The old adage goes “change is a part of life.” And we nod our heads in agreement. However, for those of us in recovery from addiction, disorder and abuse, change can feel downright impossible. Our cravings, our unmet needs, our pain and our genetics can all play the role of adversary in our lives, beckoning us to return to our old ways. That’s not a surprise.
But, what is often more of a blindsiding situation, is the opposition from an unlikely source: our close relationships. It can thoroughly unhinge us, partly due to what we desire to believe about these individuals: they love us and want the best for us.
Eh…not always true.
A watershed moment of my recovery came when my therapist let me know my progress would not go unchallenged by my family. I needed to be prepared for their “change back” attitudes.
Each of these “change back’s” can, indeed, make things more painful and complicated.
Therefore, to date, I do not have a close relationship with most of my relatives. There has been a generational pattern of dysfunction, secrets, addictive and abusive patterns which are viewed as “normal.”
In response, certain family members have received treatment concerning their abuse and addiction issues, with varying degrees of success.
And then there are the others who are in denial of any sickness or problem going on. To them, keeping the status quo, filled with its secrecy and shame, is more important than facing or dealing with the truth, especially when it’s ugly.
So, while in therapy for both my disordered eating/image issues and the abuse I endured as a child, I started building “new normal,” healthier responses. I imperfectly practice these principles. It’s about challenging the harmful “change back” behavior with one which is more empowering.
First Change Back: Have No Boundaries
In most families battling abuse and addiction, healthy boundaries are practically nonexistent. My family fit the criteria: secrecy, shame and inappropriate behaviors/ relationships were all present.
This certainly applied to my childhood home. My dad was abusive. He often unleashed his controlling behavior, vicious emotional/verbal torture and degradation on us.
Because his way was always in force, always demanded and understood, I learned a distorted lesson: there was a hierarchy of human value. My dad possessed it all, while my mother and I were worthless, deserving no individual consideration whatsoever. It was acceptable for my dad to trample on our feelings, wishes and needs.
And, because of my mother’s approach of peace at all costs, I learned there was preferential treatment when it came to standing up to a violated circumstance. “Being good” and “behaving” were prized, rather than learning how to stand firm in who you were.
Within that atmosphere of inequity, resentment soon festered as I saw my dad, the abuser, enjoying all of the perks of this arrangement at our expense.
My Change Forward: Challenge the Boundary-less Notion:
That’s a big reason why the following scriptures have been healing in my whole retraining process.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18-19
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7
I apply these scriptures to my memories and childhood wounds, as God is helping me to continually take down each boundary-less lie, erected as truth.
It was one thing to be forced to participate in this unhealthy thinking as a child. Then, I was voiceless, at the mercy of what the “knowledgeable” adults viewed as best. However, with adulthood, as I encountered other people who did not have that harmful pattern within their family, I learned to take on a boundary-focused approach when I dealt with mine.
And, like my therapist warned me, my response was not embraced. Hostility and coercion was more like it. Whether it was the refusal/inability to see me as an adult, fear of their secrets being exposed/ confronted or the glaring reality of their sick behaviors, indeed, the “change back” mindset was in full force.
Those family members against me attempted to shame me into thinking my attitude was “uppity.” They believed I was brainwashed, forgetting where I came from and could not understand why I would choose my newer beliefs over family loyalty.
And, for those relatives who were in therapy for their addictions and past abuse experiences, there was a muffled kind of support. Secretly, one aunt who read my book shared how glad she was I shed light on the abuse and addiction. However, because of her own fear-based allegiance to the family, she chose not to confront them. Concerning any “change back” situations I encountered, I was on my own.
Second Change Back: Keep harmful people close
“That thou mayest walk in the way of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous.” Proverbs 2:20
Just because someone is family, doesn’t mean they have to be involved in your world. Ideally, they should be the one safe haven we have in people. They should love unconditionally, support constructively and want the very best for us. But life is not ideal. All too often, dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors dictate the scene.
My Change Forward: Limit Exposure to Toxic People As Much As Possible:
Over the years, I have tried to pursue and maintain close relationships with family members, to no avail. It is not because they are inherently evil people.
Instead, what I’ve discovered, is the majority of my family are simply not interested in establishing a connection with me. And, while that is not the ideal, nevertheless, it speaks to the need to go where you are embraced, not rejected, whenever you possibly can.
Part of the reason for the lack of closeness involves many of their self-destructive, co-dependent and harmful mindsets and behaviors. Most severe: raging addiction and abuse that can all too easily turn on me if I’m not careful. That includes offering me an addictive substance (usually alcohol), theft to support a habit and socializing with an abusive person. There is still not enough which separates them from their toxic choices and environment. To me, that is triggering and dangerous.
“Let us not therefore judge one another anymore: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.” Romans 14:13
Most of my family has lived in the same geographical place their entire lives. Therefore, they are attached to particular beliefs which represent that place. And sadly, within that environment, a smaller, isolated, rural community, there flourishes a culture which more easily embraces abuse and addiction than it does health.
And often, that culture also has a real problem with a particular word. That word is “no.”
Fourth Change Back: Don’t Say “No”
My recovery process involves using this very word. I have ample experience in which saying “yes” has gotten me into more trouble than standing in my own okay-ness with stating the two-letter response simply, but firmly.
My eating disorder issues were certainly driven by an insatiable need for perfection, approval and to be pleasing. So, “no” became a dirty little word.
My Change Forward: Say “No” Whenever You Need To Do So:
“No means no.”
My experience with this word has often been challenged. On numerous occasions, when I’ve politely given this response to family, they’ve refused it. Therefore, I’ve had to resort to my next response: “No is a complete sentence.”
By now, you would think they would have clearly gotten my point. But, no. To that more direct response, I have gotten rebuffed and further coerced. Family would tell me I was being unrealistic. They would convey how they thought I was “too good for them.” They’d dangle a substance or a behavior, attempting to convince me “a little won’t hurt.” On and on. I might as well have been dealing with a back alley drug pusher.
Years ago, a self- defense expert, teaching women how to protect themselves against their attackers, stated something which changed my life: “When a person does not accept your ‘no,’ they’re trying to control you.”
Refusal to heed someone’s no is a violating spirit. It demeans and destroys. And, make no mistake about it, God has instructed us on the “no” issue:
“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:37
Life does not require we feel giddy when we’re told no. We’ve all had experiences in which “yes” would be so much more pleasing to our wants. Nevertheless, someone’s “no,” however unwanted, needs to be respected. We don’t have to like it. But we do have to acknowledge it.
And, if we can’t do that, it calls into question, therefore, a larger issue concerning our spiritual health. Is our “yes” answer from someone more important to us than their life, sense of dignity and well-being?
What is our honest answer?
Fifth Change Back: Lie
And speaking of honesty, telling lies is yet another “change back” attitude I’ve needed to confront.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Deuteronomy 5:20
“How do you tell if an addict is lying? His lips are moving.”
The old joke is a zinger because there is truth there. And it covers not just addiction to substances, but to behaviors also. Therefore, in my opinion, it spreads to the abusive dynamic as well.
Dishonesty is the name of the game as secrets of diseased behaviors need to be kept, no matter who is hurt.
“You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.” Psalm 52:3
Whether it was abuse or addiction, certain family members of mine have become far too skilled at both kind of lies: commission and omission.
Commission lies are easier to spot. These are blatant, stating one thing when you know another complete opposite reality to be true.
But omission lies, well, they’re often more sinister. These are the lies employing silence and deliberate withholding of information.
“A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson
My family were experts here. It’s, unfortunately, why the sexual abuse of my cousin was allowed to continue for years. It’s also why a male family member was allowed to beat his wife, while simultaneously keeping his status as a pillar of the community and an elder in his church. The lies of omission shielded these individuals from consequences.
Whether the motive was fear, loyalty or some kind of reward for his/her silence, the damage was still done.
My Change Forward: Embrace Truth’s Freedom:
“The truth shall set you free.” John 8:32
And, to me, that deception constitutes eventual trouble, no matter how you slice it.
“He whose tongue is deceitful falls into trouble.” Proverbs 17:20
Looking at many of my family members’ choices, it appears they often revel in deception and the dysfunction of their vices. I’ve seen the end of the road concerning many of their decisions: death, unhealthy relationships, cancer, heart disease, eating disorders, divorce, poverty and unrealized potential of gifts and talents. Addiction and abuse have taken their toll. It’s a cautionary tale for us all, no matter our histories. If one examines the results of lying behavior, really, what positive result is there?
“Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.” Psalm 34:12-13
I have been there; I do not wish to return.
Sixth Change Back: Let yourself be abused and mistreated
And, it’s in the bleak reality of returning to that “status quo,” which further threatens life and health.
“For what I am doing, I do not understand…” The Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15
This sixth “change back” exemplifies its toxic reality. It can be summed up in one of my mother’s most commonly uttered statements: “At least he doesn’t hit us.”
I cannot tell you how many times I heard this comment about my dad. It was there when I was a child, an adolescent and later, as an adult. It was my mother’s explanation to justify staying in harm’s way.
Coming from the generational pattern of abuse and addiction, my mother saw, firsthand, how violence and chaos ruled the environment. She witnessed threats, beatings and the desperate but unsuccessful interventions of her brothers to “break up the fight” between her parents. She also witnessed the “coping mechanisms” of alcohol, drugs and disordered eating from these family members, herself included.
So, by the time my mother married my dad and had me, her definition of abuse and disease was constricted to only its most violent: the physical expression.
Since there was, no evidence of bruises, bumps, drunken or stoned loved ones, things weren’t “that bad.”
“For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…” Proverbs 23:7
Mom didn’t see the destruction my dad’s emotional, verbal and financial abuse could cause. We were prisoners of his “permissions” and whims. She didn’t believe my dad’s controlling nature was unhealthy. She judged anything and everything we experienced through our lack of physical beat downs.
And she repeatedly claimed she was above the fray when it came to addictions and vices. No, she was not an alcoholic or a drug addict like one of her siblings. But food? That was her chosen compulsion as her morbid obesity and emotional eating revealed her despair, loneliness and desperation.
As loving, intelligent and generous as she was, my mother could not give away what she didn’t have. It’s difficult for me to determine how much was intrinsically attached to her personality versus how much was affected from the decades of abusive and addictive behaviors. I only knew my mother as the trapped, frightened prisoner when she was a wife and mother. I never knew her as a person in her own right: financially independent and satisfied in her careers as teacher and artist.
I, therefore, have to constantly remind myself of this and resist the temptation to “blame the victim,” my mother.
My Change Forward: Value Myself:
Still, it is here where I’ve needed to face a harsh truth. When it comes to healthy identity, there was no way I could receive it from any family member, including my mother. They have not learned those value estimations for themselves.
“I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” Psalm 139:14
For now, as I’ve dealt more in depth with the abuse and addiction mentalities affecting family, I see how it is, indeed, all about “learning what we live,” whether that’s healthy or harmful. My mother didn’t know she could have things any differently. She was immersed in abuse and addiction since she was a child. And, truly, where would her healthy support and help have come from? Many of her family members were in the grips of their own diseases, toxic relationships and destructive self-concepts. The blind leading the blind…
Scripture, therefore, has had to be at the healing epicenter of my self-image. Here was where I first encountered an empowering viewpoint.
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” 1 Corinthians 3:16
God is constantly in the business of changing us “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Through arming myself with the revelations of Psalm 139:4 and 1 Corinthians 3:16, I see how there is worth and purpose to me because I am God’s creation. It is; it simply is. Nothing and no one can change that.
So, entering an atmosphere which contradicts that is pointless and yes, harmful. They say we fear/attack what we don’t understand. And, unfortunately, that’s how my family responded to anything different from an abusive or addictive situation.
However, God being good, has not left a vacuum for me. Instead, He has given me loving supportive “new” family members: my wonderful husband, spiritual mentors and loyal friends. It just reiterates what I’ve learned over the years; family doesn’t always need to be blood.
Seventh Change Back: Be just like everyone else (Don’t make a different life for yourself):
Throughout my life, I have experienced mixed signals from family. And most of those signals came from my mother; she had a hard time letting go of me. Her message appeared to be one of two restrictive choices: stay here in this misery and be my loyal daughter or abandon me by becoming yourself and living your life. It may not have been her intention to send that message. But I could not help but feel I was betraying her, being a “bad girl” as I developed into a person apart from her definition.
I suppose that’s par for the course as any child grows and becomes the person he/she is going to be. But, when you add the complication of addiction, abuse and co-dependency to the equation, there is no safe zone for an individual to become himself/herself in a healthy manner.
Within the context of disease, however it displays itself, loyalty to the unhealthy pattern may be prized, even to the detriment of a person’s well-being. Again, it is said we fear what we don’t understand. So, what happens when we don’t understand what constitutes a healthy, different way of life, beyond our addiction or abuse?
As mentioned earlier, the majority of my family have resided in the same geographical area. And so, I’ve had to come against the thought from many of them that their lifestyle should be mine. I should settle. To do anything beyond that, then, is ruled to be unrealistic, arrogant, and yes, disloyal.
“Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old.” Isaiah 43:18
But that is not God’s view. His thoughts are not about settling, disease, abuse or harm…
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
My Change Forward: Challenge What is Possible:
If God is interested in the new, in our futures, filled with good things, then why should we resist that just because it’s unfamiliar?
“Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:18-19
So, like many of us out there, the only way that I could get any healthier perspective was to get actual physical distance from those individuals who represented that familiar way of living.
This is not a new concept. After all, according to scripture, even Abraham was instructed to leave all things familiar…
“Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.” Genesis 12:1-2
“And said unto him, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.’” Acts 7:3
“By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” Hebrews 11:8
Sometimes, that radical change is the only way we can be open to better, healthier lifestyle choices.
Indeed, for me, it was in seeing new things, in living in new places and in meeting different kinds of people that I was better able to challenge what was possible. There was more than one way to live.
And, with that revelation, I could better confront/reject the toxic status quo of my hometown’s culture. I learned each person didn’t necessarily have abusive marriages and parents. Each person didn’t necessarily live under a constant threat of terror from addiction, chaos and the consequences from those poor choices.
It was eye-opening. The combination of my personally abusive family dynamic and the cultural macrocosm which often promoted that way of life had isolated me concerning that “common sense” perspective. And, upon learning that perspective, abusive and addictive approaches, therefore, are seen for what they are: unhealthy. No, they were not “business as usual.”
So, renewal was in order…
“And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:” Colossians 3:10
And this renewal, in our thoughts, in our words and in our actions and responses is vital when confronted with any and every kind of “change back” to addiction, disease and abuse.
Perhaps, you’ve had similar experiences to mine. Maybe you’re the only sober person in your family. Maybe you’re in a much different, healthier relationship than that of your parents, your siblings or your community. Maybe you feel you’re going against the grain, experiencing absolutely no show of positive support. It happens. But don’t allow that to convince you that your health and sobriety are wrong just because they are newer and more unfamiliar. No, it’s not easy or painless. But IT IS worth it!
God has more for you; life has more for you. Please remember that as any “change back” challenges that truth!
“Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” 3 John 1:2