In 2013, my family finally had enough. They sold my silver 2008 Ford Ranger worn from miles of drug runs. The small room I slept in, nursed hangovers in, and kept hundreds of secrets in, they made into an office. They told me not to contact them until I was three months sober, and even when I achieved that they only wanted to communicate with me via snail mail for a year.
The smoke rising out of my nostrils stunk of entitlement.
How could my family do this to me? Don’t they care about me?
I thought it sounded harsh, too. Though, harsh doesn’t light a candle to what I put my family through the multiple years leading up to this moment. They always bent at my excuses for missing money, lies I told for not being at family functions, and my irate attitude and entitlement. Though at the time, I acted like those behaviors were nothing but normal. Turns out, my family picked up a few negative coping mechanisms along the way themselves. Though, overtime, they did some work on themselves, and finally received enough help to break and set some boundaries (which now we like to ever-lovingly call ‘shunning’ me).
The Family Disease
When family members sit in agony watching their loved ones self-destruct, they ultimately pick up negative habits and maladaptive behaviors to play within the role of the addiction – physically, emotionally, or psychologically. In doing this, it creates a safe, reassuring place for the family members to cope. While an assortment of negative emotions can set in, including terror, fear, anger, anxiety, shame, or guilt, family members lives become interrupted. Their daily routines become more circulated around the person with the substance abuse disorder. Creating new coping skills, the family begins to adapt to the not-so-normal normalcy of the addiction, and develop skills that don’t support their own health and safety. Codependency, enabling, denial, and other maladaptive behaviors put the whole family at risk.
My family picked up maladaptive behaviors out of the fear I would die. But it was those behaviors that were actually killing me.
My under-functioning created a cluster of over-functioning behaviors within my Mom. She was more controlling, stressed out, anxious, and willing to go out of her way to make sure I was within eyesight to feel safe and secure, herself. As long as I was within arms-length, she felt okay – no matter if that meant giving me money for gas (in the back of her mind knowing it was probably going towards my habit) or accepting my excuses to not pick a fight. She ran on fear, only it was her fear that was contributing to my death.
My Father lived in denial city. As the most humorous person I’ve ever met, my Dad minimized my behaviors by joking about all of them. When you watch a loved one endure addiction, you feel powerless – and that’s exactly how he felt. Breaking down the tension and unpleasant feelings that may have occurred with his comedy, it allowed my unpredictable behavior to stay constant.
One sibling became defiant, and one became quiet. During holidays, one would drink with me and get into arguments with my family members, creating a distraction so that I could get away and continue my habit. The other sibling became quiet, withdrawn, and co-signed some of my behaviors. She avoided all interactions and ultimately enabled me (it didn’t help that I sweet talked her into thinking I could drink like a normal person).
Over time, my family became aware that they were sick, though many families I’ve interacted with can live in these roles for years – becoming a new normal. While not every family needs to sell their loved ones car, or completely have no contact with their family member, it can often be necessary for the person who is using to get the help they need. Setting these boundaries and creating new behaviors can be uncomfortable, painful, and incredibly hard to break for the family, and mine wasn’t the exception. My entitled-self called my family during those three months on Christmas and complained about how terrible my life was without a car – today I get to ask my family how their Christmas is going. Ultimately, they fell for it, and had a lapse in behaviors. They became worried, scared, fearful, and terrified and for a fleeting moment in time thought about opening up all communication again. With some help and guidance they reset the time we weren’t going to talk and pissed me off again.
Creating these fine lines within our relationship now held me responsible for my actions. Who was going to rescue me? Who was going to bail me out and make excuses for me this time? This was now up to myself and the resources I was gaining within my newfound sober community. By cutting me out of their lives for a duration of time, it also helped them better focus on themselves and do the work they needed to do. The boundaries my family set created anger – but my family was willing to set their fears of my response to their boundaries aside so that the family system could heal, and ultimately save my life.