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Blog Post #2: The Elephant and the Albatross

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

Trigger Warning: This post discusses chemical dependency, emotional abuse and neglect; I will add a list of resources I have found to be helpful at the end of the blog. Although what I experienced is mild in comparison to some, it has been my experience that seeing ourselves, or someone we love in another person’s experience can be difficult. Please take care of yourselves if you feel triggered in any way while reading this post.

I go into great detail in my book about my experience with addiction in my family, but I’m not going to do that here. I will share some relevant details and excerpts to help you connect the dots, but this space is purposely meant to be different than my book. This is a big one for me, since my book isn’t published yet this will be the first time I talk about this so publicly. It is part of my healing process to speak my truth, and to use my voice to help others as well.

In my book I talk about how the beast that is addiction became the elephant in the room with my family. It was this massive open wound wreaking havoc on our family, but it became the thing that was off limits to openly acknowledge as a family, much less in public. So, the elephant in the room became the albatross around my neck for most of my life.

I knew that my mom and my sister had a chemical dependency to methamphetamine (meth). Alcohol was an issue for both of them as well, but I guess you could say it was the lesser of the two evils. I witnessed both of them seemingly using alcohol in the place of a healthier coping mechanism to take the edge off when stressed, but also for fun. Meth, on the other hand was the substance that helped them both to function on a daily basis. The worst times for me were not actually when they were high on meth, but when they were coming down off of it, or if they were unable to get it. When they were high, they were usually happy, upbeat and productive. When they were without it, they were moody, extremely short-tempered and sleeping excessively, among other things.

My sister is the one who first told me about my mom’s drug use, and helped me understand and connect the behaviors related to her use of meth. At age 12, when my parents were going through a really horrific divorce, the only bright spot for me was getting the chance to spend more time with my big sister. However, that meant I was often present when my sister and her friends would snort copious amounts of meth, which enabled them to stay up all night and continue to drink and party. I also witnessed what she was like when she was coming down off the drug, and then watched the cycle continue again and again. There was no internet at the time for me to search for the signs of meth use and abuse; I knew the signs because my sister taught me the signs.

My sister and I never stopped openly talking about my mom’s addiction, but at some point she stopped admitting to me that she was still using. We tried to talk to mom about her addiction once when I was in high school, but she became extremely defensive and it turned into an all-out emotional assault, which ended in me being punished. I just wanted her to get help and get better, but she wasn’t ready to do that. The experience was so traumatic for me that I was never able to have an honest conversation with her about it again, and as far as I know my sister never did either.

The result of this was that it felt like there was this effort to brainwash me into not believing what I was seeing and experiencing. In my book I liken it to being in an intimate relationship with someone who you believe is being unfaithful. All the signs are there, and you haven’t actually caught them in the act, but it is the only thing that makes sense. When you finally can’t take the emotional torture any longer and get up the nerve to ask them about it, they deny it, and become extremely defensive. Even worse, they somehow find a way to turn things around to make you feel like a horrible person for even thinking they could do such a thing. That is how I felt about the addiction in my family all but the first 12 years of my life.

They were gaslighting me. "Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim's mind. Typically, gaslighters are seeking to gain power and control over the other person, by distorting reality and forcing them to question their own judgment and intuition," (Newport Institute article). My family members struggling with addiction were so desperate to hide it from me and most of the world that they engaged in life-altering psychological warfare.

For over 30 years of my life I was constantly questioning my reality. There were multiple times when I started to question if they were both still using. My mom was able to appear to be highly functional to the outside world, and even held the same job for over 25 years before retiring. I would get my hopes up that maybe things were getting better, and that maybe they both figured out a way to stop without going to treatment; unfortunately, that was not the case.

Even if they had stopped using for a period of time, the painful behaviors and toxic interactions I often experienced when around them never fully stopped. There were times when the toxicity would ease up, and things would seem better. I would let down my guard only to be let down again. Either way, this pattern of behavior chipped away at my ability to trust my own intuition, as well as eroding any trust I had left in them. The situation left me feeling paralyzed, helpless and hopeless.

The addiction, conflict, trauma and emotional upheaval that had been going on in my family was what started me not speaking my truth, or asking for what I needed. Being vulnerable with my family just became too hazardous for me; consequently, I often became overly vulnerable in other areas of my life. My friendships and intimate relationships were impacted, and most importantly, the relationship with myself was practically non-existent.

At age 12, considered early adolescence, with hormones raging through my body and puberty looming over me, my focus shifted away from myself and toward everyone else. I was so desperate to be loved and accepted, that I put all my energy into being what I thought others wanted me to be instead. When that tactic inevitably failed, I was left feeling devastated and abandoned, which only perpetuated the cycle of feeling not good enough to be truly loved by anyone.

I became a people pleaser, and I was really good at it. Perfectionism and control were also something that for me went hand in hand with the people pleasing. I was not aware of these patterns until later in life, and in certain situations I was even praised for them. I worked in customer service and hospitality for years, and being a people pleasing, perfectionist who was always in control was seen as a strength. I had a strong work ethic, took great pride in my work, I was capable, accountable, and an asset to any team.

What most people couldn’t see was that there was a shame cyclone forming inside of me. A constant refrain of messages like: I’m not good enough to deserve a promotion unless I’m doing the work of at least two people. If I don’t do things to show people I care about them constantly, they will think I don’t value their friendship. If I don’t look or act a certain way in my intimate relationships, they will lose interest and leave me.

Those were just some of the stories playing on a loop in my head. Eventually, they faded into the background like the quiet humming of cars on the highway in the distance. They were always there, but not visible to my conscious mind. This negative self-talk become like white noise in my head and in my heart, yet the messages had the power to influence practically everything I did.

These patterns of behavior I adapted out of my need to make sense of the disorder in my life were part of the mask that became my personality. They became part of me, but they started as my way of coping with stress and emotional turmoil. These types of patterns started out as helpful ways of reducing fear and anxiety. But, because I developed these patterns under duress, they alone would prove to not be sustainable. The patterns helped for a while, but eventually, they became a constant drain on my sense of self, and actually added to my fears and anxieties, rather than soothing them.

They were temporary fixes, like band-aids for my wounded soul. They could distract me for a while, but eventually, the shame monster would be waiting in the wings. This was especially true when it came to my interpersonal relationships, personal or professional. One simple interaction with someone could easily keep me spinning for hours, days or longer on what I could have said or done differently or better. My people pleasing made this so much more excruciating because I craved praise and validation, and it felt so good when I got it, that I would spend all my energy finding ways to get more of it.

I couldn’t control the chaos that occurred in my life as an adolescent, so control of everything else in my life became essential for my survival. I needed everything to be in order, neat, clean, and organized. If they weren’t, I would feel that familiar anxiety building up inside of me, and I could easily get caught up in the chaos. I would often say if my house was a mess, my life was a mess. How I felt after cleaning and organizing my house, and finally sitting down to relax in it for me was like taking a hit of my drug of choice. I would sink into my couch, take a deep breath and exhale as I felt the relief of the anxiety leaving my body, and turning into a feeling of utter bliss.

Even though I knew that about myself, I would often cause the chaos without realizing it. The people pleaser in me had a hard time saying no. I would often take on too much and become overwhelmed and not have time or energy to keep my environment in order. It was an exhausting cycle that would often lead to me feeling depressed or short-tempered. Then my codependency would kick into overdrive, and I would look around for someone to blame for the mess. On the outside I was blaming others, but on the inside, all of it was being sucked into the cyclone of shame, adding to its power over me.

A therapist once told me that all codependent people are people pleasers, but not all people pleasers are codependent. There are actually a lot of different ways to define codependency, but for me the following definition given by Robert Subby is the one that resonates the most with the situation in my family. Subby wrote, codependency is: “An emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules-rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems.”

Being loved was my drug of choice. I learned how to morph into whoever I needed to be in order to receive it. That didn’t mean that how I loved or cared for others wasn’t genuine, it was quite the opposite. How well I loved and cared for others became how I defined myself. If something went wrong in a friendship or relationship, I always looked to myself first to see what I had done wrong. This may seem like a positive trait, one showing strong accountability, and it was disguised as that for me as well for a long time.

But, it wasn’t just the big stuff it was every little thing, and it was crazy-making. If someone’s reaction to me was even the slightest bit indifferent or apathetic, I could spin on that one moment for days thinking I upset or offended them. I took everything personal, and made things about me that had nothing to do with me. As miserable as I would feel twisting myself in knots about it, the thought of approaching someone to test my assumptions was far worse. I had learned the hard way from my family what happens when you try to address an issue, and feeling like that again, for me, was a close second behind jumping into a pool of acid.

Because of what happened with my family, I had developed a profound fear of conflict. In my family, it wasn’t just the topic of addiction that was off-limits, but anytime there was an argument or conflict of any kind it never got resolved. Time would pass, and then we would all resume daily life without ever discussing it again. There was usually what is referred to as a “honeymoon period’ where the person in the wrong would make some sort of gesture to lower the guard of the other person to break the ice.

With my mom, this usually came in the form of her cooking a favorite meal, or bringing home my favorite treats from the store. This became one of the ways I learned to turn to food for comfort, rather than adapting other ways of coping. Regardless of what happened with people who hurt me in some way, it was extremely difficult for me to refuse an olive branch when one was extended. The thought of turning away someone showing any vulnerability, and hurting their feelings was too much for me to take.

Having an open and honest conversation about even the smallest conflict was far too emotionally risky for me. I couldn’t take being blamed or shamed for one more thing, so I did everything to stop that from happening. Confrontation and conflict was agonizing for me, so in my mind, there was no option for me to say or do the wrong thing, ever. Instead, I tried to make myself indispensable to others, and make them feel good when I was around. I thought if I could take care of the people I loved, and be a caring and thoughtful person all the time, then maybe it would make them love me enough to not want to leave me.

I was trapped in a deeply subconscious belief that in order to receive love, I always had to give it first. In relationships I was often very needy and clingy. I never used to feel emotionally safe enough to be honest about my feelings, especially if I was upset about something. The people who were supposed to love me and protect me no matter what, emotionally abandoned me at a time when our family was literally being broken apart by divorce, and that feeling never really went away. Whether it was the addiction putting up an invisible wall between me and my mom and my sister, or my dad moving away and starting a new life with his girlfriend and her two daughters, I was forced to face it all on my own. So that is what I did.

I always made sure to have a job once I was old enough to work, and learned to take care of myself. This is another trait that many would see as positive, and it was until it wasn’t. I had learned not to ask for help because when I did, it came with a whole heap of conflict and controversy, especially between my parents during and after the divorce. Like many of my unhealthy patterns, this one served me well until it went from being helpful to being harmful.

This is how codependency crept up on me. It started innocently enough with me being a helpful, hardworking, capable person, and it changed into me feeling bitter that I was always doing everything for everyone else, but no one was ever doing anything for me. All I wanted was to be loved, and for people to want to be around me; unfortunately, my desperation to be loved often resulted in people pushing away from me, rather than becoming closer to me.

I had been hiding what was going on with my family for so long, that I had normalized so many of the unhealthy behaviors and situations I experienced. The longer I kept my family’s secret, the less aware I became of how the whole thing was impacting me. I thought I could control everything by pushing down the emotional trauma I had experienced during my adolescence; but, that trauma found ways to ooze out and cause even more destruction. It had been negatively impacting how I showed up in the world, especially in my relationships. At the time, I didn’t even realize that I had experienced emotional trauma or any type of abuse.

I tried to focus on the fact that I had made it through a really difficult situation and still managed to do pretty well. I graduated from high school, then earned my bachelor’s degree and went on to earn my master’s degree. My dad had offered to pay for college if I enrolled within six months of high school graduation. He came through and paid for community college, but once I transferred to a university he backed out, and once again I was on my own.

I was committed to earning my degree, so I worked full-time and went to school full-time while living independently. It wasn’t enough to cover everything, so I ended up getting a student loan. I had let my guard down and trusted that my dad was going to help me, but when he changed his mind it just reaffirmed that I had to take care of myself. After that, I was even more determined to show everyone how independent and strong I was. Deep down I believed that in order to be loved and accepted by my family, especially my dad, I would have to continue to make them proud of me.

By the time I earned my master’s degree, I had been married for several years, and had been through the shocking loss of my dad at age 56. The experience I had in graduate school, coupled with the passing of my dad had me beginning to acknowledge that I had some healing to do. I decided to start seeing a therapist for the first time in my life. She was nice, and somewhat helpful, but eventually I felt it wasn’t a good fit.

Around the same time I stopped seeing the therapist, I made the decision to focus my career in a different direction. I had done a lot of volunteer work for youth organizations, and enjoyed working with and helping support adolescent youth. I felt a strong pull to do more than just volunteer, and ended up taking my first job working in mental health and child welfare. I had always been able to connect with adolescent youth, and now I had the opportunity to help those who were experiencing a crisis the way I wished someone had helped me.

The agency I worked for focused on working with youth who were experiencing severe behavioral issues that were putting them at risk from being removed from their homes. I was a Family Support Counselor, and the youth were my clients, but I would work with the whole family. All new hires went through a concentrated week of training at the main office before we started our jobs at different sites. It was kind of a mental health boot camp.

It was an emotionally intense week of training that included a great deal of personal reflection as well. We had done so much of that in grad school that I was pretty confident that I knew what to expect in that regard. I was learning so much and met so many great people, and it was all pretty great, until we got to the Mandated Reporter training.

Mandated Reporters are trained and mandated by law to report suspected abuse or neglect relating to children, elders or dependent adults. I had never taken that training before, but I was somewhat aware of what it would entail and what would be required of me. What I didn’t expect was the profound impact it would have on me, personally. I have provided the excerpt I wrote in my book about the experience:

I listened as they went through all the ways that a child could be neglected or abused. When they got to the last of the six types of neglect, which was emotional neglect, it hit home. I remember sitting there and feeling like I had been sucker punched in the gut as the trainer highlighted the examples. There it was, “Parents may struggle to meet children’s emotional needs due to a variety of reasons, such as depression, or drug and alcohol abuse.”

During this training we had been told some horrible stories of children being left for days without food who were forced to eat out of the garbage. That was definitely not my life. There were also categories consisting of mild, moderate and severe neglect. But the more I listened, something in me clicked, and I said to myself, “I think I was neglected as a child.”

It was a shock to my system. Having someone name it so clearly, and seeing it up on the PowerPoint presentation right in front of me, brought forth a harsh reality I had never considered before that moment. I started to check out of what was happening in the room. I suddenly felt as if I were thrust backwards through a long, dark tunnel. The voice of the trainer started to fade into the background, and I could feel my face get hot as I tried to process what I had just learned.

The therapist I had seen had never even named it so clearly for me. It was the first time I felt truly validated and seen for what I had experienced. At the same time, I felt devastated, ashamed, confused and desperate to escape that room. We always had the option to leave the room if we felt triggered. I sat there as long as I could, trying not to call unwanted attention to myself, until I felt safe enough to step outside a few minutes before the break.

My head was spinning. My identity was so tied to being “the capable one” who was always helping others, hearing those words brought home a reality I wasn’t prepared to face. I always downplayed what I experienced because I was never physically abused or severely neglected. As emotionally exhausting as it was to always feel like I was walking on eggshells with my mom’s ever-changing emotions, I still told myself that other’s suffered far worse than I did. It made me feel like a weak person to even complain about it because I had only been hurt emotionally.

After years of working in child welfare and mental health I gained a deep understanding of trauma, including that emotional trauma can be just as damaging as physical trauma. I had worked in the field for about three years when now my mom suddenly passed away, and I decided I was ready to find a new therapist. I found a woman who specialized in addiction and family systems. She helped me to identify and begin to unpack some of the things I hadn’t realized were not normal in my family life, which also helped me make sense of what happened to me. Working with her also helped me begin to realize the depth of my codependency, and understand how toxic it had become for me to keep ignoring the elephant in the room.

After my mom passed, it was just my sister, my niece and me left behind to deal with all of the secrets and shame that had shrouded my family for decades. I took the opportunity to sit down with my mom’s best friend and another family friend to get some answers. They were finally completely honest with me about the immensity of my mom’s and my sister’s addiction to Meth. It was both difficult to hear, but also left me feeling relieved to definitively have my suspicions confirmed.

When my mom was still alive, I learned to use my well-honed conflict avoidance skills to only come in contact with her, or my sister, when absolutely necessary. It was not the healthiest choice, but it was what I had the capacity for at the time. The hardest part was that it wasn’t always bad. Sometimes I had so much fun with my mom, and remembered all the good about her that I experienced as a young child. But, it was the fear and anxiety that had me never knowing which mom I was going to get, and that made me put up protective walls when it came to her.

When it came to my sister, things were complicated. I wanted so much for her to be the big sister I loved and looked up to as a little girl. Back then I would’ve given anything to spend time with her, but over the years, it became very difficult for me to predict her behavior. Much like my mom, being around her could be very emotionally dangerous for me. One day she could be the most selfish, self-centered person on earth, and other days, she would drop everything to come help me if I needed her. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, she could go from being very nurturing and helpful to absolutely manipulative and hurtful without much warning.

I loved both my sister and my mom, and longed for the happier times to return. Unfortunately, the pain and anger I had toward both of them for what I experienced because of their addiction was also a strong force in pushing us apart. The risk of the pain I faced by allowing myself to be vulnerable with them caused me to keep myself at a safe distance from both of them.

With my mom no longer here, I told myself I was no longer going to pretend that addiction wasn’t a problem in our family. I had kept the secret from my niece for all those years, but she was now an adult, and I didn’t want to lie to her. We had always been close, and once I was finally aware of how damaging living with this secret had been for me, I knew I didn’t want the same for her. I realized that all those years I thought I was protecting her, I was actually sending her into a fight without arming her with the knowledge and training she needed to survive it.

Things with my sister had gotten much more emotionally volatile after my mom passed away. My niece was trying to play the peacekeeper, but she had no idea the history behind everything that was happening. After a great deal of reflection, I made the extremely difficult decision to tell her what I knew about her mom, and her grandma.

I took her to my therapist, and was very careful and thoughtful about how I handled the whole thing. She sat down with my mom’s best friend and the close friend of the family who had sat with me, and they were helpful in answering questions she had about all of it. She was not surprised about the alcohol because she could see that with her own eyes, but the meth was a shock. I hated that I was the one to tell her this. And, I also knew the minute her mom found out I had told her that it would blow up what was left of my family.

My fears were confirmed, and an explosion of emotion was exactly what happened. It was unbearable. My stomach still tightens up whenever I think about it. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I wasn’t doing it to hurt my sister, but I knew that was what she would think. I was afraid of losing her and my niece too, but I also knew I could no longer have my sister in my life until she was living a life of sobriety and recovery.

My niece stayed in my life, and she also stayed in her mom’s, which I of all people can completely understand. As difficult and complicated as my relationship had been with my mom, I was willing to ignore the elephant in the room regardless of how much it weighed down my heart to keep her in my life. My heart was shattered into a million pieces when my mom died. As horrible as it sounds, I thought I would feel some sense of relief because I would no longer have to pretend anymore, or walk on eggshells with her, but that was not the case.

My grief for the loss of my mom was palpable and nearly debilitating at times. I have had a lot of loss in my life, just 10 years before losing my mom I lost my dad. My dad and I had become close by the time he passed, and losing him was extremely difficult for me. But, losing my mom was a loss like no other. I told one of my good friends that I actually felt a physical void in my heart once she was gone.

I have a better understanding now of the kind of trauma my mom experienced when she was younger. That combined with a history of addiction in her family absolutely added to the darkness that drove her toward addiction. Learning more about her life since she died, and feeling her with me since she transitioned has been part of what helped me heal from the wounds of my childhood.

When I was younger, I obviously couldn’t understand the disease that is addiction the way I do today. Yes, it is a disease, one that deserves the same dignity for seeking treatment as other diseases like diabetes or heart disease, for instance. “In 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) joined the American Medical Association (AMA), defining addition as a chronic brain disorder, not a behavior problem, or just the result of making bad choices,” (Indiana University of Health article).

People who suffer from addiction are not horrible people who choose this path for themselves. Many of the behaviors that come out of addiction are horrendous, but that is not the person, that is the disease. It can be extremely difficult not to take the things that a person dealing with addiction does personally, and I think that is by design. I believe that is part of how that person keeps themself from letting people get too close to them, because the alternative is to unbearably painful to imagine. Feeling too much or too deeply is like kryptonite to someone dealing with addiction, and they will do everything they can to numb that pain.

I had to learn that I’m not able to control how, when, or if the people I love who struggle with addiction get help. They are the only ones who can make that choice. As simple as that sounds, it took me a long time to truly get it. I spent so much energy trying to help and fix my family, and it bled into me doing that in all of my relationships. Once I realized that the only person I had the power to change and heal was myself, the albatross transformed into its true form and took flight taking the weight of my family secret with it.

Understanding addiction also helped me let go of the guilt and uncertainty I had around whether my loved ones were still using drugs, or if over time they would to stop and start up again. Whatever causes someone to be lured into addiction, in order for them to come out of it and move into recovery, I truly believe some form of healing of their soul is necessary. What that looks like is up to the individual. Addiction, in whatever form, usually starts with secrets and lies. I can honestly say that for me, the most damaging secrets and lies in my life, were the secrets I chose to keep, and the lies I told myself.

I still hold all of those patterns that came as the result of trauma and abuse, but the difference is my awareness of them. Now, I still choose to use them as strengths, but I’m no longer at their mercy. They will always be a part of me, but no longer in a shameful way. When I’m not taking care of myself, or I’m overwhelmed, dealing with extreme stress or difficult emotions, they can still creep up on me and cause issues. I have developed tools and strategies for how to cope, and that keeps me from being sucked back into the shame cyclone.

I have a sense of peace in my life that I haven’t experienced since I was a little girl, and I’m so grateful for that. Healing is a process, and the road to healing is riddled with twists and turns and plenty of bumps. It can be extremely challenging, and at times it can be painful, emotionally, and sometimes physically. And, if you find the right path to healing that works for you, I’m here to say there is so much good on the other side. I believe that healing isn’t a destination, but a journey, and the rewards far outweigh the challenges you encounter along the way.

Thank you for your time and attention. I am honored that you are taking time out of your lives to share this space with me. I hope you found even just a small nugget in this post that helped you have empathy for yourself or someone you love. If you feel comfortable commenting I would love to hear what resonated with people, as well as other thoughts and questions you might have. Feedback from my readers will help me in creating the kind of content that you want and need. I will always write from my lived experience and my heart, but knowing what you are here for helps me as well. Take care, and I will look forward to your comments.

References Cited in this Blog Post:

Newport Institute Article, How to Tell if Someone is Gaslighting You

Indiana University of Health article, Is Addiction Really a Disease?, Nov 2022:

Books I Found Helpful:

· Codependent No More by Melody Beattie

· The Lost Years by Kristina Wandzilak & Constance Curry

· The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

· The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

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2 commentaires

This is so beautifully written. Never had I read something that spoke to me and put into words so perfectly what I too have and continue to experience.

En réponse à

Thank you so much for sharing this. That was my hope from the minute I started writing. 💜🙏🏻

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