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Adult Children of Alcoholics: Caught in an Infinite Loop? (Part 3 Exit Strategies)

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blwood
Barbara Wood is a licensed psychologist who practices in Bethesda, Maryland an
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on Tuesday, 08 April 2014
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Psychotherapy is a biological treatment, a brain therapy. It produces lasting, detectable physical changes in our brain, much as learning does.” –Dr.  Eric Kandel (Professor Columbia University and recipient, 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

This is the third in a series of articles about children of alcoholics who remain trapped in an alcoholic lifestyle as adults. Parts 1 and 2 explained that children who grow up in addicted families are likely to reproduce harmful features of their families of origin in their adult lives. When they involve themselves with destructive partners and activities that evoke feelings and patterns of behavior similar to those they witnessed and experienced as children, their lives become unmanageable. I examined the neurological and psychological underpinnings   of this painful “infinite loop” of chaos and disappointment that captures and captivates many adult children. In brief, neurological changes caused by traumatic experiences in childhood remodel the brain, producing chronic states of emotional distress that are difficult to soothe.  Moreover, parental neglect and abuse depress self-esteem and leave children feeling valueless, mistrustful and confused about how to construct rewarding relationships.

This week I’ll begin a discussion of ”exit strategies” that adult children from addicted families can employ to escape the infinite loop. These strategies hinge on exciting research aboutneuroplasticity that are a result of  advances in the field of   functional neuroimaging, including single photon emission CT (SPECT), positron emission tomography (PET), and functional MRI. Mental health theorists and clinicians once believed that changes in the brain occur only   during early childhood. Now that we can obtain actual pictures of the structure and activity of the brain, we understand that it continues to respond, throughout life, to events and interactions with others, by creating new neural pathways and altering existing ones.  So, while adverse events in childhood severely roil emotions and disrupt perception and behavior by changing the brain, we know now that there are activities people can undertake, even in adulthood, to normalize the brain. (Please continue reading)

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Adult Children of Alcoholics: Caught in an Infinite Loop? (Part 2)

Posted by blwood
blwood
Barbara Wood is a licensed psychologist who practices in Bethesda, Maryland an
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on Monday, 03 March 2014
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Increase“Trauma is to mental health as smoking is to cancer.”-Dr. Steven Sharfstein, Past President, American Psychiatric Association

Last week, I posted the first in a series of articles about children of alcoholics who remain trapped in an alcoholic lifestyle as adults. I examined the neurological underpinnings of a compulsive and  “infinite loop” of ongoing and deeply painful  involvements with partners and activities that reproduce the chaos of the addicted family of origin and endanger physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. But while psychologists are increasingly interested in the neurology of compulsive behavior, we tend to believe that it stems from a variety of causes.  Most  of us look for“biopsychosocial” explanations for behavior, including the  compulsion to repeat.  When treating adult children who are recapitulating a  painful past,   one psychosocial angle we typically want to explore is the quality of parent-child relationships in a patient’s family of origin. The nature of parent-child interactions is important for several reasons.  In this post, I will discuss howrelationships with caregivers either perpetuate an adverse infinite loop, or inoculate a child against an alcoholic lifestyle by shaping self-esteem and expectations of others, and by affecting a child’s ability to regulate intense feelings and to process and heal from difficult events.

Nearly everyone understands that our earliest  relationships affect us all our lives because theyprovide a model for us to follow as we engage with people outside the family. From the first moments of life, we form impressions of the world through interactions with our caregivers. Over time these impressions evolve and  are stored in the mind as mental representations of the self and  the other. Characteristic exchanges between self and others are also stored. When we internalizenurturing figures along with a representation of ourselves as loveable, it gives us a huge head start with respect to healthy adult adjustment.  It stands us in particularly good stead  as we strive to form healthy relationships with people outside our families.  The  support, encouragement and unconditional regard we receive from our parents forms the basis for good self-esteem and instills optimism about the world as a welcoming place.  If our parents cherish and love us, we tend to feel that we should be, and are likely to be valued and loved by others. In addition, our positive mental representations of our parents can be recalled and recruited, when no one else is around, to establish a sense of calm and hopefulness when troubling events occur. The ability to self-soothe is a critical resource in life, and it is a source of protection against the abuse of substances and activities that we might otherwise turn to in order to numb emotional pain. (Please continue reading.)

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Adult Children of Alcoholics: Caught in an Infinite Loop? (Part 1)

Posted by blwood
blwood
Barbara Wood is a licensed psychologist who practices in Bethesda, Maryland an
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on Thursday, 27 February 2014
in Co-dependency 0 Comments

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The term “infinite loop” comes from the field of computer science and refers to a programming error that leads to the perpetual and unsuccessful recapitulation of an algorithm, or problem-solving procedure. In my book Adult Children of Alcoholics: The Struggle for Self and intimacy in Adult Life, I used this concept as a metaphor for the way in which many adult children seem irresistibly drawn to an “alcoholic lifestyle”.  The alcoholic lifestyle can include compulsive drinking and drugging, ongoing destructive involvements with addicted or enabling parents, and the acquisition of new life partners who reprise important psychic themes of the childhood home, including instability, exploitation, dishonesty, and betrayal.

In recent posts, I’ve talked about genetics, trauma,  and substance-related  changes in the brain as the “usual suspects” behind many addictive problems.  They are also frequently the culprits when adult children–even those who avoid substance abuse and dependence–remain ensnared in the destructive and painful relational dynamics they experienced as children. It is well-known that genetics affect temperament as well as risk for mental illness and substance abuse and addiction.  But environmental factors such as stress and trauma are also powerful factors that influence the development and maintenance of an alcoholic lifestyle.  This is the first in a series of posts aimed at helping ACOA’s with an alcoholic lifestyle  to exit their infinite loop, and it explains how trauma-related changes to the brain predispose them to become mired in it.

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Establishing Emotional Honesty in Alcoholic Families

Posted by blwood
blwood
Barbara Wood is a licensed psychologist who practices in Bethesda, Maryland an
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on Thursday, 27 February 2014
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Last week I wrote about the power of one parent who remains emotionally sober to preserve the mental and emotional well-being of children growing up in a family struggling with addiction. A colleague,Glenn Richardson who is a trainer and consultant in Texas, responded to my post noted that 12 step guidance about emotional honesty, openness and willingness points the way for parents who are striving for emotional sobriety. I agree with Glenn that emotional honesty is a crucial pillar of emotional sobriety. But what exactly does emotional honesty in an alcoholic family look like? Two things come immediately to my mind.

First of all, there is the classic matter of acknowledging the elephant in the room. Are you (or the family you’re treating) discussing addiction as a central fact of life (perhaps the central fact of life) in the home? Recovering parents often ask me what…or if…they should speak at all about the problem. In fact, I think they must speak and must offer age-appropriate explanations of the addiction, just as families should openly and honestly discuss any other medical disorder that is affecting a loved one. Children who don’t receive important information about problems that are afflicting their parents are left to their own devices to explain the problem and the troubling events that stem from it. They will invent explanations using their own immature cognitive and emotional resources to do so. Children are “ego-centric” in the sense that, lacking the capacity to see the big picture, they seem themselves as the center of most family events. This leads them to believe that they are responsible for the problems–that the adults they love are experiencing distress and behaving badly because of them. This can cause real damage to the sense of self and self-esteem.

Another important aspect of emotional honesty is a willingess on the part of the adults in the family to express their own feelings about important events in the family–in a contained and proportionate way of course. Sadness and anger are natural things to feel about illness of any kind in a family. Children know when their parents are unhappy and worried, even when parents think they are concealing it well. Parents are often surprised at their childrens’ responses when they finally admit that they are sad/or angry about the circumstances the family’s facing. I remember well what happened when one father, who had been keeping a stiff upper lip about his separation from his drug-addicted wife, finally told his young son how sad he felt that his wife had left the home. His normally reserved son began to sob about his own grief. This dad had always believed that his son was temperamentally quiet and limited in his ability to express feelings. However, now it seemed that what he’d needed all along was his dad’s permission to grieve openly about his mother’s departure.

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The Most Important Thing for Parents in Recovery to Know

Posted by blwood
blwood
Barbara Wood is a licensed psychologist who practices in Bethesda, Maryland an
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on Friday, 31 January 2014
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I recently updated Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home, a book I wrote in 1992 to help parents in recovery from addiction  and co-dependence to heal relationships with their children. As I re-read and edited the book, I reflected on its essential message.  I  was heartened to discover that over 20 additional years of treating addicted  individuals and their families  has only  strengthened my views about the most important things  families in recovery need to know. Moreover,  the central idea  I was trying to convey then still seems to me to be the most important thing for parents in recovery to remember: A child’s chances of remaining healthy when a family plunges into crisis depends, to a great extent, on the ability of at least one parent (or other  adult caretaker) to remain emotionally sober–that is, stable, supportive and capable of holding the child’s most basic needs in mind.

Certainly other factors, like the child’s basic temperament,  influence a child's resilience in the face of extraordinary stress. However, even  sunny, hardy children   experience fear, sadness, anger, and many other kinds of emotional distress when a family is struggling to cope with severe illness. And typically, the younger children are, the less able they are to soothe themselves and maintain a hopeful and confident outlook when frightening things happen. Their cognitive and emotional resources are just too immature to help them assess the situation accurately and  imagine a path forward for themselves and the people they love. So a parent’s ability to maintain his or her own emotional footing, and to  notice and respond appropriately to a child’s pain is critical.  (Please continue reading.)

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How to Cross the Bridge to Recovery

Posted by CathyTaugh
CathyTaugh
Cathy Taughinbaugh has experienced the devastation of substance abuse and addict
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on Thursday, 30 January 2014
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For a family member it can be hard to let go of the attachment to a loved one’s recovery.

We want to be in our comfort zone, yet we may not know how to let go of our worry and concern.

If we let go, we could lose control of the one attachment we have to our child. It can be like a balloon that we let float away. We wonder which direction the balloon will take, and if the balloon will ever fully recover and return to us.

Recovery and healing are inside jobs. It helps to have people who care, give you encouragement, support and love. Sometimes the fear is that our family member won’t seek recovery, at least not on our time table and maybe not at all.

For a family member, this fear can take over our life. With time hopefully we are able to let go and see our attachment for what it is. It may be a way of blaming others for our pain, or it may be a way to control those around us.

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Finding My Way Through Addiction

Posted by CathyTaugh
CathyTaugh
Cathy Taughinbaugh has experienced the devastation of substance abuse and addict
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on Thursday, 02 January 2014
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I have hardly met a family that has not been touched in some way by addiction. Yet when my kids were growing up, it never occurred to me that this could happen to our family.

I didn’t suspect my child’s experimentation would ever lead to addiction. I was in denial, hoping that time would cure this problem as it does so many other things. I know now how wrong I was.

Addiction is a disease that hurts deeply, it breaks the entire fabric of love and respect that binds the family together. I felt the hurt. My days were challenging and painful when I was in the midst of dealing with my child’s addiction. I felt manipulated, used and rarely appreciated.

I could feel myself enabling, doing things that did not help. I was hoping for a quick fix. I knew deep down that this wasn’t going to work, but I couldn’t stop.

On occasion, the fear engulfed me as I lay awake with my eyes staring at the ceiling watching each hour pass by until dawn.

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SENSITIVITY

Posted by Cate
Cate
Cate Stevens. Founder of Addictionland.com, has over fifteen years of recovery f
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on Monday, 15 July 2013
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There is an obvious link between sensitivity and resentment. All of my life,  I have been very sensitive to other people's behavior and energy and it has caused me a great deal of pain and joy.

When other people hurt, I hurt. When other people celebrate, I celebrate. When either people are negative and hurtful, I absorb their negativity. 

I have taken my inventory over and over again for years and I am clear on my sensitive nature and how it operates and affects me.

On the one hand, I am very grateful for this ability to tune to other people, relate to their feelings and care for them. On the other hand, I praying t be relieved of the co-dependent-need-for-validation side of me.

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How to Survive the Early Sobriety of A Loved One

Posted by coachbev
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on Monday, 13 May 2013
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You have your own recovery. You care about your loved one.

Family Recovery is possible - but getting there in the healthiest way possible can be a challenge...

To learn more click here.

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BREAKING THE CO-DEPENDENT CYCLE

Posted by Cate
Cate
Cate Stevens. Founder of Addictionland.com, has over fifteen years of recovery f
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on Sunday, 05 May 2013
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There is nothing fun or enjoyable about breaking a pattern like codependency.  People become accustomed to a dance and when one person fails to participate in the sick dance any longer, other people become angry.  That is what happened when I let my father and mother know I was no longer willing to sit by while they speak bitterly to one another.

Thankfully, I had a talk with my therapist two days ago and was prepared for this backlash.  In fact, before I hung up the phone with him, he said "Just be prepared.  They may react in a poor fashion and take care of yourself."  My mom seemed to take my honest expression of my upset fine.  My dad, on the other hand, sent me an email that basically made it sound like I betrayed him in the worst fashion possible.

He wanted to make me responsible for my mother's actions.  He was irate and indignant that I left the house and said nothing to defend him after he spent three weeks at the hospital serving my mother with love and attention.  He told me he won't forgive me.  The anger and pain that rose up inside me as I read his words was palpable.

I thought to myself, "Really, Dad???  You won't forgive me for not getting in the middle of you guys shit any longer after I was put in the middle of it since I was a little kid and its cost me my own happiness.  You won't forgive me??? That's funny." I didn't say that to him but I wanted to.  I also wanted to tell him to go throw his pity party on another block. 

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