“I still shy away from nightclubs, from bars, from parties where the solvent is alcohol. My friends puzzle over this, but it is no more peculiar than for a man to shy away from the lions’ den after seeing his father torn apart. I took my own first drink at the age of twenty-one, half a glass of burgundy. I knew the odds of my becoming an alcoholic were four times higher than for the sons of nonalcoholic fathers. So I sipped warily. I still do–once a week, perhpas, a glass of wine, a can of beer, nothing stronger, nothing more. I listen for the turning of a key in my brain.”
- Scott Russell Sanders (from his essay, “Under the Influence”)
This past February, I had the pleasure of having two telephone conversations about addiction and its impact with Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., psychologist and author. The article that follows reflects Stephanie’s thoughts and mine, based on our conversations.
Most children of alcoholics spend a lifetime waiting to become an alcoholic. That is, worrying that day will come despite our best efforts. Each of us knows that alcoholism is a family disease, and many of us believe that we can inherit it with or without doing much drinking at all. At times alcoholism is such a well-hidden disease that some folks handle it without a single side-effect (if appearances were the whole story) such that it would look like he or she was not an alcoholic at all. While it may be easy to hide addiction on the outside, anyone on the inside of an alcoholic family knows that it’s anything but free of side-effects. If you’re like me, you are to some degree always listening for the click of that key.
Sometimes I wonder, why didn’t I become an alcoholic? Both my parents were alcoholics. How am I different from those children of alcoholics who did develop substance abuse issues? I drink occasionally. Why did the disease skip me?
I put this question to Stephanie Brown. I looked forward to hearing how a psychologist who treats individuals from alcoholic-addicted families every day would answer my question. The answer isn’t a straightforward one. “It depends,” Brown says. “It’s all individualized. It depends what your particular home environment was like, who was in your life, who your role models were growing up, and your particular experiences. It’s important not to generalize about all ACAs.”
The manifestations of the disease of alcoholism aren’t factory made. Every experience and internalization is one of a kind. “We know transmission of alcoholism is the product of a combination of elements,” Brown says, “those are: culture, genetics, and the home environment.” So, if you had therapy but your siblings did not, or if you had a mentor whom your siblings did not, if you happen to have processed your home environment in a different way, if you had different friends, etc., you will have internalized events in a way that’s unique to you.
Next I wondered, if a person doesn’t drink and he or she doesn’t marry an alcoholic, can that person break the pattern of alcoholism for their children? Can one avoid passing on the remnants of their unhealthy upbringing? I asked Brown this knowing very well that people can have non-drinking parents yet still absorb alcoholic family traits if alcoholism existed anywhere in their family tree. Brown’s view on the “cure” for alcoholic family patterns, and the role of addiction in our nation, is an interesting one.
Brown didn’t promise me that alcoholism’s end is in sight. “Human beings seem to need means for release. And capitalism generates a kind of extra push of the idea that you can have anything you want, the idea that there is no limit to what you can have. You think, I can stop anytime I want.”
Brown doesn’t see alcoholism or drug addiction as an isolated problem, she sees addiction, in all its various forms, as a state of being that permeates our society so deftly that it has become ingrained in the definition of who we are, Americans, as a culture. “The patterns of addiction are part of human behavior. They exist in relation to food, gambling, and technology. There’s a wider berth of looking into patterns of compulsion and adaptations of others to those behavioral systems. With alcoholism, a family adapts to systems of denial. They are in denial that anything is out of control. Their personality is defensive in the service of denial. They adapt faulty logic, distort reality, all to support their addiction. Addiction is a denial of limits. I mean, look at food. Think about portion size! We’re a culture that is out of control. In our culture we believe there are no limits.” I can’t ignore the irony. As Americans we’re supposed to value having it all. Yet now, I wonder, has it made us terribly unhappy and ill as a nation?
At the core of any addiction, whether alcohol, email, or shopping, is a tug of war with control. “This is linked to a belief that there shouldn’t be any need for limits. Going fast is our highest value.” But you can’t go fast and think.
“In our culture everything is impulse-driven. We have come to value action above thought. And everyone believes they’re entitled.” Right. When I look at our nation, I can see it: things aren’t earned, they’re bought on credit. We’re an eat now and deal with the weight later nation. Like the Concorde jet: we want to arrive before we leave.
To me, it sounds like we’re faced with a catch-22. If our culture is part of the problem, can alcoholism be cured? Or, do we first have to cure the culture in order to end alcoholism? Part of the cure, for both the culture of addiction that surrounds us, and for the specific addiction of alcoholism, is to regain consciousness. It seems that if we can just stop and pay attention, work to become more conscious, we can make an enormous leap forward. If we want to avoid living out addictions passed on from family, we need to start with ourselves. My advice (very much for myself, too) is to reflect on your growth as a person. Reflect on your purpose. Reflect on the lives of the people you care about.
If going fast, as Brown says, has become our highest value and that value is part of what has driven us to become a nation with addiction issues, then an obvious step towards a solution is, simply: to stop. To stop, and think. There’s time!
About STEPHANIE BROWN: Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, director of The Addictions Institute in Menlo Park, CA, and co-director of The Family Recovery Project at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, CA. She has authored and co-authored several books for adult children of alcoholics, including, The Family Recovery Guide: A Map for Healthy Growth and Safe Passage: Recovery for Adult Transformation. She lives in Northern California.