about someone not in recovery, but had he been, I’m sure I would have been just as fearful because I would have been stuck in the “what if _________” tapes I’d played for so long. I would have played those tapes over and over because I’d had no recovery for my secondhand drinking impacts. Once I’ve learned what I now know, I had to share it in a way that could affect real change.
One way was to become an approved Substance Abuse | Mental Illness MCLE (continuing eduction) provider for the California Bar Association. In that capacity, I present to and work independently with family law attorneys, sharing with them the 21st century brain and addiction-related research to help them understand the complexities of addiction, secondhand drinking, treatment and recovery in order to better serve their clients.
I am passionate about this because it is critical to the ability to create effective custody arrangements for the children’s sake. It is one scenario when there is no recovery, but when there is, it’s an entirely different situation. But it’s a situation that gets clouded by our societal views and lack of understanding that this brain disease can successfully be treated. So we hang onto old experiences and assumptions and often punish the recovering alcoholic | addict in the process, which in turn hurts the children.
Let’s face it, we would not prevent a person in recovery from cancer from enjoying a respectful, meaningful, equally shared post-divorce relationship with their children, nor do we do that with a person who has is managing their HIV, heart disease or diabetes. This is because we understand those diseases; they are not shrouded in secrecy, shame and misinformation. Thus those involved in a family law proceeding with those individuals actually see the individual as separate from their disease and applaud their recovery as commendable and something to be honored and supported.
With addiction, however, we often misguidedly force the children to suffer as both parties thrash out the hurt they’ve experienced as a consequence of not understanding addiction, secondhand drinking, treatment and recovery. And often the tragic outcome is the children suffer what are now called Adverse Childhood Consequences (ACEs), which in turn sets them up to suffer a host of unhealthy outcomes – including the development of a substance abuse problem, themselves.
What Can Be Done to End Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts
Given there is no way to provide the depth of coverage an answer to this complex question deserves, I’ve chosen to highlight three key areas that if understood can go a long way towards raising awareness about, and from there hopefully making inroads to ending, family law discrimination against recovering alcoholics | addicts.
Understand the disease of addiction and the crippling stigma and shame that surrounds it
For this, I suggest the following:
The Addiction Project, a collaboration of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO. There is a GREAT deal on this website – how a person develops the disease, how drugs or alcohol hijack the brain, what effective treatment looks like, and more.
Shatter the Shame of Addiction, a blog post highlighting the critical information all must understand in order to get past the stigma and shame.
Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcoholism, a short video explaining the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism – they are not one in the same.
Executive Summary of The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. This was just issued November 17, 2016, and goes a long way to debunking common myths about addiction, treatment, and recovery.
NIDA’s “Principles of Effective Treatment” helps all concerned understand what is considered effective treatment, which can then be used as a benchmark for assessing a person’s treatment and recovery.
Understand Secondhand Drinking – What Happens to Family Members
For this, I suggest the following:
Secondhand Drinking | Secondhand Drugging, a blog post explaining these concepts – namely the impact of a person’s drinking or drugging behaviors on others.
Behind Every Alcoholic or Drug Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three… , a blog post highlighting how far the impacts of addiction reach beyond the recovering addict | alcoholic.
“The Dance” of the Family Disease of Addiction, a blog post explaining the family disease of addiction.
Understand addiction recovery is real and it happens all the time
This brain disease can be successfully treated and people can live happy, healthy, productive lives in recovery. To learn more about people who are doing this, today, check out:
Rehab – What More Could You Want?, a blog post explaining a bit about addiction treatment and recovery, and the following websites and post that put a face to recovery:
Do What You Can To Help Stop Family Law Discrimination Against Recovering Alcoholics | Addicts
The Addiction Project shares five things we all need to know about “Fighting Discrimination Against People in Recovery from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.” While not specific to family law, it reminds us that people in recovery from addiction – a health issue – have rights and recourses if they feel they’ve experienced discrimination.
And lastly, please share this post with anyone you may know in the throws of a divorce where addiction recovery is an issue, as well as family law attorneys and family law judges you may know. Working together, we can do our part to end this sort of discrimination – not only for the sake of the recovering addict | alcoholic but for their children’s sake, as well.
©2013 Lisa Frederiksen. Rev. November 2016