My Addiction Was a Family Disease
Parenting is hard and blame is easy to throw around. Still, if my adolescent addictions had been seen as part of something larger than just "Anna's issues," it might have helped.
My parents started off pretty relaxed about drugs—by which I mean that they were open with me that they had smoked pot and they didn’t subscribe to any alarmist tactics when it came to warning me about any drugs. Whether this was ultimately good or bad, I have no idea. But it seemed like the right way: We lived in Marin County and this was the ‘80s, which meant that members of the Grateful Dead frequented the same local supermarket as us. Being alarmist about drugs in the '80s was not the Marin way.
Still, my older brother didn’t give my parents any preparation for me. He was a straight arrow, a computer and video game kid before such a persona was a known cultural entity. I was not. And, as my teenage years progressed, I started to get in trouble—for shoplifting, for having alcohol on me while riding in my friend’s car, for throwing massive, cop-raided parties while my parents were out of town. None of this was par for the course for my Harvard-educated dad, PhD-earning mom and D&D-loving brother. It’s safe to say that my parents were thrown for a bit of a loop.
When I say my parents, I really mean my mom, because my dad wasn’t at all involved in any day-to-day parenting. Compared to other mothers and daughters I knew as an adolescent, my mom and I had a really good relationship—which is to say that I didn’t slam doors and tell her to fuck off, and we actually had honest discussions about some things. But when I started to get in trouble, a lot of that changed.
My mom didn’t yell and scream; that was never her way. Instead, she spoke to me about what I’d done in a voice so cool that I felt like I could have skated over it.
Looking back, it’s clear that my mom didn’t know what to do and that my behavior scared her. I can’t say I wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her position. But it just so happened that her reaction was exactly what I did not need. After I was busted for shoplifting and later for alcohol possession, I felt ashamed and not a lot else. I didn’t understand—or even try to understand—why I was doing these things. I didn’t have the vocabulary or awareness to articulate that I felt so uncomfortable that I needed to do things that helped me to escape myself, that I had no ability to just be in the moment and that I was too terrified to even admit to myself or anyone else that I was scared.
My mom didn’t yell and scream; that was never her way. Instead she shut down. She spoke to me about what I’d done in a voice so cool that I felt like I could have skated over it. To me, this was far worse than hearing anger or disappointment; I felt, when she talked like that, as if my behavior had been so bad that she’d actually stopped loving me. My shame intensified.
There were more incidents. When I was 16, Mom happened upon a passage in my diary where I wrote about smoking pot and rubbing cocaine on my lips to experience what I called “Numb-y Gum-y.” That same year, she came across some nitrous oxide capsules that I used to do whip-its. Her responses to these things were also icy. More shame followed.
There were a number of issues going on in my family at the time—issues that unarguably harmed me and made me feel unsafe at home. But I think what was even worse than feeling unsafe was the feeling that I was a fuck-up. I felt like there was something terribly wrong with me. Like I was different than they were. Like I was wrong—not just that I was doing things that were wrong but that my very existence in itself was wrong.
It is my belief—though I should mention that my family does not agree with me about this—that “Anna is the problem child” became something of a family meme. I’d had colic as a baby, and always heard stories about how much I’d screamed and cried and how no one had been able to stand it. The point of these stories, it seemed to me, wasn’t how sad it was that I’d been so inconsolable as a baby but that my being so troubled had driven everyone else crazy.
And my troubles continued. I’d apparently had bad temper tantrums as a child. Then, as a teen, I had chronic headaches and insomnia. The fact that I had a headache when I was 16—and when I say a headache, I mean that for one year straight, my head ached around the clock—was dealt with the way things were dealt with back then: I went to the best neurologist my parents could find. He plugged me into a biofeedback machine meant to measure my stress level, gleaned that I was a 10 on a scale of 1-10 and prescribed me painkillers. I still remember my confusion over the euphoria I felt when I took them; no one had told me it was going to get me high and so, I reasoned, my elation was due to the absence of pain. Of course, daily opioid use meant building up a tolerance fairly quickly, so I went from the first prescription to an even stronger opioid, and when that stopped working, I graduated to an even stronger one. Like I said, different times. Eventually, thankfully, the headaches dissipated—but my chronic pain just made me feel even more like something was wrong with me.
So you could say that the addictions I picked up as a result of both these circumstances and my genetic predisposition—I believe that my now-deceased maternal grandmother and grandfather were both addicts—made sense. I am not making excuses. I was—and still am, at times—selfish, narcissistic, attention-seeking and all sorts of other things that are no one’s fault but my own. I’m not trying to point fingers. Plenty of kids grew up in far more damaging environments with far more of a genetic predisposition and never became addicted to anything. And my parents did many of the so-called right things; my mom helped me to find the best therapist I could. And I tried to share with him all that was going on, and even succeeded at times.
But I do think things might have turned out differently if my problems been dealt with as family issues, rather than “Anna issues.” If my parents been willing to discuss and deal with some of the dysfunction we lived in that exacerbated my genetic predisposition, and if I hadn’t been left feeling like I alone was the problem. It would have been better, in other words, if I hadn’t been the identified patient.
Back then, people didn’t throw around terms like “blaming the addict” or “identified patient.” Today we do—and we know that having a family surround an addict in a loving, supportive way is crucial. “To only focus on the individual who suffers from the disease not only fails to fully address the full manifestation of the disease but it also pathologies the patient and sets them up to fail in their recovery,” says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, senior clinical advisor to Caron Ocean Drive. “Parents need to take responsibility for their role—not in causing the illness but in how they will participate in meaningful and lasting recovery.” In order to do this, Hokemeyer says, parents need to “come together and look at the substance as the issue and not a personal failing that is caused by lack of willpower or deficient morality.” He adds, “Pointing fingers and placing blame on that person only serves to deepen already painful wounds.”
Dr. John Sharp, a psychiatrist on staff at Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, concurs. “The beginning place for parents is, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’” he says. “And that’s not an unhealthy place to start. That’s a loving, caring place.” Sharp always tells the families he works with that their role is critical. “I say, ‘You can influence the behavior of your loved one and you want to continuously let him or her know how much you care and what your support can mean.’” But, of course, that isn’t always easy. “I think it’s really difficult to figure that out on their own," Sharp says. "I think that parents need to talk to people, talk to counselors, talk to people in long-term recovery, talk to their family doctor and get guidance.”
I couldn’t agree more. And because parents today are lucky enough to have information like this available to them in a way that my generation’s parents did not, I’d encourage them to approach this issue with all the awareness possible, as well as the love. But it’s not just on them; addicted children often spend a lot of time blaming their parents for every little thing they did wrong—something I know only too well because, for a long time, I was leading the charge. The way I see it now, finger pointing is not only a waste of time but also a distraction from the real problem. And, as someone said to me on maybe my second day in recovery, when I tried to explain that I was only an addict because of the various things my parents had done to me: When I’m pointing a finger at someone, there are three pointing right back at me.
Fix columnist Anna David is the author of Party Girl, Bought, Reality Matters and Falling For Me. She served as The Fix's Executive Editor for over two years. Her previous columns have tackled subjects like AA-haters, being a so-so sponsor and sh*t non-addicts say.