Lack of Self-Care: Why Addiction is a Family Disease
The topic in my Al-Anon meeting this week was self-care. Self-care is not something that is typically talked about or even encouraged by the rest of society. Though America is an individualistic western culture, not an collectivistic eastern culture, American society sends the message to its members -especially women- that they need to be concerned about others and get them to make the “right” decisions. That message mostly applies to family members’ relations to their other family members. Addiction is a family disease because the family becomes concerned about the active user hitting their inevitable bottoms (e.g. jail, homelessness, death, job loss, etc.), so they try to help, protect, manage, and control them to the point that they become just as preoccupied with the active addict as the active addict is preoccupied to using their addictive substance. Loss of control is the hallmark of addiction. If the active addict cannot control their using; the family definitely cannot. The fact that self-care is not conditioned into Americans the same way that being non-violent is conditioned into Americans is the reason addiction is a family disease.
Tools of the Program that Teach How to Practice Self-Care
Detachment is allowing others to live their lives and make their own decisions without you interfering and/or stressing over it. However, you do not need to condone or support all of their decisions. Instead, you remove yourself from the situation while continuing to love them, which is called “detachment with love.”
Detachment can be difficult because of the messages that society sends about having to care for and keep your family in line. Unfortunately, you cannot control another person, regardless if that person is your child, spouse, parent, etc. It does not matter if the person in question is 8, 18, 28, or 58; they will ultimately do what they are going to do. When you do not detach, you see it as helping the person, but they see it as interfering and controlling. Detachment is not cold and distant; it the ultimate form of respect because you are allowing them to learn from their own behavior. Telling or trying to get people to do what you think they should do is not respecting the dignity of their own life journey. People do not learn by people telling them what to do or what the potential consequences are; they learn by experience.
It is important to keep in mind that detachment is a two-part process. You have to physically and psychologically remove yourself from the situation. I find that the easiest way to do just that is to think of the person’s life is like a movie that you may not want to see. You are just sitting back while it is progressing, and if you must see or hear about the situation, you do not feel the need to interfere. “Not my problem” has become my motto and it may just become yours.
· Entitlement to Own Feelings
People often try to tell others that there are “right” and “wrong” feelings or that they “should feel” a certain way. You ARE entitled to your feelings; the key is what you do with them. Just as you are entitled to your feelings, others are entitled to their feelings. You can feel sad, worried, and even resentful that your loved one is addicted and not reaching their fullest potential, but you have the choice of talking about your feelings to an Al-Anon Meetings or trusted friend/family member (healthy) or kidnapping your loved one in a dangerous neighborhood and forcing him or her into treatment (unhealthy). In order to prevent others’ emotionally-charged actions from hurting you, set up and communicate appropriate boundaries.
· The Three C’s
The Three C’s are did not cause it, cannot control it, and cannot cure it. You are not responsible for your loved one’s addiction and unhealthy choices; you cannot control the progression of their addiction and prevent them from experiencing the inevitable consequences of their behavior; and you cannot cure their addiction or distorted ways of thinking. The only person that you are responsible for is yourself. MYOB means “Mind Your Own Business.” It is not your business what your loved one does; it only your business what you do.
· Airplane Oxygen Mask Analogy
When you go on an airplane, the pilot advises you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping somebody else. If you are not receiving oxygen, you will eventually pass out and probably die; therefore, you will be no use to somebody else. Self-care is NOT selfish; it is the most selfless thing that you do. You cannot be effective in any area of your life (e.g. parenthood, friendship, marriage, work, education, etc.) unless you are healthy yourself. You also cannot effectively care for someone else unless you are not healthy yourself. You cannot detach from your addicted loved one if you are addicted to them.
The Key to Self-Care
Many people struggle with self-care because of the messages that society sends to them and their own lack of self-worth. If you feel like you are an undeserving person, you most likely not take care of yourself the way that you should. I have realized that self-worth is the key to effective self-care. In life, we meet many people whom we like and love and whom like and love us in return. Unfortunately, most of those people do not have unconditional like/love for you. At the end of your life, you will not be thinking about the people in your life, the money in your bank account, or the diploma from your highest level of education; you will be thinking about yourself because that is all you have in the end.
My Introduction to the Concept
I have been attending Al-Anon for the past month, and I am grateful to have found another program to provide me tools to improve my mental health and a create a new life in recovery. Though I still attend my Al-Ateen meetings and am enthusiastic about every meeting that I can attend, Al-Anon provides me a deeper perspective on life’s issues. I find that it helps to talk about the same issues in both programs because I am able to get both perspectives.
During my second or third consecutive week in Al-Anon, they had the members who were celebrating their Al-Anon membership anniversary speak five to fifteen minutes about how the program has impacted their lives. This woman was celebrating her two-year anniversary. One of the concepts that she had learned from the program is that our lives as loved ones of addicts are forever altered by the disease and therefore, we must strive find a “new normal.” Her husband, who was her qualifier, was now in recovery for 18 months, but she said that their lives did not bounce back to the way that they were before the beast of addiction entered.
For the past eight years, I have been torturing myself because I have look back on my life and see it divided on a “Before 2010” and “After 2010” timeline (2010 was the year my dad went to jail and I was traumatized by my cousins addictions). For eight years, I have been searching for the normalcy I had before that lost year. After learning about the “New Normal,” I know that I can call off my search for good and move on with my life, living the “New Normal.”
What Exactly is the “New Normal”?
From that meeting, I learned that “normal” is not a universal concept; it is unique to each person’s situation. The blatant example of this is going to Al-Anon meetings and taking your adolescent children to Al-Ateen meetings is not most people’s “normal,” but it is normal and healthy for loved ones of those who are suffering or have suffered from addiction.
In our society, people judge those who do not meet their standard of “normal,” and people feel stigmatized for not meeting the common standard of “normal.” When we were learning about abnormal psychology in my AP Psychology class, we learned that psychologists do not even have definitive criteria to draw a clear line between normal and abnormal behavior. We also learned that the standard of normalcy greatly depends on the context of the situation. The reality is that “normal” cannot be clearly defined, and neither can “abnormal” be clearly defined.
I have come to the conclusion that the general definition for the “New Normal” is:
A livable present where people have made peace with the outcomes of the life that they have made for themselves and life that was thrust upon them and are willing to embrace it.
The What If Game is the greatest form of psychological torture. I often wonder how my current live would be different if I had just made one different choice or one aspect about my life happened to be different. During that same meeting, another woman talked about how she wonders what her life would have been like if she married one of the wealthy men that she dated before her husband. The room burst out in laughter when she stated how she thinks she could be lying on a private beach somewhere. After the laughter died down, the woman stated that the program has helped her be grateful for choosing her husband, despite the disease he later developed, because he really is a good, loving person and -best of all- it led her to the loving program of Al-Anon. However, negative feelings, including the What If Game are a part of the New Normal. One young woman stated that part of her New Normal is happy events having a bit of sadness to them because she her father is not present as he should be due to his alcoholism. We are entitled to our feelings as human beings; they key is what we do with them. The difference with between the “New Normal” and living an unhealthy life is those living in the “New Normal” possess a higher form of thinking to reason through their negative thoughts and emotions.
Happiness is ephemeral, but joy survives pain and tragedy. Life in the new normal does not always consist of happy moments, but it consists of joy.
Bria Riley is a published author, recovering codependent and adult child of an alcoholic, who is active in several recovery programs. She knows the turmoil and heartbreak of growing up in an addiction-stricken family and wants to help others who have also been affected by addiction through her writing.