Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Household - Part 4

Healthy Living Through Healing

Healing? What does this even mean? The healing process is a longer journey of turning inward, acknowledging what happened and didn’t happen, understanding what was going on for you, around you, and for the individuals responsible for your life. It’s sometimes really challenging to see outside of the neglect and/or abuse and see parents struggling themself and ultimately doing their best. This is part of the healing process and believe it or not happens! We all can come around and see that our parent(s) did the very best they could. Additionally, healing means doing the psychological and somatic work to move the old experiences and stories through and out of the mind and body. It means untangling old beliefs about oneself, creating new healthy stories and behaviors. Throughout the healing journey one becomes less triggered, accepting of the things that happened, and able to continue on with regular day-to-day activities; living a normal, healthy, high functioning life.

The psychotherapeutic work involves talk therapy, somatic body movement, trauma therapy such as EMDR therapy, group engagement, and sometimes family therapy. Each person’s healing journey is unique. If you’ve resonated with any of the blog posts in this series, I highly recommend participating in the next ACOA / ACAD – Adult Children of Alcoholic, Addiction, Dysfunction process group; coming this fall.

In addition to psychotherapeutic support here’s a few suggestions you can work with to start your healing process:

1.     Move around: Disturbances and/or trauma get stuck in our bodies; these experiences disrupt our body’s natural flow and leave us in a state of fear and hyperarousal. When you get your body moving you’re freeing endorphins and burning adrenaline, which allows your system to get unstuck. Get yourself some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes a day. Hike, rigorously walk, lift weights, play basketball, run, swim, dancing and rock climbing are good options. Participate in an activity you can move your whole body, get your arms and legs moving at the same time. While your body is moving, pay attention to what the movement in your body feels like. Notice the sensations; arms moving at your sides, rocks crunching underneath your feet, the blood rushing to your forearms as your hold on the rock wall, the temperature and rhythm of your breath, etc.

2.     Notice your thoughts: Are your thoughts negative, closed-minded? This is commonly the case of underlying fear, current, perceived threat, or unresolved issues. Negativity ruminates in the mind and as humans we dig ourselves deeper with each negative thought. Suddenly before we know it, what was simply a minor irritation gets blown out of proportion and everything in one’s path seems terrible. This leads directly to stress in the body, chronic illness, and depression. Changing thought patterns is challenging. What we bring our attention to tends to get bigger. For instance, don’t think about a pink elephant. Don’t do it! Keep that image out of your mind. See, challenging. What did you see? A pink elephant! It’ll take some will power and practice; however, you’ll be able to get out of the pattern of thinking negatively by redirecting you mind and focus on something other than the thing that is bothering you. Imagine going on your favorite walk or hike. See the blades of grass, hear the rocks crunching under your feet with each step, see the tall trees and leaves flickering from the cool breeze…you can keep this story going. When you notice yourself thinking negatively, say to yourself, “No, I am going to think about this thing over here that is positive,” and then do just that. As you practice redirecting your thought patterns you are creating new neural pathways in your brain. What used to be a negative pattern will begin to shift into a positive one.

3.     Keep yourself in good company: Although you may want to curl up on the couch or in your dark bedroom, keep yourself in good company. Isolating tends to make things worse. Connect with friends and family. Things you can do together: go on walks, drink tea, attend yoga class, any form of exercise, meditate, volunteer somewhere, watch a comedy and laugh your butt off, join a book club or other social groups. Spending time face to face with other individuals does not mean you have to talk about your childhood, trauma, or lack of feeling awesome. The connection is essential and will support you shifting out of negative thought patterns, isolating and brewing on the negatives, stimulates and enhances your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

4.     Create boundaries: What are these? A boundary is a line that marks the limits of an area (Dictionary.com). Consider a boundary being a principle or guideline in which support you in living the life that you want. We all need to have and to constantly reinforce boundaries. Boundaries keep us safe, remind us of our limits, and enhance our happiness. Boundaries are a huge part of our lives: materials, physical body, emotions, thoughts, spirituality, and sexuality.

I often hear, “I don’t know what I want, so how do I create a boundary?” One step in creating a boundary is by reaching or experiencing something you don’t want. For instance, you may or may not have a food boundary. Mine is animal products; I don’t eat them. This is a rigid boundary for myself and I reinforce it constantly, as it is common for people to offer me animal based food items. What is your food boundary? Do you eat oysters? Ice cream? Lets look at physical boundaries. How do we each determine how close we want the person next to us to be? Our body gives us signals indicating when the person close by is too close. From there we can back up to create more distance or we can ask the person to take a step back.

One reason creating boundaries is an important element to healing the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional household is they support autonomy, safety, confidence, reduce the amount of taking care of others, and increase our capacity to live enjoyable lives.   

In closing, I’d like to remind you that arriving at a full understanding of the nuances of your past emotional influences isn’t something that is going to happen overnight. This can be a long, arduous journey with obstacles, and with the support and guidance, everything is possible. I have seen healing take place where depravity and hopelessness were all that seemed to be left. Think of this healing process similar to jogging a marathon rather than sprinting a 5K. It takes some time and it’s well worth every minute. The power of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me, which is why I’m so grateful to be working alongside people.

 

Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Household - Part 3

Long-term Psychological Effects

So far in this series, I’ve discussed some common traits of dysfunctional families and how children develop means of adapting to their environment. Now moving on to long-term psychological effects that follow as a result of the environment.

Our country seems to be in denial around dysfunctional households. These environments are traumatic, not only that but it is traumatic for years, the most critical years of a person’s development. The children (adult children of alcohol, addiction, mental illness) who survive these households are incredibly strong, clever, dynamic, and resourceful. I’m astounded by their resiliency. I hear about these stories and see the strengths in the office daily.

A theme amongst people, who grew up in a dysfunctional household, is they often don’t realize how traumatic the experience was. Commonly, these households are believed to be ‘normal’. The child often believes this is how all households operate, simply not knowing any different. It’s usually later in adulthood when they reflect back and see how abnormal their environment was. I think about client, Riley (name changed for confidentiality purposes) whom I was seeing on a weekly basis. Riley reported typical and common symptoms of growing up in a dysfunctional household. Upon asking Riley about drugs, alcohol, and mental illness within the household Riley declined any knowledge of anything that would fit into those categories. “Nothing out of the usual.” That is also known as dad doesn’t beat up mom or mom isn’t passed out on the living room floor and jobless. The following session Riley came back in stating, “I see it now! I thought it was odd at the time but didn’t think much of it. My parent’s house was under fire evacuation and they hauled out a big box of alcohol. They didn’t pack up family photos or any sort of memorabilia, just booze.” Riley started putting pieces together in the sessions following. Another connection Riley made: pain pills were not prescribed for any legitimate injury or pain and after mom popped some pills, she disappeared for hours.

Even though many who have experienced childhood trauma due to a dysfunctional family dynamic may not have thought that their experience was abnormal (rather, many come to see the dysfunction as ‘typical’ or ‘just how things are’), the long-term psychological effects can be severe.

Growing up in a dysfunctional household means forming one’s entire worldview from within a very restrictive environment. When there is a lack of healthy, normal means of resolving conflict during such a formative period, children end up relying on abusive, violent, angry or avoidant means of solving problems. In addition to this, personality traits can develop that would not otherwise exist without having experienced the trauma. This is illustrated in the following mock patient narrative:

“Growing up, I had a lot more responsibility than my peers. Because my mom was always depressed, I had to accommodate for my siblings. It was me who got them ready for school. It was me who made sure they took their showers at night. It felt like my mother was just there as a piece of furniture in the house, except of course when she had to go to the hospital. Because of this, I never really got to be a kid, and now I work ridiculously hard, take on tons of unnecessary responsibility, and it’s all a farce. Inside, I’m completely vacant and alone.”

Childhood trauma due to dysfunctional family upbringings can manifest in many different ways. In fact, two siblings can have near identical childhood traumas and one many end up emotionally developing in a completely different way compared with a sibling. Because so many factors affect this turnout, it can be difficult to pinpoint what’s really driving the internal conflict. Regardless of the frequency or severity of the trauma, long-term psychological effects can include:

-       Anxiety disorders

-       Depression

-       Attachment issues

-       Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

-       Addiction

-       Anger/rage issues

-       Self-harm

-       Eating disorders

-       Mood regulating disorders

Given enough time and effort, true healing from traumatic childhoods can be achieved. Even though the emotional ruts may run deep, we have it within all of us to acknowledge what helped to form our minds and work with what we have today, and change the negative behaviors that are no longer serving us. Next week, we’ll be focusing on just that: healing. 

Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Household - Part 2

Learned Coping Behaviors and Methods of Survival

 

Families at all stages of development are prone to influences coming from within and outside the family unit and are down right challenging. This meaning that external factors such as jobs, friendships, community, proximity to natural green space, socio-economic status, religion, crime/violence, media, and political policies influence how families function. Right alongside, you’ll see the internal factors such as communication (between siblings, arguments between parents, or up the command chain – child to adult), nutrition, exercise, empathy, core values, knowledge, self-efficacy, honesty, addiction, alcoholism, and mental/emotional states, play integral roles in family development. Acknowledging where influences come from can help in better understanding the complicated dynamics, which are constantly at play. As we explore the dysfunctional characteristics more in depth, you’ll notice coping behaviors taken on by anyone as a way to adapt or survive the negative internal influences. These are often unconscious behaviors, become standard protocol or code of conduct and go unnoticed for quite some time. These behaviors are seen as and often are, normal within the family unit; however, become maladaptive later in life.

So what are these coping behaviors anyway? Avoidance, silence, denial, enabling (mistaken for altruism), passive aggression, spiritual bypassing, compartmentalizing, dissociation, self-harm, repression, suppression, trivializing, lying, humor, substance use, porn addiction, and food consumption are common.   

Let’s examine a hypothetical dysfunctional family situation. In the Robertson family, child, Sam (gender neutral) learns to cope with an alcoholic parent by avoiding their father when he comes home after a night of drinking, which happens frequently. In addition to avoidance, the child learns to not invite friends over or, for that matter, get close to anyone in fear of allowing them to experience the unpredictable, loud, intoxicated father. Sam avoids dad by staying in their bedroom (leads to isolation), is disconnected from parental support, connection, positive attention, and from friend support and engagement. Sam has learned to stick to one’s self and keep silent as to their experience(s) of dad. Sam also learns to occupy time through gaming or subscribing to porn over the Internet all while suppressing emotions related to this situation. When a parent asks Sam what they are working on, Sam answers with, “Working on my homework” (lying). These methods of keeping others at a distance continue after the child leaves home.

Children similar to Sam growing up in dysfunctional families often grow into adults who end up struggling with some of these traits: trusting others, sustaining intimate relationships, telling the truth, posses a tremendous fear of abandonment, over or under responsible, lack of boundaries, minimal or poor follow through, issues with addiction, constantly seek approval, and are extremely loyal even when in terrible situations/relationships. Unlearning and revamping someone’s methods of interacting with society, the self, and others within the family can sometimes take years to accomplish, depending on the severity of childhood experiences, traumas, resources, and one’s willingness to change. There are healthy ways to heal. This begins with identifying and naming what happened and didn’t happen in one’s household, making connections with what were dysfunctional behaviors, and coping strategies.

Thankfully there are resources available specifically tailored to assisting individuals dealing with trust, love, loss or even basic, day-to-day social interaction. You can find this support at Evolve In Nature whether that is through individual, couple’s, and/or group therapy. Additionally, there are effective therapy groups including Survivors of Incest or Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (ACODF), and organizations like Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), Alanon, or Codependents Anonymous (CODA), which focus on equipping group members with self-help tools they can use to overcome their obstacles.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll be discussing specific steps that can be taken to begin the healing process. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Growing up in a dysfunctional household - Part 1

What makes for a dysfunctional family?

Family dynamics are complex and involve many factors contributing to how the family unit operates. Identifying and defining all of the various ways in which a family can become or sustain a dysfunctional state requires much, much more effort and time than would be deserving of a blog post. So, we’re kicking off a four-part series dealing directly with dysfunctional families, their geneses, hallmarks and other identifying characteristics. Our intention is to shed light on the questions of why and how dysfunctional families exist, how family members can cope and recover within and from them, and what we can learn about ourselves in the process of understanding the dysfunctional home in which we grew up.

What is Dysfunctional?

As people talk about what dysfunctional actually means, definitions vary. For the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to use the term ‘dysfunctional’ to refer to families in which one or both parents more frequently than not, drank alcohol, participated in legal, illegal, and/or over-the-counter drugs, addiction whether that be food, porn, shopping, substance use, and/or mental illness diagnosed or undiagnosed were present. According to the NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), 2017, “More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking.” That seems like a lot of homes with dysfunction and this isn’t including drugs or mental illness existing within the family. That being said, we either relate strongly with these posts or know someone close to us who does.

Here are a few examples of common characteristics found within families with dysfunction:

·      Denial - Denial runs rampant throughout the household and plays a dynamic role supporting the cycle. Acknowledging the reality of the mental illness, alcoholism, or addiction would be too painful or consequential for the rest of the family. Denial becomes the de-facto position for everyone.

o   “Mom isn’t feeling well and is sleeping.” Also known as passed out, hung over, detoxing, depressed, etc.

o   The morning after an evening of chaos, drama, and fighting everyone seems to go about business as usual and if anyone asks, “How are you doing?” the answer consistently is, “Oh great, everyone is doing so great.” 

·      Subjective love and affection - Seen through the parent giving privileged treatment, demonstrations of love and affection to one family member over another or based on one’s performance, has to be earned, or other commonly unpredictable conditions. Some reasons for preferential treatment from the parent is often related to their mood, intoxication level, their personal agenda, the child’s birth order, ability level, or physical appearance.

o   “If you play quietly in your room while we have our friends over, Daddy might read you a book before going to bed.” Or…”I’m not going to tuck you in tonight if you come out of your room before I say you can, and stop that pouting.”  “Look how sweet and beautiful your big sister is.” 

·      Unhealthy boundaries – Boundaries support our individualism, the minimum and maximum of what we want and keep us safe emotionally and physically. Growing up in a dysfunctional household one might learn very loose or ridged boundaries, maybe even no boundaries. Without clear boundaries it is nearly impossible to determine what emotions are a parents and what is the child’s or what one’s limits are. That old saying, What is mine is yours” is detrimental when it comes to emotional space and boundaries. Children must learn Mom’s emotions are hers and she is responsible for feeling them. Children need space to play and have fun rather than being the witness and/or sounding board for a depressed parent; children need kid conversations rather than adult conversations.

o   When a kid starts their morning by punching their little sibling in the arm, it may just seem like a ritual they go through every day before going to school. Another example is a parent sobbing at the kitchen counter and sharing with the child how horrible their life is and they want to die.

o   Perhaps your parent treated you as their best friend rather than a parent.

o   Maybe you can relate to an overly or uninvolved parent; going through your personal items or missing every sports game you played in.

o   There’s also the example of witnessing your parent(s) getting high or drunk resulting in you having free reign to do whatever and go wherever you want because they don’t want to be disturbed or are too out of it to pay any attention.

Keep in mind this isn’t a comprehensive list of dysfunctional family characteristics. We’re just getting started, and in the next few installments of this series, we’ll be discussing adaptive behaviors, long-term psychological effects and how to begin the healing process. For more information you can go to: http://www.evolveinnature.com/adult-children-of-alcoholic/ 

Stay tuned!

 

 

An extraordinary week!

I think we can all agree, this has been an extraordinary week. People are experiencing a variety of emotions and symptoms such as, anxiety, sleeplessness, avoidance, trauma, loneliness, anger, irritability, nightmares, restlessness, acceptance, and old disturbances are triggered. One thing everyone in our country has in common right now is that we are all living in fear. 

Living in fear, as you know is taxing on the nervous system and like the domino effect will lead to additional and worse symptoms, leading up to PTSD. Many of you are already experiencing PESD (Post-Election Stress Disorder). That’s actually a real thing!

Our bodies are strong and resilient! The reactions you are experiencing are not an indicator that you are weak, incapable, or worthless but an indicates your system is in reaction mode. Your reptilian brain has sent alerts to your amygdala, which in turn messages your nervous system of a perceived danger. Thank goodness we have a brain to help us survive! 

Now what? We must take care of ourselves. Here’s a few options: 1) Determine what is important to you and what you need (sleep, talking, exercise, yelling/screaming, gather more information, join a support group, see your therapist, meditate, etc.), 2) Get in your body. Feel your physical sensations. Avoid challenging conversations; give yourself an hour or a day to not talk about politics. 3) Read Julie Colwell’s blog on how perfect it is Hillary lost the election. Don’t worry, she’s a die-hard Hillary fan! Here’s the link: http://juliacolwell.com/archives/1840 , 4)  Join us 11/17 at BC3 for an evening of poetry and readings with Andrea Gibson & Megan Falley. Details and link to register on Evolve In Nature’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/evolveinnature/ , 5) Join us for a morning workshop Saturday 11/19 to learn creative, and effective communication as it pertains to the election by Julie Colwell. This will help each of us have conversations with people who have opposing political view points! Details and link to register on Evolve In Nature’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/evolveinnature/  

I care tremendously about each of you and our greater community. Please reach out for any support and keep yourselves connected with others. We will all get through this….we are stronger together! 

With love,

 ~Shelly