Friday, March 5, 2010

The Glue that Binds the Family Together

I need to know, I need to understand how it is that this phenomenon exists that tells us that it is acceptable to need help, to be hospitalized for physical illness but it is shameful, unacceptable, weak to need help, to be hospitalized for mental and emotional illness.

We readily accept that we cannot cure by sheer force of our will a broken bone, diabetes, cancer, and so we seek out medical help, we talk to our friends to get referrals to doctors, we do our research, we involve our families, at least we have no problem telling them. When we walk into the hospital to have our broken bone x-rayed and set we walk in with our head held high, we are not embarrassed, we accept, hell we don’t give it a moments thought that we cannot fix this ourselves and that we need medical intervention or it’s not going to get better. Broke my arm, go to the doctor and get it fixed.

I know, I know, I am asking that age-old question. And yet this strain of thought persists. We don’t readily admit it. If a friend tells us of their own mental anguish we don’t think twice about instructing them to get help. But when we’re feeling our own mental and emotional anguish, when it is our child, our spouse who is dealing with depression, with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse then somehow it becomes shameful. We cannot accept this version of ourselves or this version of our child, a person who is attached to us, who is an extension of ourselves, a version of a person who cannot ‘handle’ life, who is somehow not ‘strong’ enough to tackle what life throws at them.

And so when we walk into that psychiatric and substance abuse facility it is under cover of darkness, under a cloud of shame. We do not walk in with our posture ramrod straight and our head held high but we shuffle in quietly, not wanting anyone to know. Nobody calls all their friends and family prior to entering a 30 day rehab stint to tell them that they’re going into rehab and “hey I’ll see you in month, please come visit me if you can” and when we get out our friends and family are not lining up eager to ask us about the experience. “So… tell me all about it, who’d you meet, how was the food, any eligible men, women there?”.


I come from a family where substance abuse has tunneled its way into the very deepest core, it has become one of the threads, that connects, that defines this family and I’m not just talking about my immediate family which is to say my husband and son and my brothers and sisters. My father had a terrible problem with alcohol, his father had a terrible problem with alcohol, some of his brothers had a problem with alcohol, some of his sisters married alcoholics, some of my cousins on my father’s side are alcoholics and I know that at one time or another in their lives a couple of my brothers had a problem with addiction and one of my sisters had a long relationship with a man who had an alcohol problem. Alcoholism has become the glue that sticks to, that binds, that joins all branches of this family together and it keeps attaching itself to members generation after generation after generation.

Substance dependency has attached itself to my son.

There is no doubt in my mind that the glue has found its way onto him through me. I cannot speak to genes, this may or may not be true although I will say that I have found nothing, no piece of literature that convinces me that this so-called ‘alcoholic’ gene is a scientific fact. It is a theory. I only know that somewhere along the line I rubbed up against him and left traces of the glue on his skin. But it isn’t really like that.

Somewhere along the line my psyche rubbed against his psyche and left traces of the glue in his mind, in his soul. The mental and emotional ‘stuff’ that was injected into me as the result of my having an alcoholic parent rubbed up against him, was transferred to his mental and emotional control center by his simply being with me, by simply living in, being raised in an environment by a person who was raised in a house with an alcoholic.

It is not necessary for the X- factor (that’s me) to be an alcoholic themselves to pass the glue on. The X-factor merely has to have had the experience and not bothered to get the help they needed before having their own children and passing on, however unwittingly, the glue.

I never got the help I needed because I was ashamed and I would not accept that first of all I could have an emotional problem. The shame ran deep in my house growing up as it does in so many homes where substance abuse has taken over. I would not accept that I needed help, although frankly if I had managed to figure it out years ago I would have had to figure it out all on my own because again, denial runs deep and strong in these homes. But slowly through the years it became somewhat apparent even to me that it might be just the tiniest bit possible that I was suffering the effects of living with an alcoholic. But I could fix it myself. Through sheer will-power I believed that I could fix it myself, or rather through sheer force of will I believed that I could control my oftentimes volatile behavior and I did, for a number of years I pulled it together, got it under control and got to thinking that I was ok.

Funny thing happened on the way to the forum. What is controlled through sheer force of will on one side of the room will manage to find its way out through the cracks in some other wall in that same room. If it throws itself against the wall on the left side of the room and cannot penetrate it figures this out immediately and simply goes to the wall on the right side of the room. No big deal. Can’t get out this door? I’ll try that door.

Problem is and unbeknownst to me at the time my son who was in his formative years of physical, intellectual and emotional maturity was caught up in all the wall-banging and he was getting thrown around the room with me, by watching and hearing and feeling what was emanating from me.

The sins of the father (and oftentimes the mother).

Don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s a gene. It is NOT just a gene.

He is ashamed of himself. Ashamed that he needs help, ashamed that rehab is probably on his very imminent horizon, ashamed that he cannot, through sheer force of his own will beat this addiction. And I cannot convince him that it is not he who should be ashamed but all of us who came before who refused to look, who refused to acknowledge, who continue to willfully and wantonly refuse to look this demon of our family in the eye and say “Enough! It ends here.” There is no shame to be felt in finally deciding to exercise by sheer force of our own will the choice to exorcise the demon that has to this point been welcome in our home.


  1. Well, being that you are now willing to look honestly (with an unusual amount of insight I might add) at the emotional demons that have attached themselves to you, I predict a lot of healing for you and your son.

    Having been a patient at a psychiatric facility several times and an addiction treatment facility several times I know full well the shame and secrecy one feels when seeking this kind of help.

  2. Hi LM - as my mother always says hope springs eternal. The hard part is getting my son to truly understand from within himself what I now know within myself. That fleeting flash of clarity when the light starts to come on, if only it had come sooner. Unfortunately for me (and him) it took many years. I am trying to be the X-factor in a more positive way these days.

  3. The human mind responds to countless influences during its development. Genetics, family dynamics, peer pressures, nutritional factors, and random events all play a role. If you raised your son then you had a major influence on him, but that does not make you culpable. Your own mind responded to its history, just as your father's and grandfather's responded to theirs. We put so much pressure on ourselves about the past, when most of the time we were trying our best in very challenging circumstances. I am glad your son is gaining awareness of his own issues at a young age; the sooner we start waking up, the better. Your honesty and diligence in learning to live well, even if the work was messy, no doubt helped him when it came to for him to either face his problem or ignore it. Thanks to your example, he has chosen to fight rather than run. His courage is a testament to your success as a mother. Best wishes to you both.

  4. Hi Will - I agree with all of what you say, and you said it so nicely, thank you for your kind words.
    I would add that while I was not willfully culpable meaning that I really had no idea that all this was going on at the time that doesn't make me not culpable is some sense of the word. Sometimes an unwillingness to admit our weaknesses is all that is necessary to make us culpable. I am certainly guilty of that.
    At any rate thanks again.

  5. This post really moved me. Addiction permeates many facets of my life and family. Take care to you both.

  6. Hi Alison - thanks for coming by and taking the time to comment. I'm sorry to hear that it permeates your life as well. It's a real bugger.