The Many Faces of Addiction

The journey to healing and recovery

Addictive Families: Part 3

Don't Talk

The Family Law: DON’T TALK ABOUT THE REAL ISSUES. The real issues: Mom is drinking again. Dad didn’t come home last night. I had to walk home from school because Mom had passed out at home and forgot to come and get me. Dad was loaded at the ball game.

In the earlier stages of addiction, when someone’s drinking or using seems to become a more noticeable problem, family members usually attempt to rationalize the behavior. They begin to invent excuses. As the drinking or using increases, the rationalizations become their normal way of life. Family members focus on the problems but do not connect them to the addiction. An excuse offered to a child I had been working with for her dad’s irrational behavior was that he had a brain tumor and was going to die. The mother told the children their father wanted them to hate him before he died so it would be easier for them to accept his death when it happened. This client explains, “It didn’t feel right, but who was I to question my mom? She had enough problems as it was.”

Sandy said she knew her father wasn’t alcoholic because, “My dad loved me.” She didn’t understand that addicted people are also capable of loving others. Sandy had heard about alcoholism only once at church where a recovering addict told his story. But what she heard was that particular person’s story. She could not relate this story as her father didn’t sound, look, or behave like this man. Such fragmented information is typical of children’s lack of knowledge concerning substance abuse.

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Fear and control often fuel the Don’t Talk rule. Skip described his father as abstinent but without recovery. He controlled himself by not drinking and controlled his family with silence. “My dad didn’t talk to me at all and my mother wouldn’t acknowledge that there was anything wrong. My life was filled with this engulfing terribleness and I thought it was me. I wanted my father to tell me there was something wrong. I wanted him to tell me it was his fault. I wanted to hear it was not my fault. Later, as I got older, I needed him to tell me he was proud of me. I didn’t get any of those things. I only got his silent rage.”

Many adult children simply learned that things went much easier when they did nothing to “rock the boat.” Andrew said, “Dinner was pretty quiet. Anything we said rocked the boat. And then, if we were too quiet, that rocked the boat!” These children not only don’t talk about boat rocking issues, but they don’t talk about, or share, their fears, worries, or hurts with anyone.

In many families, the rule of silence is a quiet collusion. Children will share the same bedroom with a sibling for years, both hearing the arguing taking place between mom and dad. Or, they hear mom crying night after night. But they only hear. They never speak to one another about it, although they may each cry — silently and alone.

Many children believe they are betraying their parents and their family if they talk honestly. Children feel very loyal to their parents and, invariably, end up defending them, rationalizing that it isn’t really all that bad and continuing in what has now become a denial process.

It is as if they are wearing a pair of eyeglasses with clouded lenses from which to view the world. Perceptions are altered, their reality distorted. They continue to discount and minimize; they learn to tolerate inappropriate behavior. They learn to live in denial.

Claudia Black, M.S.W., Ph.D., works in the fields of addiction, codependency, and recovery.

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