You know the saying, “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me?” Well, in a family where there is an addiction problem, the family members, along with the addict herself, often live a life filled with crippling shame. The addict lives a roller coaster life of secrecy and regret, often viewing the world through a lingering haze of darkened, heavy shame. The other family members become enmeshed in a world of second guessing, desperate hoping, and pleading. This can lead to an almost unbearable shame, as their loved one never seems to “get better” from any of their concentrated efforts.
This tremendous amount of shame is a major difference between the disease of addiction and other types of diseases, like cancer. When a loved one is inflicted with other types of diseases, people are not often embarrassed to ask how he or she is doing. Concerned family and friends don’t hesitate to offer support and encouragement in various ways.
Yet, when a loved one is away getting treatment for a chemical dependency problem (at least a 28 day stay), often times few people acknowledge it to the family that is left behind. The shame and embarrassment of talking of it, combined with the extreme awkwardness of people not knowing what to say or do, often wins out over the potential compassionate moments of reaching out.
The multiple times my mother went into chemical dependency treatment, our family did not get a whole lot of support, except from a few close family members. At least, I don’t recall much of it. Maybe my dad was to proud or embarrassed to receive any outside help. And maybe I don’t remember because I was so wrapped up in my own confusion and sadness . I believe that our family and friends were deeply concerned, but I think that the “don’t talk” policy was still very prominent in our family.
The “don’t talk, don’t tell, don’t feel” rule is a very common phenomenon in alcoholic homes. Especially in homes that are more affluent, as they struggle with trying to appear happy and well-adjusted to the outside world. Self Pride and denial also play big roles within this disease, as everyone is consumed with secretly trying to control the addict’s environment in trying to lead their loved one away from what is destroying them.
I was told early on not to betray any of our family “secrets” regarding my mom’s drinking problem. I was told not to tell ANYONE about what was happening, because it was not anyone’s business. I lived in a constant state of heavy sorrow and shame, as I did need to confide in someone. I confided all of my deep and dark family secrets to my best friend on a daily basis. I do not blame my parents now for expecting that of me. It is the unfortunate nature of the damaging effects that result from this devastating disease.
In the book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics”, it talks about the difference between healthy shame and toxic shame. Toxic shame is unhealthy shame, which originates from past verbal or physical abuse.
“Others have been shamed by perfectionist goals that we could never reach. We were judged as failures for not being perfect or for not trying hard enough. Unhealthy shame is near the core of the adult child wound. We feel deeply flawed as a person due to this type of shame. Dealing with toxic shame takes courage, patience, and a Higher Power (God).”
“Healthy shame exists when we recognize a wrong we have done, and we want to make it right with ourselves and with the person we have harmed. For example, when we gossip, we should feel shame because we know what it was like as children and teens to be gossiped about. We know how painful it is to be labeled or to be called names.”
Healthy shame allows you to honestly examine your life, choices, and your conscience, in order to seek reconciliation with God and those you have hurt. By seeking out forgivness in this way, you can begin to much more easily heal your toxic shame. Good counsel (pastoral, psychologist, support groups) can help you to recognize your different types of shame that hold you back from living a full life. This helps people to be open to receiving the healing and awareness that God wants all of us to have.
I recall a very painful situation of ridicule and shame that happened 3 years ago, when my mom first went into the hospital. When mom went into the ER, she was extremely inebriated and belligerent. She actually fell down in the ER and broke her hip, which required her to get emergency surgery.
One of the nurses that she had taking care of her was so completely and outwardly condescending and rude to her, that it was very insulting and painful to endure. Mom was very out of it and confused. She did not even understand where she was. Her dementia was worsened by the trauma of the surgery, and she was very demanding and anxious due to the effects of extreme chemical withdrawal.
It is difficult to describe how hurtful it was to try to defend the dignity of this frail, sick, confused, difficult woman, who happened to be my mother and friend. I know that the nurse understood why she ended up in the hospital. He was visibly disgusted by her condition. Perhaps, he himself, had a parent who had sometimes also been a belligerent alcoholic. Perhaps he did not have much compassion for those who ended up on that path in life. What I didn’t understand though, was his lack of compassion for me and my sister. By disrespecting my vulnerable mother, he was also disrespecting us. We complained about his lack of compassion, and we then got a different nurse to care for her. I prayed that he would not treat other families in the same way.
I can still vividly recall the pitiful glances of the nurses and doctors, as they watched me take my mom in for her second hip surgery. She fell out of her hospital bed a few nights after her first surgery, and tragically broke her other hip. The looks were mixed with pity, sorrow, and disgust. I have never felt so alone in my entire life, as my mom was grasping at me, begging for me to help her, as she was not even sure of what exactly had happened to her. I remember saying to her surgeon, while trying to choke down my tears, “It’s been a long 20 years”. He nodded his head in sympathy.
At certain points during her almost 3 week stay, it seemed that mom might not make it. After the 3 weeks, she moved into a physical rehabilitation center (on the locked down dementia floor) for a month to help her recover. During that time, she was very sick. She was angry, combative, confused, and in tremendous pain. They needed to keep her in a bed that had a mesh tent attached to the top, so that she would not fall out or escape from her bed. She reminded me of a deranged caged animal. It was upsetting, to say the very least.
I have never clung so tightly to my faith, in the hope and love of Christ, as I did during that time period. I felt carried in a way that allowed me to calmly and gracefully put one foot in front of the other. And It was during that time that I began to get a glimpse of what true surrender looks like. “Letting Go and Letting God” became more than just a tired slogan for me. I started to commit myself to a deeper and more frequent prayer life. I prayed the rosary more often. I prayed with my family and church friends more regularly, and attended Reconciliation again, after not receiving it for a few years.
I asked God to please help me accept His will, what ever that may be…instead of focusing most of my prayers on curing my mother. It was when I began to practice surrendering my will, for His will, that I began to experience moments of real peace and detachment. I started focusing on what I was grateful for, instead of mostly focusing on why this was happening to us.
You see, in many ways, I did not at all feel ready to be looking for a nursing home for my mom to move into when I was still in my mid thirties. This was not supposed to be in our plans. I was not supposed to become my mother’s legal guardian. And certainly not when I had young babies of my own, or just a few years after my mother and father separated.
But, slowly, God was beginning to show me that He was indeed, the One in control. And the more I surrendered all of my expectations and fears, the more I felt that He was guiding me. It was then that I began to see in a much more profound way, that as long as I kept my focus on Him, on His Words and promises, and nourished myself with his life-giving Body and Blood in the Eucharist, that everything would be just fine. That, actually, everything could be more than just “fine”.
Things could be GOOD, because I was starting to really KNOW, as I still know, that “I could do ALL things through Him, who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13. And I began to truly feel the truth, as I still do, in Jeremiah 29:11, ‘For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”