I remember being told that addiction is hereditary, as though there is a gene that predisposes you to addiction. This itself is not strictly true; however, there is much research in the subject of epigenetics, which shows that trauma absolutely can be passed through generations, and for up to seven generations. Therefore, for me, the trauma being passed through the generations is what predisposes a person to addiction, not genetic make-up.
Growing up in a family with addiction usually presents three factors, to a greater or lesser extent, which further perpetuate the issues mentioned above. The first of these is secrecy. This is a really isolating situation, which degenerates the child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem, as they will blame themselves for the situations created as a result of keeping secrets. When various family members deny elements of the family’s reality, they are denying that reality from the child’s perspective. In this environment, the child can end up feeling they need to walk on eggshells and always be acutely aware of whom they can tell what, who knows and who does not. This is a very stressful way to live. The concept of family begins to feel highly inauthentic and the fear of people “finding out the truth” further isolates the child from the rest of the world. Here you see trauma and addiction building on each other to become an increasingly intense ongoing cycle.
The second element is inaccessibility of parents. This is highly confusing for children as they physically see their parents, yet they are not emotionally present and may often not remember previously made promises if they are abusing substances such as drugs or alcohol. This the child learns to not trust adults with what they say, which can cause further problems as that child grows up and attempts to form their own relationships, believing that other people are untrustworthy, unreliable, will always let them down and lose interest. Ouch! As the parent is using their addiction so as to not feel, they can become hardly present at all and risk being highly angry or guilty and overindulgent. Often an addiction will lead to depression and children growing up with depressed parents carry a lot of guilt about not being able to help their parent feel happy. These shut down and self-medicated parents are unable to show their children how to relate well to their own emotions and how to conduct intimate relationships. Without these role models, navigating adult life becomes a battlefield.
The final factor is the parentification of children. I remember on my 6th birthday that my mum was taken away from me as she was admitted to the local mental health facility, suffering with post-natal depression, for the treatment of the time: electric shock therapy. I vividly remember what my birthday cake looked like that year (it was a shape of a 6 made into a horse racing course with jumps and all sorts). Incidentally, I do not remember a cake from any other of the 44 birthdays I have celebrated in this lifetime. As she was taken away, she pulled me to the side (in the middle of my birthday party) and said to me “I may not be coming back so please make sure to look after your brother and sister”. They were 1 and 4 at the time. I remember feeling really torn – my friends were at my house, my cake was AMAZING, I wanted to have fun, but I also now had a job to do. My mum did subsequently return, some weeks later. We had stayed with my mum’s friend who had also been running my birthday party. I was so happy to see my mum again, although my mum’s friend was lovely, she just was not my mum. Even at that age, I knew that I must now be really, really good so my mum did not have to go away again. I knew she had also given me a job to do and I must do that so Mummy did not get sad again and go away again. So by the age of 7, I was tasked with getting my brother and sister ready in the morning, giving them breakfast and washing everything up whilst my mum went for a walk with her dog. In parentification, the parent casts the child in the expected role. There is no recognition of the efforts of the child and the child is not assuming their role from a place of love (as much as I loved my mum) but out of fear of the parent’s reaction if they do not, or in my case, to prevent them leaving again. A 7 year old child is not equipped to be caring for a 2 year old and a 5 year old – this is how you learn that relationship = burden and you carry that forward to your own adult relationships which themselves become a matter of duty more than love. Need I spell it out, but growing up in addictive families is a toxic environment from which no good can come.
However, that sounds somewhat fatalistic. However, it is not all bad.
As the adult now, you have the choice. I hope that after reading this article you are armed with the information about the impact of your addictions on your children (substance, emotional and behavioural – it is all the same). You can choose to heal your trauma and your addictions so the impact is not passed on to your children, your grandchildren and so on. It takes commitment from you but I am the living, walking proof that it is absolutely do-able. And my goodness, it is worth it.
Please join my private Facebook group if you feel any of the discussion in this article has touched you and you would appreciate support.