“We come from fallible parents who were kids once, who decided to have kids and who had to learn how to be parents. Faults are made and damage is done, whether it’s conscious or not. Everyone’s got their own ‘stuff,’ their own issues, and their own anger at Mom and Dad. That is what family is. Family is almost naturally dysfunctional.”
Family is a powerful dynamic. It’s the place we come home to every day. It’s a place where the fundamental supplies to do life are provided in order to function and thrive. Family is where the emotional, physical and spiritual needs are furnished and developed. Most families do not provide enough for these needs to be met. Essentially, bonding is a critical need that when left unmet without sufficient amounts of mirroring, engagement and attunement to children increases the likelihood of addiction Addiction most likely occurs when an individual cannot find meaningfulness in everyday experience. This is not addressed by providing more things for the child to do, but rather by participating with the child’s activities with sufficient amounts of time. Connection is critical and ofttimes missing. Without connection the possibility of addiction increases. For certain it contributes to the creation of crazy-making life experience.
I tell people we had 12 kids in our family. In reality, there were 9, 4 girls and 5 boys, and I was the youngest boy. I say 12 because my parents raised my oldest sister’s 3 kids from school age to teenage. My sister’s kids were dropped off at our front porch and abandoned by their parents, who were unwilling to raise them. I often think about how crazy-making this experience was for them. Including them into our family would be a bare minimum expression of care.
My dad was a World War II vet, a foot soldier for two years. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I learned after his death that he was a decorated soldier with 2 Bronze Stars, 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Purple Heart. He took his World War II combat PTSD out on the boys in our family. Once one of my older brothers, Jimmy, thought he was big enough to take on my dad. He had disobeyed and smarted off to my mom. My dad told him he couldn’t talk to his mom that way and to apologize. Jimmy told him that he would not apologize and wanted to settle the matter, mano a mano with my dad. My dad gave him a beat down. It was awful. He never stopped until my mom begged him to stop. It became pretty clear to me that any kid who received a beat down like my dad gave Jimmy would have a ton of rage inside. This was the type of crazy-making I grew up with.
Then there was church which doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. Yet, in my experience, it reflected the reality of the home I grew up in—crazy-making. We all had to go to church twice on Sundays, to a midweek prayer meeting, and all the revival meetings which took place twice a year for two weeks straight every night.
Our preacher’s name was Gravitt. My dad liked to call him “Doc” Gravitt. He was no doctor I would ever choose to visit. He was a rough rogue. He would call people out by name during the worship service and accuse them of not paying their tithe. He was known to stop preaching, walk down from the platform, and spank a kid for misbehaving in church. He would challenge men who he thought were malcontents to meet him in the parking lot outdoors for a fight. He was unpredictable and very abusive. My parents always thought he was God’s anointed and that you had to tolerate the negative in order to get the positive. They would cite some of the antics of characters in the Bible that God used and were satisfied that Gravitt was like one of those. They would say that it took a character like Gravitt to drive out the riffraff so that the church could grow. All my brothers and I thought that Gravitt was the riffraff. We all used to love it when my one of my older brothers, Dave, would mix it up with Gravitt when he would try to get in Dave’s face and tell him how he should live his life. Dave would not tolerate Gravitt’s bullshit! He would challenge Gravitt to meet him in the parking lot for a fisticuff. We all looked forward to these encounters. We thought they were entertaining. In truth it was crazy-making!
My parents had little time to spend with their kids. Geez, if they were paid full time to only raise kids, there still wouldn’t be enough time to spend with each kid. As it was, my dad worked 2-3 jobs at a time and my mom was a domestic worker. In our home, everything was rationed. Baths, the amount of milk for breakfast, food, and electricity were all rationed in order to cover the expenses of 14 people. There wasn’t any personal time for affection, attunement of spirit, and emotional support from parents.
Martin Luther King once said that “violence is the language of the unheard”. In the family I grew up in there was little experience of being heard. My parents tacitly agreed to not fight about disagreements they had. The anger that was avoided between them was played out between my siblings and me. I was the youngest boy so I had experienced a shitload of hell from my older brothers. To say the least, it was crazy-making.
The lack of touch, attachment and bonding that my parents missed in their childhood was passed along to me and my siblings. It became a mainspring to the years of intimacy disabled-ness, struggle, and addiction that would later develop and come to fruition in my life and that of some of my family members. There was little touch and affection and nurture was scarce. It was crazy-making.
How do you walk away from crazy-making? Addicts experience dysfunctional dynamics within their families of origin to one extent or another. There are many effective suggestions for addressing the crazy-making. Here are a few to consider.
Tell your story. Make your rags into a tapestry. It is a worn-out metaphor, yet many addicts continue to want to walk around the elephant in the living room. Our families of origin have taught us well how to compartmentalize dysfunctional pain and pretend it does not exist. We embrace the impossible and ignore the obvious. Shame is passed from one generation to the next and the conduit is secrecy. We create secrecy by hiding what we don’t want others or self to see and thus avoiding what is painful. Addicts are great with knowing how to compartmentalize.
Show your family rags in 12-step groups. Let this sharing be a stepping stone to open your heart and share with your family, your partner, and your kids. They will truly benefit. Through your sharing, your kids will be able to stand on your shoulders and make a better way for their future. It is an excellent beginning in unraveling the crazy-making from your family of origin. It is a way of making a tapestry from the rags of dysfunction.
Scrub the wound. So much in recovery is counterintuitive. When hurt we want to roar with anger, whereas healing requires us to embrace our anger, fear and sadness with vulnerability. Overcoming the crazy-making that exists in our family of origin insists that we lean into our fear, fragility, and frozen emotional experiences.
Like scrubbing a laceration on your knee, the last thing you want to do is what is demanded. Scrubbing emotional wounds is painful. It is automatic that you would want to shy away and procrastinate scrubbing the wound. When we don’t, the infection spreads throughout our relational lives and appears every time anxiety and threat surface in our lives. Crazy-making family dysfunction must be scrubbed. You must drain the pool of pain that exists through identification of hurt, grieving the losses, and validating your experience.
Anchor to your true self. Tolerating the crazy-making in your family of origin required you to create a false sense of self. Survival in your dysfunctional family called for people-pleasing, caretaking and approval-seeking behaviors. Often your inherent value was not nurtured and was forced into hiding in your family of origin. You may have learned to seek identity and validation through the services you rendered to others. This can set you up to do more to keep from being less. As an addict, this is a common place where you lose your sense of self. This becomes a perfect place to escape emotional pain with your drug of choice. Ending the crazy-making handed to you from your family of origin requires that you anchor to your true self. Crazy-making experiences in life come to an end when you anchor to your own sense of worthiness. It demands that you embrace your own feelings whatever they are. Rather than being dominated by what others feel about you, your true self will give birth to authentic congruence. Your feelings begin to line up with your values which are expressed by what you say and how you live. It’s being anchored to your true self that separates you from the crazy-making in dysfunctional family living.