The other day I was speaking with Joan, a friend with whom I attended a couple of seminars. Joan’s been married for five years to Todd. They have no children. In the past year or so Joan has been doing a lot of soul-searching and has realized that Todd’s family of origin issues are preventing him from expressing appropriate love for her. He can barely relate to himself, let alone a spouse. He is full of anger, hurt and fear due to his parents’ alcoholism. Joan is afraid that divorce is around the corner.
Todd is but one example of a legion of men and women whose parent(s) were addicted, living constantly on the edge of rage, emotionally unavailable and/or abusive, and who robbed their children their ability to connect emotionally as adults. Todd is afraid to face the rage and anger within him. He avoids dealing with it directly, and instead uses his wife as an “understanding crutch” for support and understanding. She in turn is exhausted trying to fight his losing battle and is starved for real intimacy. They are caught in a downward spiral of codependence.
Key to recovery and to shifting the perspective and facing the truth is “hitting bottom”. People addicted to substances or behaviors generally do not seek help to get sober until they realize they’re about to lose, or have lost, everything and everybody. Many have to hit several bottoms in order to sustain their sobriety. Hitting bottom is merely a start. The real work of sobriety begins on the emotional level, where a lifetime of dysfunction has to be rewritten.
Children who grow up in dysfunctional homes learn quickly to develop their own survival mechanisms. They put aside their own needs as individuals in order to cope, gauging others’ emotions, role-playing through life, figuring out if and how the abuser might next act, wishing that their caretakers would simply say, “ENOUGH” and take the kids out of the toxic world they’re in.
These children often grow up without proper boundaries and are emotionally incapable of mature and healthy relationships. If they do not become abusers themselves, they end up abusing their own hearts and souls by starving themselves of the real human connections they need to thrive. These poor souls may be academically brilliant and go on to have sterling careers, but ultimately they are emotionally empty shells.
The heart-breaking reality? Until the Todds of this world hit their own bottom, reach their own point of utter despair and/or desperation, they are not going to seek help. Nothing we say or do will make them break open their anger and hurt. Those whom they love (or think they love) may cease to tolerate their denial and the emotional devastation left in their wake. The healthy will leave them behind, and at least for them their lives can begin again.
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