How Your Struggle with Addiction and Codependency Can Help You Heal Yourself and the People You Love
Growing up, my household had a lot of secrets: my mom was a prescription drug addict; my dad was codependent with her – and my sister and I didn’t understand that this environment wasn’t normal.
From the outside, our family looked like we had it all: money, cars, happy kids, and vacations. But it was a façade. We had a monster living in our home and no one knew about it. My mom would wear her pajamas and stay in bed all day. As the responsible, dutiful son and daughter, my sister and I were caretakers. We came up with excuses for why my mom didn’t join us out, excuses for why my parents couldn’t answer the phone even though they were home, excuses for why it was me accompanying my dad to his college alumni events instead of my mom.
Growing up in a house of addiction:
A house of addiction and codependency is one in which family members are at war. The addict often rules the roost, directly and indirectly. The addict will say things like, “You’re all lucky I’m such a great provider. It’s my way or the highway. If you don’t like it, leave. How dare you question me? I can’t believe you’re related to me. Don’t you dare talk about this to others.”
Then, there’s generally someone trying to keep the peace when addiction is present in the household. Another family member, who is dealing with his or her own trauma or own anxiety, may say things like, “Your dad really does love you but he doesn’t know how to show it. He’s under a lot of stress at work and we really are lucky to have what we do. There are a lot of people who are less fortunate.”
This is the denial process, the cover story: someone in the household is projecting the image of everything being okay. Unfortunately, it’s living a lie.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized I had grown up in a house of addiction. Since I was 12 years old, how I lived—with my mom’s reclusive behavior, her unusual amount of prescriptions, dad’s codependency, and my caretaking responsibilities—was all I had ever known. My sister and I were the caretakers who cleaned up the messes and kept the secrets. Never did I question the caretaker-addict relationship because I simply thought how my family lived was normal. But it wasn’t. And while I spent many years of my childhood as the caretaker, I soon became an addict myself.
My own addiction:
Starting at 13 years old, I drank and smoked marijuana, but I didn’t lose control with alcohol or drugs until I enrolled at the University of Southern California in August 1982. It took my parents sitting me down and saying, “We love you, but we can’t tolerate your substance abuse anymore. We can’t do this anymore, unless something changes.” Had my parents not set firm boundaries with me, I wouldn’t be who I am today. After that, I found an incredible therapist and started 12-step meetings. I’ve been sober since May 1991.
Later at 43 years old and 16 years sober, I was extremely unhappy and was burned out from the grueling sales roles I held that brought in a high salary with minimal personal fulfillment.
Transitioning to helping families:
I began reevaluating what did make me happy: helping others and seeing people piece their lives together, as addicts across the nation do in 12-Step Programs. For 16 years, my 12-Step meetings had kept me mentally afloat. So, I quit my sales job and applied to a graduate program focused on counseling at Regis University.
My life has had its ups and downs, but every step brought me closer to understanding how I can help others who are struggling with loved ones who suffer from addiction. First, I was a member of an addicted family, then an addict. I became a sober man, then a sober man with a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Both my personal and my professional experiences have furthered my understanding of the impact that addiction and codependency have on family systems.
I’ve been in all the roles within the caretaker-addict relationship: I was a caretaker for my mom; I was an addict, and then the addict-turned sober. Today, I am a licensed mental health professional. Maybe you’ve been or are in one of these roles, too. My personal experience, seeing how an addiction ran in my family, being an addict myself, going into recovery, and engaging in the challenge of healing an entire family, drives what I do today.
One of my favorite quotes from Freakanomics Author, Stephen J. Dubner is “Take care of yourself. And, if you can, someone else too.”
Today, I teach that happy families come from happy individuals, and happy individuals work on their own stuff.
The key thing to realize is you are not alone. You are not the only one dealing with this.
Kevin Petersen MA, LMFT