Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Obvious Secret of Interpersonal Influence Within Families

It always amazed me that therapists, who are in the business of influencing people to change their behavior, are often somewhat clueless as to how individuals are influenced by members of their kin group – that is, by their families.  Even the analysts, who thought that psychological problems derived initially from family of origin interactions, sometimes seemed to think all of the child’s reactions to the parents were somehow innate rather than learned. Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan were the two major exceptions among the early analytic theorists.

When family systems theory came along, its ideas about cybernetic feedback loops of interpersonal influence seemed to me to be a major step forward. However, perhaps because they had to go to the opposite extreme from the schools of individual psychotherapy in order to distinguish themselves, some theorists seemed to think that individuals almost did not exist outside of their social context. Systems therapy pioneer Jay Haley pretty much said as much.

I kept coming across a peculiar problem in their explanations for interactions in family systems. Actually, I noticed that the same problem kept creeping into explanations of human behavior from the individual psychotherapy schools. They all seemed to assume that, on some level, people are just incredibly stupid.  Somehow they believed a person could repeatedly get the same feedback from other people about the effects of their behavior on both themselves and on others, yet just not notice what was happening!

Now of course if one looks for evidence of people behaving stupidly, it’s not very hard to come up with examples. But are they really too stupid to notice that when they act in certain ways, they invariably get hit over the head with a two by four, in a manner of speaking.  Maybe the first couple of times their perceptions of the chain of events might miss the inevitable result because of preconceived biases, but over and over?  

If anything, I would think that being hit on the head over and over with a two by four would make the sequence rather salient! To think otherwise is to turn the whole evolutionary reason for the existence of pain on its head.

So what if we assume that people are not that stupid? To explore this, I would like to make a detour and discuss the different perspectives on how individuals influence one another presupposed by the therapeutic schools. Individual therapies tend to be based on something called linear causality; systems approaches on circular causality. A more powerful concept of causality is, in my opinion, dialectic causality.

For simplicity in discussions of circular causality, systems theorist have usually used as a teaching example a schematized and admittedly oversimplified version of a couple consisting of an alcoholic who drinks and his wife who nags him to stop, so let me start there. 

A linear model would suppose that the nagging or the drinking is one element which causes the two behaviors in question:

Nagging----------------------> more drinking (though this might be seen by analysts as a mere excuse covering up some “real" linear cause).  

drinking---------------------> induces more nagging.

Circular causality, on the other hand, would presuppose a sort of vicious circle with no beginning or end, although in fact all interactions must have a beginning, even if it is only when this couple first meets.

T1 = time 1, T2 = a short time later, etc.

In this case, drinking---->nagging----à drinking--à nagging    - ad infinitum

The second model has obvious advantages over the first model in that it includes the obvious fact that both members of the couple are influencing each other in a continuous process with constant feedback. Systems theory would say that this creates a vicious circle where more nagging leads to more drinking which leads to more nagging and so forth. But here is where the “problem of stupidity” pops up.  

If we assume that the nagger is not stupid, we must assume that she knows that her husband is, at the very least, using her nagging as an excuse to drink, and will drink more if nagged rather than less. The husband tells here so, and his behavior bears it out, so she would have to have to have the IQ of a turnip not to notice!

Conversely, the drinker knows that his drinking induces more nagging. If each member of the couple wants the other member to stop drinking/nagging, and I do believe that to be the case, then how do we explain the fact that both of them continue in the non-productive behavior?

More importantly, both members of the couple know that the other member is not stupid, even if many therapists do not, so how do they explain to themselves why the other member of the couple is inducing the very behavior that he or she is complaining about?

In fact, each member of the couple in this situation is not giving off a congruent message to the other, but a double message. Verbally, the drinker tells the nagger to stop nagging, and the nagger tells the drinker to stop drinking. The way that this is done, however, says quite the opposite. The nagger, by continually nagging in a situation where both of them must know that this is counterproductive, is saying to the drinker: go right ahead! I'll give you the excuse you need. And vice versa.

If we assume that these people are not stupid, then we cannot assume that this is just a vicious circle. Indeed, it would be more consistent with the clinical picture to say that the nagger nags in order to give the drinker an excuse to drink, and the drinker drinks in order to give the nagger an excuse to nag. A strange concept indeed! But how can this be?

Surely the wife does not want the drinker to drink, and the husband does not want to listen to his wife's nagging. I agree. So what goes? 

The explanation that I am advancing here is that each person in the relationship thinks, rightly or wrongly, that it is the other person who wants the relationship to continue in its current form. Each thinks this, because the idea is borne out by the context of the other's behavior.

The drinker, by continuing to drink in a context where this behavior is destined to bring out nagging, is in a sense "asking for it." You've all heard that phrase, haven't you? "You're making me mad, you're just asking for a spanking!" What I am suggesting here is that people literally do think this; it is not merely a joking figure of speech.

Now, since both of these people are "asking for it," then they must at some level want it. This contradicts, of course, what I just said. I just said they did not want it. So am I giving you a double message?

What I believe is happening is that each member of the couple is actually of two minds on the subject. On some level, they are more comfortable with the relationship in its current form, but on another level, they hate it. Now, you may ask, why would they be comfortable with such a horrible relationship on any level? I'll answer that shortly, but first I'd like to point out that each member of the couple has no doubt asked him or herself this very question about the other member of the couple. Each correctly ascertains that the other seems to need the relationship as is, but they have not the slightest clue as to why.

If indeed, as I am proposing, they are both ambivalent about it, a direct question will probably lead to a defensive and negative response. These problematic responses could range from the other person changing the subject or denying any incongruity even exists all the way to bashing the questioner in the face.  In therapy I find that, because of these negative reactions, people will not ask their partners this sort of question, and therefore have to make guesses.

Because psychoanalytic ideas have become common currency in America, these guesses are usually linear explanations based upon what I call "bad psychoanalysis" (with apologies to Dan Ackroyd and Leonard Pinth Garnell). As mentioned, psychoanalytic explanations are linear and not circular or dialectic. The wife, for instance, would never in her wildest dreams come up with the explanation that the husband drinks out of a misguided perception that she needs him to.

Leonard Pinth Garnell (AKA Dan Ackroyd, Saturday Night Live)

She, being a product of American culture, would think he needs to drink for some selfish reason, not an altruistic one. She might think that he needs to drink in order to provide an excuse for acting in a hostile fashion - people are often not held accountable for their actions while drunk - in order to vent his otherwise unacceptible hostility towards his own nagging mother.

Because each member of the couple always plays a certain role, each believes the other wants to play the role, when in fact, each is playing the role compu1sively partly because each thinks the other wants it that way. The compulsivity of the behavior reinforces this view. Both usually believe, and in therapy they will tell you, that they think the relationship will end if it gets better!

There is a vicious circle going on here, but it is completely different from the vicious circle postulated by systems theory. Each member of the couple sees the other's behavior as self-generated, not realizing that it is, in fact, reactive to their own behavior. The more the nagger nags, the more the drinker drinks, because he sees her continued nagging as evidence that she wants him to drink. His increased drinking reinforces the nagger’s view that the drinker needs more nagging, and so forth.

This mutual and simultaneous influence on behavior is what is entailed by the idea of dialectic causality. Diagrammatically, it looks something like this:

The people are labeled Al, A2 etc. because the interaction over time is helping literally to create a somewhat changed individual. Dialectic philosophy tells us that nothing in the universe is constant, change is universal, and even though we are always ourselves, people do change, and much of the change is due to the nature of interactions with others.

Cognitive mental models of how to behave in certains social situations (schemas), for instance, are continuously updated through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. The diagram above shows that A and B are continuously pushed further apart over time. The confused, mixed message picture within the relationship creates friction which eventually causes these people to move apart, a phenomenon called distancing. The relationship is co-created by the way each person in the relationship perceives the needs of the other.

Unfortunately, I must add one further complication in order to explain why the couple got started in the pattern in the first place. Circular explanations ignore time, and often genesis, but time is intrinsic in dialectic interpretations. The nagger cannot be nagging only because she is trying to please her husband, although that is a very important reinforcer. She must at some level be more comfortable with the role of "the Nag With An Alcoholic Husband" than without it, despite the fact that this role is so horribly ungratifying.

What I am about to propose is that each member of the couple developed the role they play in response to a perceived need in the family of origin of each. Part of the reason that they picked each other in the first place is because they needed help maintaining an ungratifying role. Some of these roles were described in previous posts. That is why each continues to provide this sort of "help" and why each thinks the relationship cannot change. The concept of role function support by a spouse is exactly like the concept of enabling from the 12 Step literature - except that the alcoholic husband is also enabling the "co-dependent" nagging wife.

Each needs to play his or her role at great personal cost because each believes some disaster would befall their parents, or other important family members, if they stopped playing the role. For instance, Mother might become depressed, or Father might start drinking. We all care about our families deeply despite what we might like to think about that proposition, and the prospect of stopping our role behavior is indeed terrifying.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Part 3 of Dr. Allen's Discussion About Borderline Personality Disorder - The Earth Needs Rebels Show on Orion Talk Radio

Part 3 of my discussion of borderline personality disorder on Free Thinking Voice - The Earth Needs Rebels internet radio show was on live Tuesday, September 24 from 12-2 PM U.S. Central Time, and can also be found on their website.  Part 4 will be Tuesday, October 15, at the same time.

On the Orion Talk Radio station, additional feeds like Tunein Radio ( for more information on tunein radio and free software).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

More Surprising Findings from the Psychiatry Literature

As we did on my posts of November 30, 2011 and October 2, 2012, it’s once again time to look over the highlights of the latest issues of my two favorite medical journals, Duh! and No Sh*t, Sherlock. 

As I pointed out in those posts, research dollars are very limited and therefore precious. Why waste good money trying to study new, cutting edge or controversial ideas that might turn out to be wrong, when we can study things that that are already thought to be true but have yet to be "proven"?  Such an approach increases the success rate of studies almost astronomically. And studies with positive results are far more likely to be published than those that come up negative.

So, we have a lot of academics weighing in with studies on the obvious. Literally weighing in. Since academic promotions are often based on the quantity of papers, rather than their quality, schools might measure faculty members' progress towards tenure by calculating the physical weight of the paper on which their authored articles have been written. 

If Albert Einstein had only published his two papers on relativity - which literally changed the entire field of physics forever - that obviously would not have been anywhere near enough for him to get tenure at most universities these days.

So here we go with more fantastic additions to our knowledge base.


Early Drinking Associated With Problem Drinking Later

MedPage Today (8/16, Petrochko) reports, "Students who started drinking and getting drunk at an early age were more likely to engage in frequent heavy drinking and associated problems by senior year of college," according to a study published online Aug. 15 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. "A longitudinal analysis of incoming college freshmen showed a significant association not only between younger drinking age and heavy drinking, but also with difficulties in work and school, blackouts, vomiting, and other problems by senior year (P<0.001 for all)," researchers reported.

So self destructive behavior has its roots in childhood experiences, eh?  Someone please tell the psychoanalysts.

And on a related note:

Youth With Conduct Disorder More Likely to Abuse Substances

5/15/13.   A longitudinal study of youth with and without conduct disorder (CD) finds that the former are significantly more likely to abuse substances. The findings are published in the May Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Researchers from the University of Colorado prospectively followed 1,165 community-dwelling adolescents without CD, 194 youth in the community with CD, and 268 youth who were in treatment for CD. They were re-interviewed during young adulthood, and self-reports on age of substance initiation for 10 substance classes were analyzed.

Gee, I wonder if family problems and adverse childhood environments lead to both antisocial behavior AND substance abuse? That just never occurred to me before. 

Depression, Mania In Bipolar Disorder Have Differential Social Adjustment Effects
1/23/12.  Medwire (1/23, Cowen) reports, "Results from a UK study show that depression and mania symptoms have specific and differential effects on social adjustment in patients with bipolar disorder (BD). Richard Morriss (University of Nottingham) and team found that depression symptoms have a negative effect on performance and interpersonal behavior, while mania symptoms increase interpersonal friction."

And to think that I used to be under the impression that other people would react to hyperactive, impulsive, hypersexual people in exactly the same way as they would to someone who doesn’t even want to get out of bed or have sex with someone lying naked in the bed next to them.

High Doses of Opioids May Impair Driving

Drivers taking 20 mg of morphine or more per day, or the equivalent, are up to 42% more likely to be involved in road trauma than drivers taking the lowest doses of opioids, according to a new study from the Keenan Research Center of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Higher doses of intoxicants lead to more impairment than lower doses?  Who knew?

Anger Due To Delusions May Explain Violent Behavior In Patients With Psychosis

In print and in its "Well" blog, the New York Times (3/11/13) reports that "a new study finds that anger, coupled with psychotic delusions, may be the most significant factor in violence committed by people with mental illness." Medwire (3/12, Piper) reports, "Anger due to delusions appears to be a key factor explaining violent behavior in patients with acute psychosis," according to the results of the 458-patient East London First Episode Psychosis Study published online March 6 in JAMA Psychiatry.  

So people with paranoid delusions that make them feel angry or threatened are more likely to become violent than when they are not experiencing those reactions. So are such people actually psychotic if they act just like everyone else would?

Handling Stress Poorly May Increase Long-Term Risk For Anxiety/Mood Disorders

USA Today (4/4/13) reports that handling "stress poorly...may put you at greater risk for anxiety disorders and other mental health issues 10 years later," according to a study published online in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers from the University of California-Irvine "analyzed data on 711 men and women, ages 25 to 74, who were interviewed two times 10 years apart." Investigators found that "people who responded to stress with more anxiety and sadness than the average person were much more likely to have self-reported anxiety/mood disorders and psychological distress 10 years later."

Oh I get it now! Anxiety is caused by stress. That’s a remarkable insight.

And on a related note:

Association Between Mood and Alcoholism

The Los Angeles Times (5/2/13) A study that was published May 1 in JAMA Psychiatry, found that individuals "who drank 'to alleviate mood symptoms' were three times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than were those who did not use alcohol to calm themselves down or improve their mood."

And mood symptoms are also related to stress, leading to abuse of a psychoactive substance!?!  Even more remarkable.


And we also just learned that actively trying to solve problems rather than just ignoring them is the better way to go. Now that’s counter-intuitive:

Small Study: Way Of Dealing With Emotions Linked To Anxiety Levels

The Time (5/13/14) "Healthland" blog reports, "When faced with a challenge, whether you deny the problems it poses or dive in to solve them in a positive way may determine how much anxiety you feel overall," according to research published in Emotion. The investigators "found that the participants who regularly reframed what was happening to them to view their situation in a better light reported less severe anxiety than the participants who suppressed their emotions in trying situations."

And finally, the question of whether or not the prospect of dying or of someone you love dying leads to psychological distress has at long last been settled by two recent studies.

Parents of Children with Cancer Show High Psychological Distress
5/17/13. A group of researchers associated with several pediatric oncology treatment facilities has published one of the first studies to describe the experience of distress in parents of children with advanced cancer. The researchers found that psycho­logical distress was associated with par­ent perceptions of prognosis, goals of therapy, their child's symptoms/suffer­ing, and financial hardship.


   Anxiety May Be Common Among Cancer Patients, Spouses

7/12/13.  The New York Times (7/12, Hoffman) “Well” blog reports that an analysis published in the Lancet Oncology indicates that “within two years of a cancer diagnosis, the pervasiveness of depression in patients and their spouses tends to drop back to roughly the same levels as in the general population, only to be replaced by another mind-demon: anxiety, which can even intensify as time passes.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Where the Analysts Went Wrong: Part II

In the introduction to this post, I mentioned that a major problem with psychoanalytic formulations concerning the origins of personality dysfunction is that they presume that problematic interactions with parents and other family-of-origin members are only powerful in shaping personality functioning with young children.

When I first started getting interested in family systems ideas and started asking my adult patients about their current interactions with their parents and other members of their families of origin, it soon became clear that some of the interactions followed certain patterns than recurred again and again, and that these patterns served as triggers and reinforcers, as a behaviorist therapist might say, for the very feelings and behaviors that the patients were coming to therapy to try to change. 

Until I started asking about these interactions, as I described in my post Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the patients had not described them in much detail. When they broke out in tears while telling me about them, however, it became hard for them to deny that the interactions were at least part of what was making them feel bad.

These were patients in individual psychotherapy, so I was not a first hand witness to these interactions, although later I found ways to see them in person. And my psychoanalytic and behaviorist psychotherapy supervisors had not discussed what to do about them.

It seemed to me that if my patients were just more assertive with their families, they might be able to change these problematic family interactions. The behaviorists had taught me about something called assertiveness training, so I tried that. The first time I tried it, I tried to teach a Chicana woman to stand up to her father. She wanted none of that. Wouldn’t even really discuss it. So, I thought, maybe it’s some sort of cultural force that I was up against in this particular case.

So how about with a patient from a somewhat more egalitarian culture? I taught an Anglo woman with traits of borderline personality disorder (BPD) to be assertive with her family. Her parents seemed to be subtly sabotaging her efforts to establish independence from them. When she was doing well, they ignored her. Or more like gave her the silent treatment and a cold shoulder. When she was in financial trouble, however, they were always right there to help out -although strangely they gave money to her teenage son rather than to her!

Every week in therapy she would dutifully practice assertiveness techniques, and would leave the session confident that she could address the issues with her family. The very next week, however, she would come back with her tail between her legs.  Her best efforts seemed to have been totally defeated, and she became even more unhappy than she had been, and even less self-confident.

I discovered that as a therapist I was absolutely no match for this woman’s parents in affecting her behavior, either for good or for ill. And it was not just her. I found out – again and again - that parents were way more potent influences on the patient than I as a therapist could ever be.

Behavior therapists do not seem to have figured out that the interactions of a patient and his or her family of origin are important triggers to many of the complaints that patients come to therapy with. Nonetheless, their behavioral interventions do often change certain aspects of a patient’s behavior, and therefore they feel that their patients are responding to treatment. In fact, if a patient’s family of origin is not too dysfunctional, they are correct. The patients change their behavior and the family basically accepts the change, so everything is cool.

But in significantly dysfunctional families? Not so much. The family therapists were right. The entire family will confront the patient in a variety of ways that all boil down to the message, “You are wrong, change back.” Many times I have even seen relatives such as aunts and uncles who previously had had little involvement with the patient come out of the woodwork screaming, “How can you do this to your mother?!?”  

Sometimes the situation would escalate to incredible extremes, with parents figuratively sticking their heads in the oven threatening suicide in response to the patient’s meager attempt at self actualization, or doing what they want and not what the parents seem to want. 

The psychoanalyst Karen Horney once opined that “basic anxiety” requires a sense of isolation from others, helplessness, and of being surrounded by hostility. Such perceptions and cognitions are closely related to attachment to others in one’s family system. The human brain encodes social events from the family exceptionally well, and is exquisitely sensitive to them.

“But,” I hear you protest, “a lot of patients with personality disorders are highly oppositional to their parents, seemingly doing the exact opposite of what the parents say that they want. So that theory can not be right!"

My answer to that: these people are oppositional to their parents because that’s what they think the parents need from them. The parents seem to need them to be black sheep. For a further discussion of this point, I refer you to my post about the role of the spoiler.

New developments in neuroscience are consistent with the proposition that parents can have strong effects on their children even as adults, even if they do not want to. Studies have shown that the perception of faces activates specific cells in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for fear reactions. Different cells there respond to different facial features, and certain cells respond only to one parent or the other. 

The amygdala is also strategically located for generating a rapid and specific autonomic nervous system and endocrine pattern in response to complex social signals. Lesions of amygdala in primates cause an inability to appraise social signals from other members of same species. An afflicted individual cannot distinguish whether another member of their species is coming towards them to fight with them or to mate with them. And again this is in adults, not juveniles.

In general, the attachment system seems to be one of the most important regulators of overall arousal. The amygdala is the first responder within fractions of a second; one’s initial fear orientation is not affected by conscious cognition. However, the signals then go to the other areas of the brain for further evaluation. Information regarding social context directly affects this appraisal process.

Attachment research indicates that the brain regions that compose the limbic system use input from the emotional states of attachment figures to regulate both internal and external responses. Individuals exhibiting so-called disorganized attachment have been found to have parents who display both frightened and frightening responses. 

In a sense, rage and panic are both communicated to and conditioned within the offspring of such parents. According to attachment researcher Mary Main, if parenting generates multiple, contradictory models of attachment, this creates a sense of insecurity in the offspring.

Complex limbic system reactions to the social environment have been found to be specific to important individuals within the family. Problematic reactions such as rage attacks can be seen to occur with one parent but not the other! If interactions with primary attachment figures are highly stressful over prolonged periods, this can have a profound effect on the development of a child’s brain that last a long, long time.

Early learning may be particularly difficult to inhibit. In general, it is much harder to unlearn fear than to learn it in the first place – a fact highly consistent with the experience of psychotherapists trying to extinguish chronic anxiety, particularly chronic interpersonal anxiety. 

Extinction of fear responses has also been found to be context specific. If a fear response is extinguished in one context, it may come right back if an animal is moved to a somewhat different environment. If the new environment is similar to another one such as the early family environment, fearful patterns of behavior learned early in life but inappropriate for the new environment may therefore be seen.

So, early influences are very powerful, but that does not mean that later experiences are inconsequential. When individuals grow up, their parents usually continue to act in ways that recapitulate social interactional sequences from the patient's early life experience. This parental behavior automatically both cues and reinforces old but engrained role relationship schemata (mental models of how to respond to different social cues).  

In turn, these reinforced schemata become more likely to be activated in the patient's current social interactions. This leads to reenactment and recapitulation of these patterns in other relationships. This is the basis of what Freud referred to as the repetition compulsion.

As I have described, parental behavior seems to be an extremely potent environmental trigger for previously learned social behavior. This most likely stems from the survival value of coherent group structure in evolution. As psychoanalysts have hypothesized, children internalize the values and role behaviors of their social system, and conformity to the group has in the past continued to have survival value throughout the life cycle.  

Parental behavior has such a powerful effect in triggering old schemata that it does not have to occur with any great degree of frequency in order for its effects to continue. In adults, the reinforcement of schemata occurs in a manner analogous to the learning theory paradigm of a variable intermittent reinforcement schedule. That is, the powerful parental behavior may be witnessed infrequently but unpredictably, leading the patient to continue to react rigidly in ways consistent with old role-relationship expectations.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Part 2 of Dr. Allen's Discussion About Borderline Personality Disorder - The Earth Needs Rebels Show on Orion Talk Radio

Part 2 of my discussion of borderline personality disorder on Free Thinking Voice - The Earth Needs Rebels internet radio show was on live Tuesday, September 10 from 12-2 PM U.S. Central Time.

On the Orion Talk Radio station, additional feeds like Tunein Radio ( for more information on tunein radio and free software).

Here is the link to the downloaded broadcast:  Click on "down" and not on "listen."  The date and times posted for the broadcast: Tuesday, September 10, at 1:05 and 2:05 PM.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Guest Post: Having a Parent with an Addiction

Today's guest post is by Stephanie Green. This is the third post in which a writer recounts his or her own experience in a family with a problematic history, as well as its aftermath. She describes the fear and the sense of needing to protect family members in a household dominated by an unstable drug addicted father.

Growing up with an addicted parent is not easy. In my case it was my father. When I was a teenager he decided that he had enough of responsibility and wanted out. He left my mother, my younger brother and me for a few months. But then he suddenly wanted back in. I, of course, was hurt and angry with him for his actions but my mother wanted to give him a second chance -even after my expressions of disapproval. What she and I did not know, however, was that during his time away from home he had fallen back into bad habits.

When my mother first met my father he had been out of jail for a few years and had turned his life around. She knew he had gone to jail for drug use but she thought that he was rehabilitated. And in a way he was, for a little while at least. However after almost twenty years of being drug free he turned to drugs once again to solve his problems.

When he came back home he was using several different drugs including crack, marijuana, and excessive amounts of strong liquor like Jagermeister. We found out he had come back because he had lost his job due to his drug and alcohol abuse.

It was a very hard time in all our lives. While he was on these substances he was verbally abusive and emotionally erratic. He pawned everything in the home that was of value to get money for his drugs. He also got in several car accidents, totaling the family vehicles. When pawning no longer covered his debts he started harassing my mother for her paycheck, took out a loan on the house, and even pawned my mother’s wedding ring.

My younger brother was about ten at the time and did not quite understand what was going on. Our father had never been the most loving person but my brother had always wanted his attention and affection. Now he still wanted the attention but was afraid of the person our father had become. My brother stayed in his room most of the time to cope and relied on his video games and computer to distract himself from reality. He also clung to me as I was more stable than our distraught mother. 

The two of us created our own little world as much as was possible away from the influence of our father. It was a very hard time in my life as I was old enough to understand what was happening and yet too young to really do anything about it. I tried to help my mother and brother as much as I could. We all slept together in the same room for protection because my father got very bad at night especially and would become irrational. We were afraid to let him get any one of us alone.

“Why didn’t your mother leave or kick him out? When you were old enough, why didn’t you leave?” I can hear you thinking. Well, part of the problem was that my mother had herself grown up with an alcoholic father. Through her experiences she did not see a lot of the damage this was causing to our family. Hiding in the bedroom at night was perfectly normal to her, as was avoiding someone in your own home and living with verbal abuse. Like I said, I was not old enough to do anything about the situation besides leave, and I would not leave them in this disaster!

However I did offer a form of protection for them in ways I don’t really understand. Because of my anger and refusal to coddle or ‘help’ my father, I was the only one he respected. Time and time again he would start to hassle one of them and I would get between them and threaten to call the police on him. My mother knew she could not stop me from doing that if he pushed me too far. He would always back down, although sometimes I would also arm myself with a baseball bat just in case he snapped. It was not a pretty picture. A six foot two man so high he’s insane versus a five foot nothing spindly teenager. Needless to say, logic was not my strong point in the heat of the moment.

Even my brother grew to the point where he would stand up to him. One time when I was not home my father reared up to strike my mother when she would not give him money. My brother stepped in and yelled at him, “Don’t you hit my mother!” He may have been a tiny ten or eleven year old and shaking like a leaf, but he meant it. Thankfully that situation resolved without physical violence, but if it is brought up my brother still get pale and refuses to talk about it even now.

Needless to say, this period of time was very hurtful to all of us. In my case I formed trust issues that last to this day. I have problems - especially with men - and am very fearful in situations that feel out of my control.  Just hearing about anyone’s drug or alcohol use makes my stomach churn.

My brother has gone the opposite way, to some extent. I do not know why, but he felt the need to try everything his father had done. Perhaps through imitation, or, as he once said, “I wanted to see what he loved more than us.” His troubles with drug use have only compounded his problems with responsibility and anxiety. As an adult he is starting to break free of the bonds of addiction but it is something he will struggle with the rest of his life.

That was just an additional hurt to an already sore spot in our lives. When my brother became a user as well my mother and I could not believe it. We tried to help him in many of the same ways as we tried to help my father. Repeating the same cycle again was terrifying and disheartening. However once we got him to graduate high school, by the skin of his teeth, things changed. We stopped enabling his drug use and threatened to kick him out of the house if he did not comply with the rules. Unlike my father he actually cared about normal things like having a roof over his head and having a family that loved him. 

He turned his life around slowly but surely. Thankfully he is doing much better but he has yet to become an independent and responsible adult.

It hurts me that he chose to continue his father’s legacy but I am thankful he did not go to the extremes his father did. Hopefully he can learn to cope with his pain and addictive tendencies in a healthy way and mature into a self-sufficient adult.

My mother did not come through unscathed either. Her anxiety levels are through the roof and she has trouble ever leaving the house. Although my father is long gone and remarried now she still has nightmares about that time in our lives. She is continually apologizing for her part in the situation and keeping us around him for so long.

For a long time I was angry with her despite her apologies. After all, she was the responsible adult in the situation and should have been the one that was the voice of reason. Instead that task fell on me as once I got old enough I found a new home for us and made us move, leaving my father behind in an empty and foreclosed home. The fact that I had to practically carry her out of the house always irritated me and made me resentful of my continued responsibilities of taking care of our new dwelling, my brother’s fragile emotions, and my mother’s day to day life. Becoming a caretaker as a teen is not something that anyone is prepared for.

As time passed and I got older I grew to better understand the reasons behind my mother’s breakdown. That kind of abuse and hurt from someone you chose to love is life shattering. My mother and I have very different reactions and emotional makeup, so it was not easy for me to understand her for quite a while. Now that I am an adult we have a better relationship and I am able to help her without carrying her. It has been and continues to be a long struggle against fear, hurt and dependency. 

As far as my father goes, like I said he is off of drugs and remarried now. He lives in the same town as us still but I do not see him except for his birthday and major holidays. My brother tries to visit him more often as he still wants him in his life. As for me, I had a very hard time even thinking about seeing him for years after the abuse. However this anger and hate towards him only hurt me. Through much prayer and effort I finally forgave him for his abuse. However that does not mean I have to be around him or have a relationship with him. He has clearly shown that he can’t be trusted, so although I try to honor him and include him in my life for the sake of my brother, I do not make a big effort to be around him routinely.

Having a parent with an addiction can leave you with issues that go far beyond the time you move out or get away from the situation. It is not easy to deal with that kind of abuse in your life. However it is possible to still be a happy and productive person despite your past. Moving on and learning to deal with the hurt and emotional scarring is a long process that I am still working on to this day.

Author Bio:

Stephanie has many years of experience as a nanny. She has always loved children and has continuously been involved in childcare activities. Currently she is one of the writers for If you want to get in touch with her, you can email her at stephanie. Houstonnanny @ gmail. com.