How Our Dysfunctional Families and Our Addictions Are Connected

Many of us who identify as addicts also identify with having come from dysfunctional families. Our families were broken apart by separation, neglect, abuse and abandonment. We didn’t have healthy family dynamics, strong communication or effective conflict resolution. We grew up being traumatized by loved ones and watching others be hurt. We grew up blaming ourselves for this traumatic family dynamic. We grew up feeling as though we weren’t good enough. We developed deeply rooted inadequacy and inferiority complexes. We were conditioned not to believe in ourselves and our self-worth. Our sense of self was shaped by our experience with familial dysfunction during our formative years. This dysfunction can easily contribute to the development of addictions and mental health issues, especially when we haven’t confronted the dysfunction and all its ramifications, all the ways in which we’ve been impacted by it.

We often don’t realize just how unhealthy our family environment was until we become adults and start thinking about how we want our households, our partnerships and families, to be. As we get older, we become clearer on what things we want in our friendships and romantic relationships. We make choices based on certain expectations – we separate ourselves from friends and partners who mistreat us, and we decide what we will and won’t tolerate from the people we’re in relationship with. As we learn more about healthy relationships and have more discernment about the kind of families we want to have, we realize just how toxic our childhood family environments were. We start to recognize the harmful impact our family life had on our unhappiness, our depression and anxiety, and our unhealthy emotional patterns. When we felt unsafe, we might have suppressed our feelings and avoided feeling them altogether, one of the major emotional patterns that can lead to addiction. When we felt hurt and abused, we might have become dependent on drugs of addictive behaviors to help us escape our pain. When a loved one made us feel abandoned, we might have turned to an unhealthy relationship for validation and attention, even if that relationship hurt us more.

We may also have witnessed addiction in our families when growing up. We might have seen firsthand how addiction can wreak havoc on families and create turmoil, destroying families from within. We tend to mirror the patterns that are modeled for us. If we see parents or other caregivers struggle with substance abuse or dependence issues, we might form similar issues in our own lives. If we see loved ones avoiding confronting their emotions and using drugs as forms of distraction and escapism, we might learn these same patterns and begin to perpetuate them for ourselves. If we witness toxic or abusive relationships, we might be more likely to choose these kinds of relationships for ourselves.

Our addictions are very often a coping mechanism for the pain we have a hard time facing. Dealing with the pain of our family life can be overwhelming, confusing and scary. We can struggle to make sense of it all. We don’t understand how people who love us can also have hurt us so much. We love our families, we might have positive memories of them, and we might want to have healthy connections with them but feel unable to because of the past traumas the family still hasn’t healed from. We might find it hard to reconcile how much we love our families with how painful the dynamic still is for us. We might have tried to repair relationship, communicate our hurts and make amends, only to feel that the dysfunction was too unhealthy for us to continue. We might end up creating distance or separating ourselves altogether as a result.

The health and happiness of our families, and the experiences we have growing up, can play a major role in the development of both our addictions and mental health issues, and as we’re working to recover, we’ll want to examine all of the above in order to really heal ourselves. What emotions are we avoiding, denying or suppressing about our families and family life? Are we blocking memories of trauma instead of working to understand and process them? Are we carrying guilt that isn’t ours to carry? Are we still blaming ourselves for family trauma that wasn’t our fault? Are we unable to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and wrongdoings? Are we carrying shame because we can’t forgive ourselves or because other people haven’t forgiven us? Our sadness, our guilt, shame and self-blame are often contributors to our addictions and mental health issues. These are very painful feelings, they make us feel depressed and scared. We’re afraid of feeling them, so we use coping mechanisms, namely our addictions, to try and protect ourselves from them. We use avoidance, distraction and escapism as relief from our pain. When we haven’t healed from our dysfunctional family experiences, they can very easily contribute to the unhealthy relationships we develop with our emotions and the unhealthy ways in which we handle those emotions. We don’t allow ourselves to feel, process and express our feelings in healthy ways. We fear and resist our feelings. We develop mental health issues, and we turn to drugs and addictive behaviors and relationships to cope.

Healing from our addictions entails healing ourselves from the wounds of our family dysfunction. When we’re able to address our family history honestly and openly, we can connect with ourselves in a profound way that leads to profound healing transformation.

Riverside Recovery is a drug and alcohol treatment center offering a full continuum of care for people suffering from addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Call us today for more information: (800) 871-5440.