Now I just have…issues 😛
My mother called it the ‘X-Factor’. On the three hour journey from our small town into the Big Smoke she heralded the dangers of the family’s obsessive personalities and how easy it was to get sucked into the excess of University drinking culture. Growing up in a family where one was never enough and most had a disturbing encounter with narcotics, I knew my tendencies to binge could get me in trouble.
As a first year on my own and an 18-year old child of addicts, I was often finding myself in dangerous situations trying to chase the next big hit. Harmony*, whose mum was often in and out of her life due to drugs also mentioned feeling ashamed of her upbringing. Finding solace in people with similar experiences and MD, she attached herself to other obsessive personalities and began drinking and dosing heavily from age 16.
“I was always the most drunk or wasted girl in the room. While it was fun in the moment, I often woke up hating myself,” said Harmony.
Although there is small research to back the claims of ‘addictive personalities’, substance and alcohol abuse is often magnified by factors such as one’s home situation, work or social environments. Associate director at the Centre for Addiction Research, Peter Adams believes addictive relationships should be seen as relational.
“When people form an addictive relationship what’s happening is that their relationship with addiction intensifies as other relationships in their life become compromised.”
Well, my relationship with my parents and childhood was turbulent, to say the least. My parents have had issues with hard substances since before my birth and are still negotiating addiction, in all its forms, to this day. I had never been given ‘the talk’ but I was always aware of horror stories that either involved drugs, alcohol or a toxic relationship. My siblings have experiences with narcotics, each with their own terrifying stories and a cautionary tale. I had always thought growing up would be the day I shared my own—so I tried finding it.
I never learnt my limit and tried my hardest to discover it at university. Niamh Pritchard, a drug and alcohol clinician based at the city campus says that whilst being young and in University is a normal time for experimentation, one should actively assess the reason why they’re drinking, using, or abusing a substance.
“I think we have relationships to food, we have relationships to the land, we have relationships to a variety of different things that are mirrored, based upon what our parents have shown us. Alcohol is a big one. So obviously, if you’ve been a child, and this was my case, who noticed, and consistently saw throughout their life, a parent use alcohol as a way to cope with problems, then how are you meant to think of alcohol other than as this thing to cope,”
Using a harm reduction approach, Niamh looks for ways to give people the power to use alcohol or substances safely. That includes reducing intake if ‘necessary’, believes Niamh.
“Someone’s intake of alcohol isn’t always the main issue that’s causing them health problems.
It could be other things; like the impact of alcohol or drugs on mental health, sleep, or appetite. My role is to help people and reduce the long or short term consequences of substance use.”
Niamh works not only with those suffering with substance issues but also intimately with those affected by a family member’s use of drugs and alcohol. Children of parents with drug dependencies are often dealing with resentment, abandonment and self-worth issues.
As a child, I was often comparing my self-worth to a crack rock—an emotion that Mary* claimed she could only conquer once leaving home as an adult.
Mary grew up in a household with two active users along with the added hardship of physical abuse. Parentified from an early age she was playing the role of not only daughter, but parent, caregiver, and runner of the household while her parents would withdraw for multiple days at a time. Now as an adult Mary struggles with perfectionism and learning when to let go.
“I won’t do something if I don’t think I can do it 100%. It’s a rollover from my parents making irresponsible, impulsive decisions and never doing the clean-up. As a daughter also, the clean-up often fell on my shoulders.”
This role reversal between child and parents also lends itself into the massive feelings of resentment held by Mary. Often asking herself:
Why couldn’t you be a normal parent?
Why couldn’t you get better for me?
Do you love this feeling more than you love me?
Mary, Harmony and myself are still asking ourselves these questions to this day. As adults we find we’re often expected to either continue letting these issues lie or lead the negotiations in reconciliation. Even when the problem is recognised, too often it’s still our problem and we bear the burden of fixing it.
As Peter points out however, reconciliation is a tricky, sometimes messy process that takes many years. The distinct separation between addiction services and mental health assistance in western medicine has been a barrier in re-establishing families holistically.
“Reconnecting people and reforming intimate relationships can be a slow process, but it’s critical to the process of dismantling the strength of the relationship with drugs and alcohol. The reconnection process once a person is in recovery can be quite a tricky process. It’s not straightforward. There’s always feelings of resentment both ways. It takes a long time to feel that you’re safe enough with that person to become intimate again, to become close. It can take years. Decades even.”
Harmony said she could only work through these feelings through separation and many years of therapy.
“I had to meet drug addicts my age to understand. I had to put myself in [mum’s] position. She had it hard and I now understand the role drugs played.”
For Mary it meant loving from a distance, “setting boundaries and learning to be selfish helped. It was only after talking and sharing my situation with others have I come to understand its reality and be ok with where I’m at now.”
I thought writing this story would lift a weight off of my shoulders. But if anything it only reminded me how heavy it was in the first place. I’m still learning my own coping strategies and coming to terms with a lost childhood.
Like Peter said: Reconciliation and reconnection doesn’t happen overnight. Confronting my parents is still awkward and we still haven’t addressed much as a family.
Harmony, Mary and I have all struggled with addiction at some level. Whether that be drugs, alcohol, food, self-harm, sex or even people pleasing. Unlearning these habits has been a journey we are still navigating. Healing is hard, not healing is hard too. There are no instructions for breaking generational cycles, you are walking uncharted territories. Be proud, choosing not to participate in patterns and lifestyles you were accustomed to is a bold move.
Kia kaha, kia manawa nui <3