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How Do We Choose Our Addictions?

An image that has been circulating for years was designed by cartoonist Jennifer Berman. It portrays an auditorium with a banner strung across the back proclaiming that it is the Adult Children of Normal Parents Annual Convention. There are two people sitting in the chairs. We may laugh at the irony of such a picture, but there are those who may believe that their family of origin issues are minor when compared with those of others and refrain from noticing when their own lives are disintegrating.

A Case Study to Illustrate the Point

You may recognize similarities in your own addictive processes even if the circumstances vary from yours. Two children are born into a family in which there are no overt addictions, no abuse or trauma and whose parents have a loving marriage that lasts more than five decades. There is very little conflict and when disagreements occur, they seem to be resolved calmly. There is a large, extended family in which they are nurtured and supported. Their needs for food, shelter, clothing, education and affection are amply met. One caveat is that their father had tendencies toward workaholism and emotional enmeshment with his daughters. One child developed a 30-year smoking addiction and obesity. The other engaged in workaholism and co-dependent relationships. Both entered into marriages in which elements of abuse were present. Both experienced health crises in middle age. One was widowed in her 40s and the other in her 50s. The second sibling engaged in treatment, both inpatient and outpatient, as well as attended 12-step meetings for several years. The first had no intervention and doesn’t do a great deal of exploration into her life circumstances, but simply takes things at face value, with the stated attitude, “It is what it is.” Several questions come to mind:

  1. How did they marry partners who grew up in seemingly polar opposite family circumstances in which there was addiction and abuse when those were foreign to their own upbringing?
  2. Why did one sibling develop substance related disorders and the other process disorders?
  3. Why did one enter treatment and other decline it?
  4. Why did both incur health challenges later in life?

Some Possible Explanations

Although there are no definitive answers, one clue might be in the nature of the family of origin dynamics. In 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married: Simple Lessons to Make Love Last, psychotherapists and relationship counselors Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, say “Growing up in a happy family doesn’t ensure a good marriage and growing up in an unhappy family doesn’t preclude it.” They go on to indicate that if someone lives in an environment in which boundaries don’t need to be drawn, since there is no overt violation, they don’t automatically develop the skills to do so later in life. Noted author, theologian and television host John Bradshaw offers his perspective on that dynamic as well: “It’s possible the parental marriage worked so well because they were repressing certain issues. There are marriages in which the couple agrees to disagree, and they somehow work it out. There have to be issues that are being repressed in order for partners to agree all of the time. I don’t want to make it sound as if a good marriage is a bad one, but it might be that those kids are carrying some of those dynamics into their relationships as adults.” Each of these two people possessed a strong desire to care take, as had their parents; placing the needs of their partners over their own. As a result of neglecting their own well-being, they each developed preventable health conditions that caused them to take stock of their choices. Both were aware of the relationships their spouses had with their families and possessed a desire to assist them in healing from childhood wounds. Each woman found that she was unable to do for her husband what these men were not willing or able to do for themselves. In that regard, following their deaths, they were ultimately able to set appropriate boundaries with the people in their lives, which is evidence of progress in their recovery.

Each Addiction Met Different Needs

In an article titled “Alcohol and Other Drugs: Self Responsibility” by Ruth C. Engs, addiction is defined as: “Any activity, substance, object, or behavior that has become the major focus of a person’s life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally or socially.” Further, Eng states, “There is no consensus as to the etiology (cause), prevention, and treatment of addictive disorders. A United States government publication, “Theories on Drug Abuse: Selected Contemporary Perspectives,” came up with no less than 43 theories of chemical addiction and at least 15 methods of treatment.” The one whose smoking led to her current diagnoses took her first drag in her teens. Her parents, neither of whom smoked, were oblivious to her habit until it was entrenched. Rebellion played a role in her actions, as she wanted to be seen as different from her sister. By the time she reached adulthood, she made several attempts to quit. When she was pregnant with each of her three children, she put the cigarettes down, but in between they were used as a coping tool to relieve stress. She is consciously aware of the connection between the self-soothing qualities of the cigarettes that kept her addicted and the result that she must now address. She has stated that she wants others to learn from her mistakes and speaks out about the toll smoking takes on one’s quality of life. The woman whose workaholism and co-dependence led to her health crises found that those habits developed over time as well. Like any addiction, they served a valuable purpose — that of assuring that she could maintain her status in the lives of those she valued. She has, with the assistance of competent therapists and Co-Dependence Anonymous (CODA), explored at length the core issues that had her enabling the behaviors of partners and putting performance before well-being. As a mental health professional, she was strongly influenced to seek treatment for herself. According to Brad Klontz PsyD, CFP, “Workaholism is a family disease often passed down from parent to child. Workaholics use work to cope with emotional discomfort and feelings of inadequacy. They get adrenaline highs from work binges and then crash from exhaustion, resulting in periods of irritability, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. To cope with these feelings, workaholics then begin another cycle of excessive devotion to work.” Both women are now making more life affirming choices.

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