TRIGGER WARNING: As you may have guessed from the title, this article and some of its imagery may be difficult for some people to digest. Use your discretion in determining if this applies to you. If you are currently suffering abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (TTY 1-800-787-3224) for more info on how you can get help.
Addicts and their families possess many shared traits. We both suffer from control issues. We both find it difficult to trust others at times. And in many instances, our histories may align in some troubling ways. Among the most troubling is that both addicts and their families often know what it is like to suffer abuse. Be it physical, sexual or psychological, abuse is something that far too many people have experienced. The effects run quite deep, and the impact upon the victim may change them in a staggering number of ways.
Some of us respond to a history of abuse by becoming abusive ourselves. Others become frightened, fearing that abuse is normal and that anyone they know might swing from neutral to hostile in the blink of an eye. Then there are those who become affected in more positive ways, using their history as motivation to help others. No matter what the specific effects, there are a few things that all abuse survivors can say for certain. The first is that their history is a part of them. They will never know who they might have been if not for their abuser. The second is that the scars may never heal, even if they do fade over time. Third, and most important, is that they have survived.
It is important that we never lose sight of this. We may be victims of rape or violence. We may have experienced gaslighting or other forms of psychological abuse. Today, however, we have the power to navigate our own lives. And we cannot drive straight if we spend all of our time gazing in the rearview mirror. Perhaps we must check our mirror occasionally to remind ourselves of where we came from. But eventually, we must return our eyes to the road and focus on who we are today. Below, we will discuss the ways in which addicts and their families may be affected by abuse. Then, we will talk a bit about how we can overcome these devastating histories and learn to drive straight today.
Effects of Abuse on Addicts and Alcoholics
Being abused is not an excuse for inflicting this tragedy on others. Nonetheless, it is an excuse that many addicts and alcoholics have used. We are familiar with the story of one patient whose alcoholic father was abused as a child. In adulthood, this man kept whips in his closet in case anyone got out of line. He left threatening journals in which he detailed the way in which he would murder his wife and children. He did not hide these journals, but rather left them open where anyone could find them. If you’re unfamiliar with the definition of emotional or psychological abuse, that would certainly qualify as an example.
Again, not all addicts and alcoholics who are abused will grow up to become abusers. And many of those that do are not necessarily happy with who they are. In many cases, abuse runs in cycles, with each explosion followed by a honeymoon phase. In the case of addicts and alcoholics, the honeymoon phase will likely occur during a dry spell. They may even refrain from using primarily because of their remorse over the harm they have caused. But they eventually return to their habits, lose their inhibitions, and Jekyll comes back out for another visit.
Then there are those who do not become abusive. They instead use their addiction as a form of armor, hiding in their shells. These types of addicts and alcoholics often have trouble standing up for themselves. More than that, they have trouble telling when they need to stand up for themselves. The hostility they experienced in the past gets in the way of their ability to gauge the emotions of others. They often assume that people are combative or angry when they are not. To these individuals, a lack of clear-cut positive emotion is evidence of negative emotion. It does not occur to them that a person’s resting face might simply be misleading.
When confronted with negativity, these types of addicts and alcoholics are likely to increase their use. Not all of them began their addiction because of their abusive history, but reminders of this history will still encourage a spike in their substance abuse. And if they are prone to depression or suicidal ideation, they may embark on a course of action while intoxicated from which there is no chance of recovery.
Effects of Abuse on the Addict’s Family
Family and friends of addicts and alcoholics are often subject to abuse at one point or another. That said, it may not be what we often think of when we hear the word. When someone says “abuse,” we often picture someone being beaten or molested. There are, however, many other forms of abuse. If a distrustful spouse hacks into your Facebook page, this could be considered a form of abuse. (Even if it appears to be a mild one, it may be a harbinger of something more.) There are also, as we have said, many forms of psychological abuse.
Psychological abuse can be one of the worst kinds. A 2014 report by the APA states that those who suffer psychological abuse often experience depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal tendencies at the same rates as those who suffer physical or sexual abuse. On the whole, this is not surprising. Physical wounds may heal, but emotional ones often do not. Even in cases of physical and sexual abuse, it is the sense of betrayal that lingers with us for quite some time after. We have been violated, and many of us are prone to blaming ourselves. We feel as if we have allowed ourselves to become victims, that we have done something wrong.
Much like addicts and alcoholics, family members who experience this sort of psychological torture may sometimes inflict it on others. In many cases, this can be entirely unintentional. For instance, the above APA article defines neglect as a form of emotional abuse. With an addict in the family, it can be hard to give our other family members the attention they deserve. If we are the ones suffering this neglect, whether by the addict or the rest of our family, we may feel lost and alone. Some may feel defective, as if there is something wrong with them that keeps pushing people away.
The obvious theme here is the tendency to blame oneself. There is, however, a less obvious theme—control. When we blame ourselves, we assume that we somehow have the power to control another person’s actions. “If only I could get my husband to stop drinking, maybe he wouldn’t be so violent.” “If only I could help my mother with her drug problem, perhaps she wouldn’t be so neglectful.” Some may react to this sort of thinking by developing major control issues. But no matter how much we attempt to control others, we rarely succeed. This only leads to more self-blame. The result is that the family, much like the addict or alcoholic, finds themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of remorse. This is why many family members, especially those who have suffered abuse of any kind, will often find that they need their own recovery process if they wish to move on and lead a better life.
Learning to Overcome Our Histories
We actually posted two macros on our Facebook page within the last week that relate to this topic quite well. The first says that “you can’t start the next chapter if you keep re-reading the last.” This is quite similar to the rearview mirror analogy we used earlier. The second says to “forget it enough to get over it and remember it enough so it doesn’t happen again.” This primarily applies to substance abuse, but it may also be applied to the topic at hand.
Naturally, abuse is something we cannot forget entirely. This sort of repression is unhealthy. Sadness, anger, regret—all of these negative emotions are actually vital parts of our healing process. We cannot overcome something if we have not allowed ourselves to feel it. But we can learn that it was not our fault that we were victimized. Having learned this, we can become stronger and learn to identify abusive behavior before it reaches its peak. If we can do this, we can enable ourselves to never again face this sort of torment. Many have a tendency to repeat their histories. For instance, a woman with an abusive father may later marry an abusive husband. Eventually, however, many do learn to break this cycle. There is no reason that we cannot be among them.
In addition to growing stronger as individuals, we must also learn to let go of our resentments. It is not that our resentments were not earned justly—they most certainly were. Nonetheless, they serve no benefit. This is especially true if our resentments cause us to view the world through a fog of fear and cynicism. We mentioned earlier that many who suffer from abuse are prone to thinking that people are angry when they are not. It is important for us to realize that the entire world does not reflect our history. There are good people out there. People with level heads, who care about us and would not want us to be afraid. We must learn to recognize them and seek their company. If we wish to overcome our fear, this type of support network will be among our greatest assets.
Remember that, no matter what happened in your past, your survival indicates you to be a strong person. Never stop tapping into this strength. Those who suffer from addiction will learn to do this in our programs, through counseling and EMDR trauma therapy. As you learn to let go of your treacherous past, you can leave it behind and discover a joyous future. For those who are not in treatment, find a support group and talk to other abuse survivors. Learn how they overcame their past, and tell them about your own. It will not be easy at first, but you will eventually realize one day that the past does not hurt you in the same way it once did. And while this pain will return every once and a while, the scars will slowly begin to fade.
Never forget that broken bones heal stronger. Likewise, people do not remain broken forever. There are bright things ahead of you. For the sake of yourself and those who love you, please do not lose sight of them.