Addict Cleans Up, Then Is Shunned by Family

Sometimes a family needs a black sheep, and one member volunteers for the gig.

Posted May 01, 2017

Flickr, Black Sheep Surrounded by Leon Riskin, CC by 2.0
Source: Flickr, Black Sheep Surrounded by Leon Riskin, CC by 2.0

An interesting letter appeared in the advice column Dear Abby a couple of years ago in which a self-proclaimed former drama queen and addict who had cleaned up, and who was enjoying long term sobriety, complained that her entire family had practically disowned her. For years. This happened, apparently, after she had cleaned up.

Abby's response was predictable. She blamed the turmoil and “drama” the writer had put her family through when she had been a user and suggested that they are now reluctant to give her another chance. There were also several comments on the website from the public about the letter, and the writers were more or less unanimous: the letter writer had probably "burned her bridges," the family probably got sick of giving her one chance after another and were burned out, etc. etc. 

After all, as another commenter opined, "Addicts hurt a lot of people and cause a lot of problems." "The family's response is due to their need for "self preservation." "The writer probably used to call them "only when she needed something."

These responses were in fact so predictable that the letter writer herself undoubtedly knew what she was in for. She was probably setting herself up, and making herself look bad by criticizing her poor, put upon family. Her criticisms of the family did not go over well at all with Abby's readers. With her criticism, the writer was in fact garnering sympathy for her family, rather than making them look bad. She had to know that might happen.

The burning bridges thing contains an element of truth. But perhaps only a half truth.

With the recent dramatic increase in narcotic drug addiction, the “disease” model of addiction— in which “disease” is defined to be something that is a purely biogenetic problem— has again come to the fore. It is pushed relentlessly by so-called biological psychiatrists, various rehab programs, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

If genes were somehow the main cause of this problem, it would be difficult indeed to explain sudden huge increases and decreases is the abuse rates of certain drugs over short periods of time within the United States – something that has happened fairly frequently in recent decades. The gene pool just does not change that quickly, I am afraid, unless there is some sort of selective breeding program that I am unaware of.

Furthermore, while genetics of course plays some role in all human behavior, if addiction were a purely genetic disorder, then 12 step programs such as AA and NA would never work quickly. All that happens there quickly is a change in what the addicts says about what it is that he or she believes. This is a purely cognitive and behavioral change and nothing else.

Heaven forbid we look at addiction as one of many forms of self-destructive and/or suicidal behavior.

Or that we re-consider the old and never really discredited idea that addiction is a family disease.

How did this former drama queen/addict turn out the way she did in the first place? Wasn't she in fact raised by the very family that is now shunning her? How many chances did they give her before giving up on her? When she was actively using did they get involved with her over and over again? Enable her? Try to "rescue" her?

She identifies herself as a former drama queen. Where did that label come from? Is that what everyone in her family would call her over and over again until it became a role she would play in order to confirm their opinion of her? 

Was she in fact the only one in the family who had been expressing feelings that everyone else was stuffing? Was she the identified patient, as family systems therapists used to call such folks, who gets all the blame for a problem shared by the entire family?

And most importantly, did they abandon her only after she cleaned up?

Inquiring minds want to know the answers to these questions before passing judgment.

This is a counter-intuitive way to look at this. I understand that. But when the whole story comes out from patients in therapy, the answer to these questions is often "yes."

Respected interpersonal theorist Lorna Smith Benjamin describes an analogous dynamic in which she lists two of the four characteristics she has observed in families that produce offspring with borderline personality disorder - who often share many characteristics with both drama queens and addicts:

1. Parental love and concern is elicited only by misery, sickness and debilitation

2. Family chaos - The borderline individual is subtly blamed for problems or expected to exert control over them.

(The other two characteristics:  3. Episodes of traumatic abandonment are interspersed with periods of traumatic over-involvement, and 4. Efforts by the person with borderline disorder to establish autonomy are interpreted by the family as indicated disloyalty).

What may be happening in the case of the letter writer is that her family needs a black sheep, and she was elected to play the part. Because she finally stopped playing the part, they then shun her. In this situation, they would in effect be punishing her for not being who they need her to be. However, they would also be helping her out in a strange way - by protecting her from their own pernicious presence.

As Dr. Benjamin has also said, pathological behavior can be a gift of love.