Addiction and Recovery: It’s About the Family

David B Bohl

Becoming a parent, an uncle, or a grandparent is different for people with addiction than for those without it. This is because many of us wonder if our “bad” genes, or our “bad” behavior, will be passed on, and so we watch the kids in our lives with just a little extra dose of concern. There’s already so much fear about having to be responsible for a child but add to it the worry that comes with knowing that the child might be at risk for addictive behavior because of you, and the guilt can really take its toll. Don’t let it! This child will need you sober and clean and ready to help them one day if they do happen to have what you have.

You have to look beyond the guilt—guilt is unproductive and that’s only one of the small dangers of it. There are so many addicts out there who have never stopped drinking or using because of guilt—or shame, or both. Many of those addicts are parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents, and they are unable to show up for the kids in their lives because they are unable to face their reality. This reality being that, yes, they are addicts but also that addiction is not something that needs to define them or their families. If you drink or use over your fear you will never be rid of that fear. A drunk parent will never help his or her child in the way the child needs to be helped. A sober caretaker has a fighting chance.

But this is not about being drunk or sober, exactly. This is about what happens when your fears about addiction being passed on do come true. What will you do when someone in your family turns out to suffer from the same or similar thing you’ve had?  The ones of us who are clean and sober know that addiction is a family disease, even a generational disease. It’s never just an addict by him or herself. We’ve gained that knowledge about ourselves through our own recovery—we’ve looked at our patterns, our childhoods, or, like me, dug even deeper—into those mysteries of what happened before the childhood. I know I was a biological son of a woman who died of alcoholism and I know that I was relinquished at birth. I know how I got to where I am now—how I became sober after years of drinking. And I not only have an insight into my own addiction—my loved ones too have been involved in my recovery from the beginning. I am also an addiction professional and work with people trying to get sober and clean, as well as their families.

But guess what? Even someone like me, with all this knowledge, all this experience, and a published memoir that so largely focuses on my recovery, can get stumped. How is that possible though? Shouldn’t a sober addict have a unique insight into dealing with addiction? Yes, she or he has that, but it’s like with any other disease: just because you can name it, have it, and even if you’ve healed from it—and have even helped others to heal—none of that means you have special powers. Recovery is an insurance policy you take out on yourself. It benefits others, but it doesn’t guarantee anyone else but you sobriety.

This sounds like bad news, but it isn’t. Your experience and your knowledge is power. It won’t “cure” your loved one from addiction, nor will it get them sober—that’s not enough; the change still has to come from within the person—but it will certainly increase their chances of healing.

Don’t underestimate your experience and what you know about addiction when trying to help a loved one. You’ve been where he or she is now, and you know the way out and you can lead them. And if you do it with love and patience, they will hopefully manage to catch their breath, and get out and join you on your own recovery journey. I sincerely wish you that.