From: Boston, Massachusetts
School: Bunker Hill Community College
Through the looking glass
Looking at the family I grew up in from the outside, you’d think we were picture perfect. Married parents with their two daughters and a white-picket fence house, several aunts and uncles, many cousins running around and two steady grand-parents as head of the family. It sounds wonderful and I will be honest, my childhood was a happy one for several years. I’d say it lasted while the grown-ups sheltered us from the harsh realities of life. After a while, innocence fades away though, and perceptiveness makes you more aware.
Aware of the way my aunt, who also happened to be my godmother, would always slur her words. Always. Whether at ten in the morning or on Christmas Eve dinner. Aware of how my father, often out of town for work, would still come home late sometimes when he was supposed to be around, unsteady on his feet when he could have spent an evening at home with his wife and kids. Aware of my grand-mother’s habits to sit down every morning at the dining table for hours to play her gambling games although she would lose money more often than not.
This awareness was always a background noise and yet, none of the adults around me seemed fazed. I was raised thinking I shouldn’t be either, but I couldn’t play by their rules and would be one of the very few who dared to ask questions: Is this normal? Why do they do that? Shouldn’t we do something? Questioning the status quo often directed frowns my way.
It wasn’t until my pre-teens that I realized everyone in my family was fighting either their own internal battle, or their own guilt. My otherwise respectable grand-father, whose moral-compas drove family decisions, let his wife’s gambling addictions slide and grow, out of guilt for cheating on her and having a secret illegitimate child many years ago, preferring to pay his wife’s debts and cover for her, times and times again. Her gambling addiction eventually came to a stop when senile dementia took over, so she basically forgot her cravings at the same time she stopped recognizing her own grand-children.
My godmother’s husband encouraged his wife’s drinking, often filling her glass of wine himself, out of guilt for forcing her to have two abortions during their marriage because he didn’t want children, while she loved him too much to fight him on it, even though it had become public knowledge that she regretted not having kids of her own. I could often see the sorrow in her eyes when she looked my way. The rest of my family always pretended my aunt was fine when really, even as a five-year-old, the situation made me feel uneasy as I could see the distress in my aunt’s behavior. I suppose it felt easier to the adults to let her indulge, so that she wouldn’t cause drama, and they would avoid having a nervous breakdown on their hands. Yes, withdrawal symptoms and a recovering addict wouldn’t sit well with the family image.
I finally had enough when I was around 14, and decided to take a stand and acknowledge the problem the way a pre-teen would, which basically is clumsy and not ideal, although in all fairness, I didn’t really have many role models to show me the way. So, I simply took the difficult yet necessary decision that I didn’t want a relationship with my godmother or even talk to her if she didn’t sober up. Which was never. She loved me and was devastated but I couldn’t just stand there watching her sneaking into my family members’ home to steal alcohol anymore. Yes, she actually picked locked doors to fill her craving.
You wouldn’t believe the amount of shaming I got from most of my family for this stance. They called me a terrible niece, said that I wasn’t supportive of my aunt’s weaknesses and that I was the reason she was even sadder now. My own father took part in the shaming. The only support I had was from my mother who was ostracized anyway as she had been able to recognize her own mental health struggles with depression and reach for professional help. I slowly cut ties with the members of my family giving me the worst of the storm in order to protect myself.
Four years later, I was rewarded when my sister informed me that my godmother had been sober for a couple years, having acknowledged her addiction a while after I severed our relationship. I felt so much relief to know that all the grief I had gone through to help her in my own weird way hadn’t been in vein. At long last, her family had supported her, not that they ever admitted that they had to wait for a fourteen-year-old’s “tantrum” to follow my lead and help my aunt. Her husband’s way to cope with a now even more emotionally fragile wife had been to self-medicate through opioids, which really wasn’t helping the problem. There would now be several addicts and recovering addicts to support. Expect that he was never interested in in quitting.
Alas, this isn’t a happy ending story, because after a lifetime of drinking, my godmother’s withdrawal had needed her to temporarily compensate with prescription drugs and antidepressants and she was never able to get off of those, leaving her a drug addict too. She passed away a couple years ago when her body, damaged by too much excess and addiction, let her down.
I was lucky enough to make peace with her somewhere in-between the two addictions, as we sat down to talk about what had happened all those years ago, and I explained why I hadn’t been able to sit still watching her destroy herself. I didn’t need to justify my actions to the rest of the herd but she deserved it. She told me that I had been right all along even if my actions had pained her at the time, and that she understood. I guess this is the silver-lining of the story, right?
In my family, the only diseases we would acknowledge were the physical ones. Mental health and addictions weren’t supposed to be real; they were considered shameful. My question is:
How many families have similar stories?
Probably too many. Addiction can take many forms and I consider myself lucky that my family’s addictions didn’t harm people other than themselves or involve violence. Life isn’t a walk in the park and is inevitably made of highs and lows. Everyone copes with the lows in different ways, some more healthy than others. And some feel like they can’t cope at all and need to numb themselves, never managing to get out of their numbness after and always needing, craving more relief, the consequences often ignored until it’s too late. For me, the consequence was my family never being the same again, for others, addiction can cause harm to other people, strangers even. That self-harm can kill is bad enough as it is, it can actually kill innocents along the way as well.
I believe my family’s way of turning a blind eye on the problem is, on a larger scale, the reason why there is still any doubt of an addiction crisis in our society. We’d rather look elsewhere than address the problem, loved-ones sometimes choosing the path of least resistance and let addicts indulge, unaware that it isn’t helping them.
On a societal level, mental health, addictions and access to resources and programs to support and heal need to have a more prominent place in our health care systems. They are still considered as less important than physical injuries and diseases and individuals suffering from addictions can’t recover easily without a support system that acknowledges them and make them feel valued. People suffering as well as their loved ones should know that there are resources available and that it is okay to need and ask for help. Addiction is a burden and we need to rally around and extend our help to those suffering.
On an individual level, the first step forward should be to recognize our own reluctance to acknowledge addictions and support addicts in their recovery. Kids shouldn’t be taught to look the other way when witnessing another person’s distress. As all matters of social change, education will be key. Teaching teenagers that alcohol is dangerous is one thing, but teaching them about the difference between an occasional celebration and falling into substance abuse, as well as the reasons people might turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism, and the resources that can healthily help them sounds like a broader and more proactive approach on the subject. On a personal level, my story is one of the reasons that drives me to study and start a career in psychology.