Sunday, January 4, 2015

Addict Cleans Up, THEN is Shunned by Family

An interesting letter appeared in the advice column Dear Abby on 11/30/14:

DEAR ABBY: I am a former drama queen and addict now enjoying long-term sobriety, or trying to. What's missing in my life is my family. Since returning from rehab, I have been "going it alone" -- and I'm not sure why. My kids are the only grandchildren in the family. I work and go to school. I am pleasant. There have been some rough spots I have had to deal with, and when I have needed to, I have called my mom or sister, but they don't call me or visit. They have expressed no love for me through all of this. When I call, I feel like I'm intruding. Aren't I entitled to their love and caring? I feel abandoned. It's hard doing things on my own. My family lives close by, so distance isn't the issue. What am I missing? I want my kids and me to have a family, but when I try to reach out, I end up hurt by their lack of interest. Should I just get on with my life? I have been going through this for years. -- MOVING ON IN FLORIDA

DEAR MOVING ON: It's possible that the "drama" and turmoil you put your family through while in the throes of your addiction is the reason your mother and sister avoid you. They may be reluctant to take a chance again. Because they have made it plain that they aren't interested in a closer relationship with you and your children, you should absolutely get on with your life.

Abby's response was predictable. There were also several comments on the website from the public about the letter, and the commenters were more or less unanimous: the letter writer had probably "burned her bridges," the family probably got sick of giving her one chance after another and were burned out, etc. etc. 

After all, as another commenter opined, "
Addicts hurt a lot of people and cause a lot of problems." The family's response is due to their need for "self preservation." The writer probably used to call them "only when she needed something."

These responses were in fact so predictable that the letter writer herself undoubtedly knew what she was going to get. She was setting herself up, and making herself look bad while all the while criticizing her poor family. The criticisms of the family did not go over well at all with Abby's readers. With her criticism the writer was in fact garnering sympathy for her family, rather than making them look bad. She had to know that would happen.

The burning bridges thing probably contains an element of truth. But more likely a half truth.

How did this former drama queen/addict turn out the way she did in the first place? Wasn't she in fact raised by the very family that is now shunning her? How many chances did they give her before giving up on her? When she was actively using did they get involved with her over and over again?  Enable her? Try to "rescue" her?

Notice that she identifies herself as a former drama queen. Where did that label come from? Is that what everyone in her family would call her over and over again until it became a role she would play in order to confirm their opinion of her? 

Was she in fact the only one in the family who had been expressing feelings that everyone else was stuffing? Was she the identified patient, as  family systems therapists call such folks, who gets all the blame for a problem shared by the entire family?

And most importantly, did they abandon her only after she cleaned up?

Inquiring minds want to know the answers to these questions before passing judgment.

This is a counter intuitive way to look at this. I understand that. But when the whole story comes out from patients in therapy, the answers to my questions are often yeses. Respected interpersonal theorist Lorna Smith Benjamin describes an analogous dynamic in which she lists two of the four characteristics she has observed in families that produce offspring with borderline personality disorder (BPD) - who often share many characteristics with both drama queens and addicts:

1. Parental love and concern is elicited only by misery, sickness and debilitation

2. Family chaos - The borderline individual is subtly blamed for problems or expected to exert control over them.

(The other two characteristics:  3. Episodes of traumatic abandonment are interspersed with periods of traumatic over-involvement, and 4. Efforts by the person with borderline disorder to establish autonomy are interpreted by the family as indicated disloyalty).

What may be happening in the case of the letter writer is that her family needs a black sheep, and she was elected to play the part. Because she finally stopped playing the part, they then shun her. In this situation, they would be in effect be punishing her for not being who they need her to be. However, they would also be helping her out in a strange way - by protecting her from their own pernicious presence. As Dr. Benjamin has also said, pathological behavior can be a gift of love.

This could be the real answer to the letter writer's question.


  1. Reading this post, it's weird to look at my own family, because my elder sister is borderline, largely because our mom hated her. My dad never stepped in to defend my sis from my mom and is probably the greatest regret of his life (though he couldn't articulate that concern). However, after my sister went through a divorce in which my dad helped her substantially with her finances, she did not pay him back (or didn't show proper respect for the effort on my dad's part, I doubt if she could have ever paid back the large sum). As a result of this debt, my dad disowned her, which is odd because of all his kids, she's the one that he failed the most, and is the kid that, if he were asked, he would most likely wanted to get off the ledger of debts, so to speak. It's like she made it easy for him to jettison her from his life and memories.

    1. Seems like you Dad set her up so he could do what he had always done (abandon her).


  2. You don't really believe that the letters to 'Dear Abby' advice columns are from real people? The publications have someone on staff who makes them up.

  3. This article provides the kind of perspective I thought psychiatrists were supposed to give--insights onto the human psyche which run counter to mainstream conventional wisdom (as wisdom to specious references to biochemical imbalances and genetic vulnerabilities).

  4. Dr. Allen, have you ever used Lorna Smith Benjamin's SASB in your practice?

    1. Hi anonymous,

      I do use the concepts inherent in the SASB all the time, but no psychological test can ever replace a good clinical narrative, because the subtleties and the details are very important and are completely missed in those tests.