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The Legacy of Addiction

These days researchers and writers like to boil all maladies down to the biochemical level. The medicalization of all things sure makes life simple: if it’s just faulty brain chemistry, then there’s eventually going to be a pill for it.

But there is no pill to erase the feelings that grip Katherine’s gut when she walks into her childhood home for Thanksgiving. The Marlboro stench of the old curtains, the worn areas on the carpet, the heaviness on her mother’s hips and in her voice, the back bedroom filled with unopened boxes from QVC shopping binges, her father’s palpable misery about his job, the bathroom where she first learned to throw up…

These are all powerful triggers for Katherine’s addictions.

After a year of therapy, she’s made great strides. When she first arrived, she had a successful corporate career and a decade-long battle with bulimia. Over the months as her bulimia improved, other addictions seemed to grow stronger: on-line shopping, cigarettes, endless pots of coffee.

Each addiction is her attempt to manage a deep and abiding angst. She discovered that dread and deep sadness were, in fact, her normal way of moving through her world. So we began to connect the dots.

Her father always hated his job but felt trapped due to her mother’s shopping addiction; buried in unnecessary junk, she kept the family in perpetual financial peril. Her dad made it a point to let everyone in the family know on a daily basis that he was suffering at work FOR THEM.

Trapped in their own misery, they saw hope in their bright and athletic daughter: they decided to turn her into a soccer star. They had big Olympic-sized dreams for her. They forced her to play for an abusive coach who screamed, shamed and taunted his players, especially regarding their weight. He singled out Katherine and was especially hard on her, forcing her to run extra laps and humiliating her in front of her teammates. Her parents spent all extra money on her soccer career, but this was THEIR dream for her, not hers. Since she was clearly miserable, they called her “ungrateful” and a “spoiled brat”… and she believed them.

“What is wrong with me?” she thought. “I am such a bad kid.”

Her primary experience in her childhood home was a gaping hole between what she needed and what she got. And she did what most kids do: she took it personally. “It must be me.”

It was during that time~ miserable in her body, abused by her coach, pushed by her parents~ that she started throwing up her food. Trapped in a body and a family and a life that did not fit, she discovered ways to go numb. It was purge or go crazy.

As we explore the meanings and functions of her addictions today, she is learning that she’ll need to do for herself what her parents could not: discover and meet her true needs. This is no easy feat since she is “waking up” in a corporate career which is so far from her inner self. Going to work feels like standing on that soccer field, a character in her parents’ script: she continues to feel the need to go numb. Like her mother, she shops compulsively on-line and keeps herself financially off-balance. Like her father she suffers in a job she hates because she feels trapped by the part of her that won’t stop shopping. Cigarettes and caffeine provide the artificial energy to push her through her day.

To Katherine, Sick, Miserable, Addicted and (most of all) Stuck is Normal.

After a year of weekly sessions, she recently admitted her true heart’s desire, warning me first not to laugh or tell her she’s crazy. “Dina, I really want to be a therapist. People always ask me for advice with their problems and I think I have a really good perspective.” I wasn’t surprised by her admission; she is sensitive and compassionate, a natural care-giver.

So we started to explore the possibility of a radical life-shift. What if she stopped shopping compulsively and saved her extra money for graduate studies in something that was actually fulfilling to her?

“How could I ever be around my family?” she asked.

When she goes home now, her guard is up. She will not make eye contact for fear of being sucked into their abyss. But by Day Two she is back in her old bathroom, throwing up. The legacy of her family is addiction: to change and be happy will feel like a betrayal, an abandonment of all she knows. I remind her that healthy families encourage their children to build happy lives: dysfunctional families need their kids sick and stuck so they will never really leave.

Katherine’s next task will be to explore her fears about steering her life in a direction of her own making. There will certainly be a “cost” in terms of further separation from her family.

Addiction is always more complex than biochemistry. It’s tougher than just changing behavior. Beneath addiction is anxiety; below the anxiety are core beliefs about the self that may need to be revealed and challenged. This is why the journey towards true healing requires many more than 12-Steps.

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