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Section 3
The Mediating Role of Family Environment

Question 3 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed the second stage of family addiction, the development of a protective persona. There are five aspects of the development of a protective persona.  These are polarization of the family, distancing, the breakdown of family rituals, the creation of new rules, and shame and blame.

In this section, we will discuss stage three of family addiction, hopelessness.  In my experience, there are four important aspects of hopelessness.  These are negative attachments, unbridgeable gulfs, living in a state of trauma, and connections no longer hold.

As you will see with Mary, after many years of living with addiction, her family’s resources were exhausted, and hopelessness set in.  Do you agree that indifference becomes the primary coping mechanism in families like Mary’s?  In the last stage of addiction, hopelessness, Mary experienced such deep sadness and fatigue that she could barely manage her own life.

4 Aspects of the Hopelessness Stage

# 1 - Negative Attachments
The first aspect of hopelessness for Mary was negative attachments. After dealing with her 19-year-old son Todd’s amphetamine addiction for several years, Mary knew that her needs would not be met through her family, except through the formation of negative attachments.  As you know, in a negative attachment, one person’s negative defense mechanisms play into those of another.

 For example, Mary distanced herself from her own pain by putting down Todd in front of his siblings. Soon, her 15 year old son Ray began to mock Todd as well, and Mary and Ray became ‘partners’. They were negatively attached whenever Ray mocked Todd, and experienced a kind of camaraderie. These negative attachments entangled everyone in Mary’s family and reinforced their negative defense systems. The family’s relationships became competitive and adversarial.

# 2 - Unbridgeable Gulfs
The second aspect of hopelessness I observed in Mary’s family was unbridgeable gulfs. Understandably, the distance between family members increases in the hopelessness stage.  Do you have a client whose family rarely connects with each other, even when they are sitting in the same room?  I find that for some, this distance brings relief and comfort, but for others, this brings deep shame.  

Mary stated, "At times things got so bad I’d find myself hoping Todd would die of an overdose. I hate myself for thinking that! I must be the worst mother on the face of the earth.  Whenever I find myself thinking that, I feel sick thinking about who I’ve become." As you know, these thoughts are coping mechanisms, and addicts at this stage often wish themselves dead as well. I explained to Mary, "When someone feels hopeless, it is not abnormal to fantasize about the death or removal of the person causing the pain."  

Mary had been too entangled to realize this, and so she punished herself for these thoughts.  Do you have a client, like Mary, who is at the risk for serious depression due to the shame caused by wishing something would happen to remove their addicted family member?

# 3 - Living in a State of Trauma
Mary’s family was continually living in a state of trauma, which I found to be the third aspect of their hopelessness stage.  Mary’s family members in this stage became hyperreactive, startling easily, for example jumping if a door is shut firmly. This hyperreactivity triggered more arguments, adding to the trauma.  

Do you find, as I do, that exiting the family is a common strategy and solution to trauma at this stage?  I, like you, have observed children who run away, enter the military or university, marry and have children, or join gangs.  Spouses may plan or execute a divorce, find a job that keeps them away from home for long hours, have an affair- anything to escape from the home situation.  For Mary, anger became the last thing that kept her from total despair.

However, as you know, anger can be a dangerous strategy for children. In Mary’s younger children, Ken and Beth, I observed traumatic bonding. Ken, 13, and Beth, 11, attached themselves to the sickest member of the family, Todd, and by supporting him, experienced a connection that protected them and secured a relationship.

Mary’s husband Billy gave up, submitting blindly to the dysfunctional addictive family system. Billy experienced more psychological damage than the rest of Mary’s family, and began displaying signs of potential alcohol addiction himself. Do you agree that family members, like Billy, who give up and submit to the dysfunction, may be more prone to addiction later on?

# 4 - Failure of Connections
In addition to negative attachments, unbridgeable gulfs, and living in a state of trauma, the fourth aspect of hopelessness in Mary’s family was the failure of connections. As we have discussed in the previous sections, communication patterns break down as addiction progresses.  In the hopelessness stage, these patterns become routine, stagnant, and rigid.  In Mary’s family, family members tended to repeat the same safe conversations; these conversations offer an artificial sense of family.  

Ray, one of Todd’s younger brothers, stated, "life at home became really boring, but it seemed like we were close.  But it got to be you knew what conversations would happened at what time.  At 5:30, there was the ‘what’s for dinner’ talk.  Dinner would be silent, then at 7 it was time for ‘what’s on tv?’  

"We matched the same TV shows together every week. It was the only way we had something interesting to talk about.  One time my sister, Beth, started trying to talk about some problems she was having at school, and we all just turned and stared at her.  She looked so embarrassed.  We basically shamed her for wanting to talk about something real."  

During times of crisis, everyone in Mary’s family was ‘free’ to vent their feelings, but after everything had been said, very little was taken seriously.  The family believed the issues of Todd’s addiction to amphetamines were unsolvable.  Mary’s family began to turn to Ken as a hero, as he excelled in both school and sports.  Ken began to experience feelings of being trapped as a result. 

He stated, "I wish I could take some time to relax, play some video games, goof off after school like the guys I know do. But it makes my family so happy when I ace a test, or catch a touchdown. It’s the only time they all sit down together and get along! I can’t let my family down!" Have you treated a Ray, who became afraid of discussing real issues with his family? Would it be beneficial to play this section in your next session with your Ray?

♦ "My Opinions Matter" Technique, 2 Steps
I recommended the "My Opinions Matter" exercise to Ray and his brother Ken. In a previous session, Ray had stated that he was very interested in music.
Step 1: For this exercise, I asked Ray to take time for himself every day to listen to a piece of music he had never heard before, and form an opinion about it.
Step 2: Next, I asked Ray if he had a close friend with whom he could discuss music. Ray stated, "well, I think my friend Jen from school would be a good person to talk to. I feel pretty comfortable with her, and she’s always talking about some band or another." I asked Ray if, once a week, he would consider discussing his opinion on a new piece of music with Jen, which may lead to a disagreement. Ray told me, "well, ok, I’ll ask Jen and give it a try."

As you can see, this exercise allowed Ray to begin building up his ability to discuss issues important to him, and defending his thoughts and values. Would your Ray benefit from a "My opinions matter?" exercise?

In this section, we have discussed stage three of family addiction, hopelessness, and the four important aspects of hopelessness. These aspects are: negative attachments, unbridgeable gulfs, living in a state of trauma, and connections no longer hold. In the next section, we will discuss the three ways the addictive process affects a couple. These three effects are, the initial agreement of the relationship breaks down, anxiety is created due to the breakdown, and the co-addict becomes the sole keeper of the initial agreement.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bijttebier, P., & Goethals, E. (2006). Parental drinking as a risk factor for children's maladjustment: The mediating role of family environment. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 20(2), 126–130.

Eddie, D., White, W. L., Vilsaint, C. L., Bergman, B. G., & Kelly, J. F. (2021). Reasons to be cheerful: Personal, civic, and economic achievements after resolving an alcohol or drug problem in the United States population. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 35(4), 402–414.

Ennis, E., & Trearty, K. (2019). Attachment orientations and adult alcohol use among those with childhood adversities. Journal of Individual Differences, 40(4), 187–193.

Field, M., Heather, N., Murphy, J. G., Stafford, T., Tucker, J. A., & Witkiewitz, K. (2020). Recovery from addiction: Behavioral economics and value-based decision making. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 34(1), 182–193.

Hunter, S. B., Witkiewitz, K., Watkins, K. E., Paddock, S. M., & Hepner, K. A. (2012). The moderating effects of group cognitive–behavioral therapy for depression among substance users. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 26(4), 906–916.

Jarmas, A. L., & Kazak, A. E. (1992). Young adult children of alcoholic fathers: Depressive experiences, coping styles, and family systems. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(2), 244–251.

What are the important aspects of the hopelessness stage?
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Section 4
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