Examining the dynamics of the traumatized family
Editor’s note: Ever since the Whig concluded its “Voices of Recovery” series last fall, many have asked the paper to continue discussing recovery and addiction. As an extension of that focus, we now present “Shift the Focus” an every-other-week column by Lorri Irrgang, a local author, recovery advocate and mother of someone in recovery. Join us as Lorri discusses many topics pertinent to the recovery movement.
— Other than getting divorced, addiction is a true catalyst for tearing a family apart. Each member surrounding the addicted loved one falls into a different range of everyday functioning. Some internalize these differences and some
exhibit them in how they go about their routines.
No one living with an addicted loved one can elude his or her individual balance being altered. This leads to personal changes that may not be understood with any semblance of compassion by those who do not have a personal connection to substance use disorder. The truth is because the addict is fluctuating between routine behaviors and mayhem themselves, so are the people who love them.
As family members are on the roller coaster ride, being overwhelmed becomes a natural part of everyday life. The high intensity of emotions that I encountered were alternated with wanting to withdraw and isolate. When I would reach shutdown mode, I was protected like a circuit breaker that flips when the wattage is too great for the capacity of the circuit. Dissociating allowed me to avoid the potential for more emotional upset. This was my trauma response. These opposite reactions to the stress I was living presented like Jekyll and Hyde and required extra effort on my part to regulate these emotions. Meditation, yoga, massage, taking a long walk, sitting by the water or breathing exercises were, and still are, ways that help to quiet my mind and soul.
An additional way the operational style of the family member changes is some members disengage from the situation completely. This is a way to avoid the pain they are feeling. At times my daughter stopped me in my tracks with comments like, “I don’t want to talk about that anymore.” She would invite friends over or become engaged in marathon watching of new television series.
Other members will enmesh themselves into the chaos. I found becoming intertwined with the turmoil is what helped my extended family members to feel like they were helping in some way. When the choice is made to enmesh, there is less opportunity for feelings of abandonment for the nonaddict. Contradictory, however, is the development of co-dependence.
Co-dependency is present when someone emotionally or behaviorally supports another person by excusing, denying or concealing their addiction. (You will learn more about co-dependency in a future column.) Both disengagement and enmeshment lack boundaries. No one wants to “rock the boat” or engage in disagreements, they just want to protect themselves. There is a fear that doing nothing could be construed as not being loyal to the spouse, child or sibling that is actively using. If a non-addict is balanced, they will neither withdraw nor fuse with another person, however, this is a mighty task when the one you love is suffering with this disease.
Due to the imbalance of the family dynamics, some family members will overfunction in order to make up for the family members who are under-functioning. Older children will parent their younger siblings when their parent(s) can’t get out of bed. Children will try to “be extra good” in order to gain positive praise. My daughter overachieved academically in school. Adversely, some members freeze like a deer in the headlights. They simply can’t get themselves together in order to resume daily routines or adhere to obligations. An example of this is when parents cannot get to work, cannot meet their quotas at work, don’t cook dinner for the family or clean the house. A learned helplessness develops as a response to feeling like there is nothing that can be done to stop the insanity of addiction, so why do anything at all?
My next three columns will “Shift the Focus” from the family as a unit to the adults/parents living with addicted loved ones. Specifically, the topics covered will include the characteristics that parents of drug abusers possess, what can happen physically and emotionally if the trauma of parenting a substance user is ignored, and suggestions to start your personal healing process.
If you would like to reach out about something you have read in “Shift the Focus,” or if you feel personal consulting would help you to survive your journey whether your loved one is actively using or in recovery, please feel free to reach me through my website at www. adafamilytrauma.net, on FB at www.facebook.com/adafamilytrauma/ or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.