By Leigh Wayna, Clinical Care Manager at Behavioral Health Professionals, Inc.
The unwritten rules of Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, and Don’t Feel that are lived daily in a household where there is addiction can present as insurmountable road blocks to developing healthy, long lasting, intimate and “normal” relationships later in life. One expert, Dr. Tim Cermack, notes that children from addicted homes actually suffer from emotional and psychological symptoms that are best described as a combination of codependency and a variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Dr. Cermack this
“…occurs when people are subject to stresses of such intensity and nature that they clearly lie outside the range of normal human experiences. The effects are especially severe if the stress is caused by a series of traumatic events, and is of human origin. The effects are even more severe if the individual under stress has rigid coping strategies, or if the person’s support system includes those who encourage denial of the stress.”*
Let Me Tell You a Story
There’s an elephant in the room. Her name is Gertrude and she’s enormous. She’s pink with purple polka dots and green stripes. She is the most outlandish creature I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She used to take up so much room in my life; it was hard to do anything at all without her influence. Yet, no one could see her but me.
I wanted so badly to tell my teachers that Gertrude was interrupting my life. When they’d chastise me for not having my homework done, or they’d ask me why on earth I was daydreaming in class again. When I’d find it hard to focus and be present during my lessons. I wanted to tell them about this elephant that moved into my house. Maybe they’d do something to help me get rid of Gertrude. I wanted so badly to tell, but I’d been taught not to talk to anyone about Gertrude. Gertrude was our problem, in our own family: ours and ours alone to deal with. Don’t tell anyone about Gertrude.
I couldn’t tell anyone about Gertrude because no one could be trusted to deal with her the way we could. Our family was the only family who knew how to handle her. There was this impending sense of doom that if anyone ever found out about this crazy animal living in my living room, that maybe they’d take me away. They’d tell my parents it wasn’t safe at all for a little girl to be living with this creature. And I’d have had to move away. As much as I didn’t like living with Gertrude, I didn’t really want to live anywhere else. So I couldn’t trust anyone else with my secret about her. I had to keep a brave face.
I often thought, surely I could talk to my parents about the situation. I could tell them how uncomfortable it was and how Gertie took up too much space. I could tell them I was scared of her and that she wasn’t a fun playmate at all. Only, I couldn’t. Dad moved Gertrude in. She was his pet, I couldn’t possibly complain to him about her. Mom was just too busy trying to clean up the mess; she didn’t need to have to deal with my issues about it. She told me all the time to just put on a happy face and go to school; said my only job was to be a kid and have fun. But I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun.
The Unwritten Rules of Addiction
The elephant in the room in my household was addiction and the dysfunctional way of life that came with it. Including three unwritten rules: Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, and Don’t Feel. A family that looks completely “normal” from the outside looking in can be hiding an enormous problem and because of these unwritten rules, no one suspects a thing. Children, spouses, siblings, parents all suffer in silence, rallying their own strengths to try to combat the problem without involving outside sources.
I suppose there are many reasons these rules have come to be. Those of us who have lived this struggle know all too well how judgement can come swift from those around us once our problem is revealed. We know how shameful it is to have to admit that we are unable to control the Gertrudes in our lives and we’re too prideful to express that we are powerless. This coincidentally, is the first step to Recovery. Families struggling with addiction are absolutely petrified that this tenuous existence that we have, where we have everything balanced, just so, will completely fall apart if we make the wrong move or tell the wrong person. So we stay silent, living quietly with the elephant in our room and soldiering through our daily lives as if nothing is the matter. We get good at it. Really, good at it. We become star students or athletes, or popular in social circles. We laugh, we joke, and we stand up strong. We build internal strengths the likes of which are only seen in those who have survived trauma. Or as Dr. Cermack had said, “stresses of such intensity and nature that they clearly lie outside the range of normal human experiences.”
Surviving is a result of a multitude of internal coping skills that we develop over time. Yet, we must not forget that simply surviving does not equate to living a happy, healthy lifestyle. There are many external supports available when we are able to become brave enough to break the unwritten rules and seek out the assistance and support of others.
How to Help
During this, National Recovery Month, I would like to challenge our consumers, clinicians, administrators, providers and community to recognize that recovery is a multifaceted issue. It encompasses not only the individual who struggles with addiction, but their entire family and support circle as well. I would like to challenge you to familiarize yourself with programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (www.aa.org); Al-anon (www.al-anon.org); Alateen (www.al-anon.org/for-alateen); and Narcotics Anonymous (www.na.org). I would like to challenge you to be present and open to help when needed. Sometimes all it takes is for one teacher, clergy member, friend, aunt, uncle, or neighbor who provides support and comfort, to unravel the unwritten rules of addiction and begin the process of evicting the elephant from the living room.
* Timmen L. Cermack, MD, A Primer on Adult Children of Alcoholics, Health Communications, Pompano Beach, FL, 1985
About Leigh Wayna:
Leigh Wayna is an LMSW level clinician working as a Clinical Care Manager at BHPI, one of the premier Managed Care Provider Networks in Wayne County, Michigan. A graduate of Wayne State University, she has focused much of her work on how homelessness and substance abuse effect mental illness, support networks, family dynamics and the individual as a whole and on ways to improve her clients’ basic needs in order to improve upon what successes they are able to gain from treatment. Leigh has also personally experienced the hardships that growing up in a family affected by substance abuse can present, and has volunteered with homeless and addicted adults in a Warming Shelter environments since the age of 16.