Every family has secrets. If yours doesn’t you might double-check to see if it’s your family. Secrets? What sister wants her little brother telling her boyfriend that she’s texting other boys late at night? What child wants the neighbors to know that last night’s noisy party wasn’t a party at all, but a brawl between mom and dad? How many families have scurried out into the late night to help bring their drunken, loud mom or dad in from the front yard before the neighbor’s notice? Family secrets. They can be humorous and fun for healthy families. Telling stories years later that only the family knows can be loads of fun, but the more sensitive secrets can devastate.
The concern with secrets, the not so fun ones, is how they are kept. Often, manipulations like power, shame, lies and fear are the tools used. When their use is sustained they can and do create unhealthy emotional, behavioral and relational damage, even if unwittingly. Unchecked, these toxic methods are nurtured and deepened by families wanting to maintain and protect a dignified public image.
Secrecy, of this sort, leaves family members feeling like they are in something like a trap. If you’ve ever been trapped – stuck in a small space or maybe a tough employment entanglement – you know the disorientation and the emotional devastation involved. Family relational traps, rooted in secrecy, are the same and can be worse.
Powerful family traps occur more often, in my experience with families, when secrecy revolves around some form of abuse. Abuses are many, but our focus here is with the powerful, interconnected family traps caused by addiction, alcohol and drug, particularly. After near thirty years of extensive learning, pastoral care with families and as an adult child of an alcoholic my self, three things are clear: 1) Families will normalize around the addiction, even though toxic, 2) The normalizing behaviors are patterned and, so, predictable and 3) Breaking the patterned traps requires help from outside the family to begin renewal. These 3 are essential, but they’re only the starting point.
I remember once, as a child, investigating the distressed exchange between my mom and dad in our tiny bathroom. Dad was on the floor and vomit covered the toilet. Mom was scolding him while cleaning up. Hurrying me out she only said, “Get back to bed.” I did, afraid and knowing something was terribly wrong and that I wasn’t supposed to know. Nothing was said the next day. I learned much later that my father was drunk that night. Secrecy loomed large around most things related to my father. With a child’s mind, rooted in secrecy, I learned “Don’t ask,” “Don’t tell” were rules. By the time mom and dad divorced I learned secrecy and hiding emotions, well. I’d learned to manipulate my dad’s moods and ultimately that I was responsible for his emotions and behaviors, as well as other’s as I grew older. If children live with secrecy they will make up their own stories, irrationally creating their own skills for coping and protecting family image.
When secrecy is tethered to the lie of uniqueness, another factor in families living with addiction, the trap grows stronger. “Our family is not like others,” it’s said, and “We can fix this ourselves.” Remember, though, family life with addiction is patterned and predictable. Patterns are almost always the same. Feeling unique, a family unwittingly strengthens the trap out of fear, embarrassment, shame, and even guilt, creating a family codependency that sustains the myth of uniqueness. They are trapped not knowing that secrecy and uniqueness can be effectively approached to create needed change for both the family and the addicted member.
Learning can lead to healing and growth. Don’t let fear of taking action be an obstacle. If you know the feeling of the family trap, just know that you are normal. If this brief overview resonates with you in some way, hope and help are near. Counselors, treatment centers and family resources know your ‘whole family’ needs. If addiction exists in your family, your family is affected. Break the secrecy. Reach out for the good and the future of your family. Freedom awaits.
Team member of Breakthrough - Family Addiction Recovery & Renewal