Addiction flourishes in an atmosphere of vagueness, secrets, and lies. It rarely announces itself. It can be helpful to know what addiction feels like and sounds like, in order to be able to recognize its contribution to the difficulties that may show up in your life.
Since addiction is all about distorted roles, rules and communication patterns, you can start by noticing when things feel “off” or “weird” — the distortions. Once you are attuned to noticing distortions, they will pop up everywhere, even in individuals who are not themselves alcoholics/addicts but who grew up in families with addiction.
Suddenly doubting your own perceptions, feeling like you are losing your grip, can be one of your first clues that there is a distortion of reality nearby.
Here are some other things you may notice in people or situations which offer clues that addiction may be lurking in the shadows:
- Chaotic lifestyle with frequent relational, legal or financial difficulties
- Lack of basic self-care skills
- Incongruity between what is said and what is acted out
- Denial, blame and/or avoidance as primary ways of coping
- Lack of motivation or responsibility
- Fearful, anxious, or paranoid presentation (with no obvious reason)
- Use of indirect communication like “mind reading” – guessing what other people think and feel
- Lack of boundaries or awareness of boundaries of self and others
- Rigid boundaries resulting in black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking
- Perfectionism or isolation needed to maintain positive self-image
- Extremely dependent; willing to do almost anything to avoid the fear and pain of abandonment.
Dr. Janet Woititz developed this list of common symptoms of adult children of alcoholics/addicts who:
- Guess at what normal is
- Have difficulty in following a project through from beginning to end
- Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth
- Judge themselves without mercy
- Have difficulty having fun
- Take themselves very seriously
- Have difficulty with intimate relationships
- Overreact to changes over which they have no control
- Constantly seek approval and affirmation
- Feel that they are different from other people
- Are either super responsible or super irresponsible
- Are extremely loyal, even when that loyalty is undeserved
There are other problems besides addiction in families that can create similar distorted roles, rules and communication patterns. These include having a severely mentally ill parent, a chronically ill family member, or extreme poverty, war or other crises that overwhelm a family’s ability to cope.
Whether active addiction or not, it is helpful to be able to pay attention to the difficulties that result from living in and around this powerful energy, which often shows up in blocked intimacy and authenticity.