By Michelle Horton
“Addiction turns the people we love into strangers.”
An 11-year-old girl came to that profound realization during her second day at the Betty Ford Center’s Children’s Program — a camp designed for kids with parents or family members in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction.
The kids come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some have been exposed to scary situations or drastic life changes, while others barely remember life when mom or mad wasn’t regularly attending meetings and living a recovery lifestyle. But no matter what a child sees or remembers, his or her life was affected and continues to be affected by the disease.
Jerry Moe, vice president and national director of Children’s Programs for the Betty Ford Center, has dealt with countless children and parents over his 30 years working in treatment, specifically through these programs. He’s sat with children as they drew pictures of how addiction tore apart their families, and watched kids role-play dysfunctional family dynamics. He’s heard tearful stories of love and confusion and hurt. He’s seen children understand — for the very first time — what the disease of addiction or alcoholism actually is, and how they didn’t cause it to happen.
Because that’s the thing; when kids don’t understand what’s happening around them and no one explains what’s going on in a way that makes sense, they’ll make up stories and scripts to fill in the gaps. Painful, damaging life scripts. Growing up in a family where there’s an addiction is often like trying to put together a puzzle and only having bits and pieces. It just doesn’t make sense.
“Whether it’s alcoholism or other drug addictions, we’re talking about a disease of silence and shame and secrecy,” said Moe. “[Kids] might not know in specifics that all of the conflict and stress in the family has to do with addiction, but they certainly know that something’s wrong.”
According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, one in four children under the age of 18 are exposed to alcoholism or addiction at home. All research shows that these children are highly susceptible to falling into the same cycle of addiction — for both genetic and environmental factors. This is a family disease — a generational problem — that too often gets passed down as a legacy.
“Visit the living room of the average family that is ‘living with,’ or should I say ‘drowning in,’ addiction, and you are likely to find a family that is functioning in emotional extremes,” wrote Tian Dayton, PhD, in “Portrait of an Alcoholic Family: Forgotten Children; Right Next Door?” for the NACoA. “Where feelings explode and get big, very fast or implode and disappear into ‘nowhere,’ with equal velocity … Where things don’t really get talked about but instead become shelved, circumvented or downright denied.”
Moe said the Children’s Program provides those missing puzzle pieces to help kids understand what’s happening around them and to help break the cycle.
To read the rest of the story, check out the latest issue of Renew
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