The adult in the addictive family system tends to have severely limited awareness. In childhood, particularly early childhood, he knowingly struggled to not be angry, sad or afraid. In adulthood, he operates “on automatic.” By then, lessons may have been so well learned that, only at times, is there so much as a vague sense of anxiety, or perhaps a sense of emptiness. When “bad” emotions do manage to “leak through,” they aren’t viewed as important information or preparation. They are more likely to be a source of confusion or fear; they shouldn’t be there.
One reason emotional experience continues to be seen as “bad,” even after adult reasoning ability has developed, is that, having a history of being suppressed, the emotions are “behind the times.” Imagine, for instance, a bright child who has learned he is intellectually incompetent. Any attempt to “be smart” in school brought humiliation from his peers.
Later in life he may feel anxious or fearful when faced with an exam. Even though circumstances are different from those in childhood, the same feelings are subject to surface based on the similarities. He knows his feelings are “wrong” and an “interference.” He will make every effort to suppress, ignore and/or discount them. By suppressing his fear and anxiety, by refusing to be aware of a wealth of subconscious information, he never learns to “automatically” discriminate between childhood situations where he was humiliated and similar situations in adult life. The subconscious continues to act on the old lessons. “I am stupid and will be humiliated.”
In “normal” functioning, the subconscious would generate fear and make pertinent information on similar past situations available to consciousness. The conscious mind, in response, would focus its attention on the problem. Knowing why the fear was generated, it would be able to reason out the situation. Awarenesses such as “I am well prepared. I will do fine,” “These are different people. Even if I do poorly, they won’t ridicule me” or “I’ve shown myself I’m not stupid, but smart by …” The subconscious, having gotten conscious attention, is ready to listen, ready to learn. In this way, perhaps immediately, perhaps over time, the subconscious learns to discriminate between past and current situations.
The “addictive personality” operates in quite a different fashion. The generation of emotion is seen as the problem. The real problem is seldom recognized and even more rarely dealt with. Even worse, when the feared humiliation doesn’t happen, it is seen as proof of the “wrongness” of the fear. This assures that continuing action is taken which keeps the functioning and the contents of the subconscious far below potential.
The “addictive personality” bypasses learning, growth and normal human functioning.
Restricting one’s ability to feel and deeming one’s feelings “inappropriate,” severely limits the ability to fill needs or even be aware of them. For example, if someone has been punished in childhood for being successful, is warned against the terrible things that will happen if he succeeds or is taught the “futility” of trying to succeed, success may well be avoided in adulthood. Even if attained, the anxiety may be so intense that success is an extremely unpleasant experience. In such circumstances, in order to make the anxiety go away, the success will be thrown away.
In a similar way, if a child learns that to feel good is “bad,” the adult will automatically avoid feeling good. While conscious effort may be focused on some goal, the subconscious will, outside of conscious awareness, act on the “old lessons.” It will sabotage the conscious efforts to feel good, which it holds as a dangerous condition.
Perhaps the most severe internal restrictions typical of addicted people involve emotional intimacy. People who are taught, and continue to believe, that normal human emotional response is to be suppressed have severe problems with closeness. To the degree that a person is unable to experience and to express anger, sadness, fear, happiness and other feelings, he is unable to be intimate with friends and lovers.
This is at the root of the loneliness often experienced by addicted people. Even if in a room full of people, not being able to communicate with themselves, not being with themselves, they can’t communicate, can’t be with, others. No relationship with another human being can be less superficial than the relationship one has with oneself.
Other important restrictions are those caused by learned helplessness. Just like the perfectly capable child who learns he is incompetent to read, the addicted person may learn that he is incompetent to succeed in important areas of his life and hence give up trying. For instance, he may learn he is incompetent to earn a living, make friends, be attractive to the opposite sex, love somebody, be loved, be a desirable party guest, maintain a marriage, appreciate art or music, get along with the boss or be happy.
Once people learn helplessness, they have difficulty making the associations which prove the belief untrue. For instance, if a boy learns he is too uncoordinated to play football, even if he should become a video game whiz, he will be unlikely to make the connection. If he had begun making the association while learning to play video games, he likely would never have become a skilled player. He would have given up because he believed that to try to excel at something which requires coordination was a wasted effort.
When attempts to fill a need do not fail often enough for helplessness to be learned, but do fall short of filling the need, a chronic state of frustration occurs just like that of the rat in the cage under intermittent reinforcement. Having learned to sabotage normal mental functioning, the person may be unable to recognize, much less fill, his needs. As a matter of fact, he may see avoiding the awareness of certain or all emotional states as a primary need. Under these conditions, somewhat less severe than total helplessness (paralyzing depression), excessive behavior will be engaged in.
A generally transitory form of this often occurs with the death of a spouse or divorce. It is not unusual for someone who has suffered such a loss to either experience extended depression, to drink to excess or behave excessively in other ways. Normally, after a period of weeks, months or maybe years, feelings are processed, hope is regained and efforts are made to directly fill the “empty place” in their lives. The difference between someone who drinks to excess due to temporary feelings of hopelessness and frustration and those who drink due to chronic, lifelong feelings of hopelessness and frustration is the difference between transitory alcohol and drug problems and “having the disease of alcoholism.”
Psychological tests point out some important characteristics of those with severe chronic drinking and drug problems.
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is one of the most widely used tests for psychological diagnosis. It is made up of 566 true/false questions. It is designed to detect attempts at both “looking good” and outright lying. Various “scales,” or subsets of the 566 questions, have been used to distinguish persons with various types of “pathology.”
The MacAndrew Alcoholism Scale117 was designed in the early 1960s to separate alcoholics and drug addicts from psychiatric patients. Due to its high rate of accuracy, it is still in use today. Drug addicts and alcoholics from ages 18 to 70, average age 42, differ significantly in their responses to 49 of the 566 MMPI questions.
They see themselves as “bad.” They are more likely to agree with the statement, “I deserve severe punishment for my sins.”
Their levels of self awareness are lower than that of psychiatric patients. It is so low, in fact, that they are either ignorant of, or discount, even physical pain. While they report more coughing and vomiting blood, they also report they feel little or no pain.
In terms of awareness of emotional factors underlying their behavior, they are more likely than psychiatric patients to agree with the statement, “Evil spirits possess me at times.”
Probably the clearest examples of diminished awareness in alcoholics is how they see themselves and their parents. One need not look far to find examples where early childhood “self as bad/parent as good” lessons are carried into adulthood with a total blindness to the extremity of the childhood situations. Two of the best examples, due to their celebrity as alcoholics, are Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, the co founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Dr. Bob’s story
In the first “personal experience” story in the Big Book, Bob Smith describes his parents,
“My father was a professional man of recognized ability and both my father and mother were most active in church affairs. Both father and mother were considerably above the average in intelligence.”118
In his life story, an A.A. approved book, a quite different, although not necessarily contradictory, picture is painted. Evidently, his mother was a stern religious fanatic who spent her time obsessively with the church and had little time for her only child,
“Mrs. Smith … was described as a stern, tight lipped, churchgoing lady who busied herself with the countless social and religious activities of [her church].”119
“Mrs. Smith felt that the way to success and salvation lay through strict parental supervision, no nonsense education, and regular spiritual devotion.”120
Contrasting with this outwardly pious attitude was a cold, indifferent woman who had little concern, much less love and affection, for her son.
“Grandma Smith [Bob’s mother] was a cold woman. … Once she came to the house, and we were all sick with the flu. Instead of pitching in, she went to bed, too!”121
“Young Bob was sent to bed every evening at five o’clock. He went with a quietly obedient air that might have led some parents to suspect the worst. When he thought the coast was clear, Bob got up, dressed, and slipped stealthily downstairs and out the back door to join his friends. He was never caught.”122
One could deduce from this information that young Bob Smith’s sneaking out was an early sign of rebellion and leave it at that as the AA writer cited here apparently did.123 However, it seems extremely strange that parents would send their child to bed at five in the afternoon. It also seems strange that they would never check on him and find him missing. Also rather odd is that they wouldn’t notice his suffering lack of sleep if he wasn’t expected to spend more than eight hours or so in bed. It seems far more likely that “out of sight, out of mind” was the rule. Of course, a child treated like this thinks he deserves it, that parental treatment is right. In spite of unloving, rejecting parents, Bob Smith describes himself, directly after his description of his parents as intelligent and church going, like this,
“Unfortunately for me, I was the only child, which perhaps engendered the selfishness which played such an important part in bringing on my alcoholism.”124
Bill Wilson’s story
The other co founder, Bill Wilson, is reported to have had a close relationship with his father.125 Bill’s father, who had drinking problems, was himself a child of a heavy drinker.126 His mother was in poor mental health and suffered a series of “nervous breakdowns” and went to a sanitarium at least once.127 When Bill was six years old, he wrote a letter to his mother who had already been away some months, probably “recuperating.” In the letter he indicated how he saw himself. “I want to see you ever so much. I try to be a good boy.”128 Evidently, as is typical of young children, he believed his mother’s return, and his being able to re experience her affection, to be contingent upon his being good enough. Bill remembered himself as being friendless at this time because “his shyness and awkwardness prevented him from developing close friendships…”129
Bill eventually got his wish and his mother returned home, at which time she announced that Bill’s father had “gone for good.” Bill didn’t see his father again for nine years. The exact age this occurred is not given in Wilson’s autobiography but was no later than age 10 or 11. Bill later told of hearing that he wouldn’t see his father again. “It was an agonizing experience for one who apparently had the emotional sensitivity that I did.”130 He saw his sensitivity as being part of the problem. He could not, and apparently never did, see his sensitivity as being a perfectly natural and normal response to abandonment by the father he loved. He says, “I hid the wound, however, and never talked about it with anybody…”131 Turning to his mentally disturbed mother was out of the question. She “lacked the warmth and understanding”132 Bill needed. This may have been putting it mildly because as Bill remembers her at this time, “My mother was a disciplinarian, and I can remember the agony of hostility and fear that I went through when she administered her first good tanning with the back of a hairbrush. Somehow, I never could forget that beating.”133 His mother soon left after recuperating from some unspecified illness. Bill was now abandoned by both parents. He sank into a year long depression.
Bill stayed with his maternal grandparents. He loved his grandfather, but also recognized that, “they were not overpopular people.”134 At some point Bill began to excel both scholastically and athletically. At 17, he fell in love with the minister’s daughter, Bertha. Unfortunately, she died “suddenly and unexpectedly.” This great loss precipitated a “tremendous depression” which lasted for three years. His grades suffered and he no longer was an overachiever. As he later told it, “No athletics, no schoolwork done, no attention to anyone. I was utterly, deeply, and compulsively miserable, convinced that my whole life had utterly collapsed.”135
As Wilson’s biographer describes his sense of helplessness after Bertha’s death,
“The evening after Bertha’s funeral service, standing in the cemetery next to the crypt that held her body in screaming mockery of his inability ever to hold it again, the suddenly aged Wilson achieved a revelation of ‘failure.’: He knew now … . His need, his loving, didn’t matter a good goddamn. His wanting, his hunger and desire, meant nothing to the terrible ongoing forces of creation and he would never forget this truth which he saw and accepted that night.”135a.
Bill was never again able to maintain success after this loss. He later told of his thoughts at this time, “I could not be anybody at all. I could not win, because the adversary was death.”136 While he certainly had been winning in scholastic and athletic terms, in the more important terms of parental love and romantic love, he had always lost.
One facet of the denial of prior abuse and the viewing of “the self as bad/parent as good” is that, quite often, the substance abuser is openly hostile toward one or both parents. While the very early childhood lessons are the ones most sacrosanct, other factors come into play. One is that maltreatment is more easily recognized in the teen years. Also, older children, having a more developed intellect, are not as locked into the position of seeing themselves as wrong as is the small child. It is the emotionally unrecognized abuse that teaches the child that he is “bad” or “defective” that does the most damage.
Another factor is that abused children often become most attached to, and identify with, the most abusive parent. An example of this is a man named Angelo who had begun irregularly attending AA meetings. Angelo, who was around thirty at the time, was extremely skilled at “proper” upper middle class social interaction. He dressed tastefully, was careful to use perfect grammar and pronunciation and never used bad language. For several months he expressed great anger toward his stepmother, whom he characterized in negative terms, but his deportment and language was always “proper.” He described his father and his relationship with him in glowing terms. For months Angelo expressed great fondness for his father. I sat over coffee with him one night for three hours. During the entire time, he told me story after story about what a perfect father he had.
Not long afterward, I ran into him again at “after meeting” coffee. His demeanor and behavior had changed radically. No longer was he worried about being “proper.” He was boiling over with rage. Face red, eyes blazing with hatred, he spoke in an entirely uncharacteristic fashion, “That fucking bastard. He used to beat me every time he got drunk. I want to kill that fucking bastard.” He went into detail about the sometimes bizarre, always cruel, punishment he had suffered at the hands of his father. After a long time of expressing his rage, as he began to calm down, he began reverting to the “old Angelo.” He became concerned with his “unsightly display” and said he felt like some sort of horrible monster. Unfortunately he was among a group of AA members who, although a little more “liberal” than most, shared the wisdom that he was “half way” a horrible monster.*
For people with various learned attitudes towards themselves of learned helplessness, distrust of intuition, contempt for their emotions and a general basic distrust of themselves, drinking alcohol, as well as other addictive behaviors, can have much to offer…