"es, it is within us to influence our loved ones in a positive way by becoming a "power of example," but we have to be healthy ourselves."

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Episode 158 -- October 18, 2021

Let it Start with You: Break the Cycle of Family Addiction

While some families pass down traits that are generally considered positive—our grandmother's eyes or our father's laugh, for example—we may have inherited something we'd rather not have: a heightened vulnerability to addiction. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) uses the concept of "cycle" to talk about children who are more susceptible to having a substance use disorder because their parents—and even their grandparents—did.

In the book Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family's Cycle of Addictive Behaviors, Lisa Woititz discusses the generational trauma of addiction and explores how we can break those cycles that continue to harm our families. Woititz combines her insights with writings from her late mom, Dr. Janet Woititz, an early leader in the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) movement. Together, the mom and daughter duo explore what we can do to help our children and the generations beyond them lead healthy and balanced lives.

Being able to reflect on our place in the long arc of a family's history can help put our disease in perspective. It can also motivate us to break the cycle by getting healthy and modeling sobriety for our children. This excerpt encourages us to imagine and embrace our personal role as a change-making bridge between our family's past and its future.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

What does it mean to "break the cycle"? Is it really possible? We cannot change the fact that alcoholism is a disease that can be arrested but not cured. Addiction is a chronic brain disorder that can run in families, sometimes skipping generations. We can develop an addiction at any age. We don't have any more control over those facts than we have over how tall we are. But it is within our power to break our part of the cycle and be the catalyst for change and healing in our families. We can also educate our children about their unwelcome inheritance and obstruct the path of this disease to the best of our ability. Yes, it is within us to influence our loved ones in a positive way by becoming a "power of example," but we have to be healthy ourselves.

Let It Begin with Me
Witnessing the havoc my father's alcoholism caused in our own home and learning all I did about the disease from my mother and Twelve Step meetings didn't stop me from having addiction problems of my own. In spite of this reality, I believe that knowing how dangerous alcohol and other drugs could be for me because of my family history helped keep my addiction problems from getting as bad as they could have been. Understanding the insidious nature of this disease also instilled in me the tools of recovery that I have always drawn on in life, even when using drugs and alcohol. I've also long understood that many of the serious problems I have had in adulthood are the direct result of growing up with alcoholism. However, even though I have always known where to go for help, I didn't always have that Serenity Prayer courage to change. As they often say at Twelve Step meetings, "Recovery Is a Process, Not an Event." I'm living proof of that, and I'm willing to bet that if you are reading this book, you are, too.

I got clean and sober in my twenties, and—except for a brief slip when my second marriage was breaking up—I didn't smoke or drink for more than twenty years. I believed that I was modeling sobriety for my children. And I was—and then again, I wasn't. While other parents kept a variety of liquor in their homes and openly drank in front of their kids, I did not. If someone brought me a bottle of wine as a gift, I'd probably regift it a year later. If someone brought a six-pack of beer over, it could sit in my fridge for several months until I poured it down the sink. One of my sons used to tease me for being such a square. He would say, "Mom, how can you let that beer sit there like that for so long and then pour it down the sink? That's alcohol abuse!" It felt good to show my kids that alcohol didn't have a place in our everyday lives. Some non-alcoholic ACoA parents drink in front of their kids because they believe that making a big deal out of alcohol might make drinking more desirable to their kids, who may think, "If my parents hate it, it must be good." We all have to handle this subject in a way that rings true for us.

I felt I was modeling sobriety through abstinence and house rules. And I feel that I have done a pretty good job imparting to my children the reality of their unwelcome inheritance in the sense that they've always known about our family history and the potential the disease of addiction has to grow in their lives because of their body chemistry. But because I continued to suffer for so many years with the low self-esteem that comes with being an ACoA and having the eating disorder I have struggled with for as long as I can remember, my kids were raised by an untreated ACoA and active addict. So in that sense, I was not the model of sobriety I congratulated myself on being. I was loving and supportive and was there with them every day of their lives. I was never violent or abusive. But I was in a constant state of depression, and I did not act on my children's behalf or on my own behalf as I should have. I was married twice, and though I knew my marriages were toxic and had to end, in the same way I knew my teenagers were drinking with their friends, I avoided taking a stand because I feared confrontation and was too overwhelmed to make decisions or take any healthy action. Instead of praying for "the courage to change the things I can," I prayed, "Please get me through this day." I made choices out of fear rather than faith, and I acted out of weakness rather than strength. It took me a long time to discover that this way of living out the past perpetuates the very behavior that we want to change.

Let it begin with me. I am the center of my family, and you are the center of yours. We are the bridge between the generations, and we are in a unique position to influence the future in such positive ways. In order to make a difference, we have to get healthy. Even if we have been in recovery for some time, we need to take it to the next level, whatever that means for each of us. I didn't want to face my addictions because I didn't want anyone to take them away from me. I couldn't imagine not having anything to relieve my anxiety and fear or to numb my pain. It took many years for me to learn that the only way to understand why I used substances was to stop using substances! I was also afraid of addressing certain barriers to my personal growth out of resistance to change. Finding the courage to change the things we can starts with ourselves. My sponsor tells me to ask my Higher Power for the willingness to change. She says that the whole point of recovery is to become the person we were intended to be. I would love nothing more than to encourage my children to do the same by my power of example. Now that's modeling sobriety.

When we are feeling strong and have clarity and purpose, we can break our part of the cycle of addictive behavior that we perpetuate with our families. We can interact with our family members and others in a healthier and more positive way. And that is the very best place to begin to change the direction of our lives.

About the Author:
From her preteen through adult years, Lisa Woititz worked closely with her mother, Dr. Janet Geringer Woititz, at Dr. Woititz's Institute for Counseling and Training, and took over managerial responsibilities at the institute after her mother's death in 1994. She has worked in the mental health, addiction, and criminal justice fields all of her professional life. She is a trained addiction counselor and crisis counselor, and she has served as a volunteer for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) for the families of persons suffering with mental illness. As a probation officer and peace officer, she supervised youth at high risk of incarceration, many of whom were the children of alcoholics, and conducted presentence investigations on adult criminal matters for the local courts.

© 2015 by Lisa Sue Woititz
All rights reserved