Family Footprints

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Forty-Eight

Addictionologist Gabor Mate asks the question “why the pain” not why the addiction. Makes sense. Most of us who know addiction recognize that there is a pack of wolves chasing us through the woods, nipping at our heels.  Mood altering addiction helps to escape the wolf pack and numb out the anxiety that overwhelms. Metaphorically, where does the wolf pack come from? Footprints lead back to the family we grew up in. The answer to the source of pain usually leads us home. The objective is not to pin the tail on the donkey and commiserate about who is at fault. It is simply to understand the pain and how to stop it. 

Family life is a powerful dynamic. It’s the place we come home to everyday. The fundamental supplies for doing life are resourced in the context of family in order to thrive and operate. Family is where the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs are furnished and developed. Most families do not provide enough relational resources for these needs to be met.  As a result, family members are left wanting. Essentially, bonding is a critical need left unmet without sufficient amounts of mirroring, engagement, and attunement to children. Where this is true the likelihood of addiction increases. The reason is because when these developmental needs are not provided, the result is emotional pain.  The experience is crazymaking for the family member. It seems normal but feels immensely painful. The void and lack becomes a vacuum that needs to be filled in some way.  Addictive behavior becomes the normative sedative to ease the emotional pain. The addictive interaction with emotional discomfort becomes normalized.  Addiction most likely occurs in the life of the individual who cannot find meaningfulness in everyday experience. It is not addressed through activities, achievements, and materialism. During the formative years it is a necessity that a parent participates with the child in what they do and crawl inside their head to know what makes them tick and who they are. This must be done in sufficient amounts of time. There is no shortcut. This bonding and connection is critical and ofttimes missing. Without this connection the possibility of addiction increases.

When this bonding of parent to child is missing, children often turn to siblings to provide necessary connection and subconsciously attempt to bond with each other. At least that seemed true in the family I grew up in.

My brother Jimmy was an interesting mix. He was one of 12 kids my mom and dad raised. From a big family perspective Jimmy always seemed so self-absorbed and selfish. My experience was that he took up too much space. He grumbled a lot, was never satisfied, and seemed to be embarrassed about his family around his friends. I have memories of him being mad on Christmas morning about the gift he got-didn’t fit, wasn’t cool or something. My dad would tell him to quit being such a Scrooge and my mom would say “Why can’t we have a happy Christmas like other families”. I just wished Jimmy would go back to bed. There seemed to always be chaos around Jimmy. Shame has a way of making the one consumed by it and everyone connected absolutely miserable. It’s also a very lonely experience and for the one snared, he is mostly misunderstood. At least, I believe Jimmy was misunderstood. 

Jimmy did not have a lot of connection with family.  He seemed to always be in conflict with someone in the family. Looking back, when he was born my dad was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. My dad never connected with Jimmy for the first 2 years of his life. This critical time is crucial to the bonding, attunement, and mirroring needs that each child requires. MY mom was under a lot of stress and had to heroically be strong for herself and family, knowing that my dad was scrambling for his life at war. Later in family life, Jimmy seemed to always be angry and annoyed. At the time I just figured he was being an SOB.  My goal was to either stay away from him or appease him if he were in my space. Upon reflection, there was a lot of oppression and domination in his life. 

With many emotional needs left unmet, Jimmy turned to his brother Dave for bonding and connection. Their relationship was marked with magnetism but was also like oil and water. Jimmy was a great athlete and Dave was a big-time fist fighter. They fought all the time. Jimmy played Little League with my brother Dave who was 2 years older. He was a better baseball player than Dave. Yet, Dave got to be a player-coach in Little League because the league played their games on summer morning during weekdays and most dads were working.  So, there was a shortage of coaches.  With the dearth of coaching, league organizers decided to allow for some coaching vacancies to be filled by players. The league was organized around a draft of available players and Dave drafted Jimmy. Once, when the two were playing unorganized sandlot ball at Lawson Park, they got into a big argument about balls and strikes. They got into this big fist fight. Dave was pissed and stormed home, got on the phone and traded Jimmy away from his team for a kid who wasn’t nearly as good. It was done as a kind of put down. The league was organized to play two halves. After the first half, it allowed coaches to trade and swap players. During the second half, Jimmy’s team killed Dave’s team, with Jimmy leading the way with home runs and RBI’S. He never let Dave forget that he traded him and then he came back to torch him.  

Even as adults, we would have an annual Thanksgiving football game out in the street with the driveways being first down markers and the manholes at the end of the block being the goal line. Inevitably, before we would go in for Thanksgiving dinner, Dave and Jimmy would get into a physical fight over something. Then, we would go in and sit down at the dinner table. The two of them would be tense and breathing heavy and mom would say it again, “Why can’t we sit down and have a nice Thanksgiving dinner like other families”. By then there were nine of us kids.  We would pray and then everyone would compete trying to fork their favorite part of the turkey. 

Though they fought a lot with each other, Dave always fought Jimmy’s fights for him around town. Jimmy kind of had a mouth and Dave backed him up. He was a big fighter. Once, Jimmy was being picked on by Mike Sweeney who was sort of a neighborhood bully. When Dave heard about it, he challenged Sweeney to a fight. They met behind the Etog Bowling Alley. I was specifically told not to go to the bowling alley to watch, but I couldn’t stay home. I was curious, scared for my brother and snuck over to watch without my mom finding out. 

Jimmy came to the fight with Dave but stayed in the car.  Sweeney had a chain and wrapped it around Dave’s head. I remember seeing the blood from Dave’s head spurting everywhere. Dave went nuts. He picked up Sweeney and body slammed him to the ground and hit him in the face mercilessly until Sweeney was unconscious. Dave kept hitting him. I remember seeing Sweeney’s lifeless body flop after each hit and thought Sweeney was dead. It was horrifying!  I figured the cops would be called and everyone would get arrested. It never happened. Eventually, I watched Sweeney get up, stagger to his car and drive away. I cautiously sneaked back home, and no one ever found out that I watched that horrific fight. Two weeks later Dave and Sweeney got drunk and together drove a 1963 MG into a concrete culvert with speeds in excess of 100MPH! Neither were killed but Dave got his eye gouged out. My mom called her church friends to pray for Dave’s eye.  During surgery they put his eye back in and he was miraculously able to see out of it again.  Yet, Dave had this love/hate relationship with Jimmy. 

Both later became addicts. Jimmy addicted to nicotine. Dave addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine. Both have been dead for a long time. Jimmy killed by cancer from Agent Orange from the Viet Nam war. Dave from alcohol and cocaine addiction. Jimmy’s death came first. When he came home from Viet Nam with cancer in his body, Dave had him move into his house and took care of him. He would drive him drive around in his Lincoln Continental listening to Neil Diamond sing Holly Holy over and over again. In many ways I grew up as an observer of the chaos and craziness that unfolded in front of my eyes from the insane and wacky times of Jim and Dave’s relationship. I absorbed the pain, the intensity and the mixed bag of love and hate the two of them had toward each other. As I write about their relationship, it makes me cry. Why was Jimmy so pissed all the time and why did Dave have all these knock down bloody fights and die from addiction? The footprints of my family lead me back to an awareness of a lack of bonding, attunement, and mirroring of value during their early childhood years. These are footprints that I have had to trace back to my own deficits and addictions that have contributed to my wolf pack that has chased me through the woods all of these years. 


Research your early days in life. Find out what your family was like when you were born. What pressures and stress existed? What was mom and dad going through at the time you entered the world? Consider your developmental needs (bonding, mirroring value, affection, attunement, predictable environment, etc). Assess the stresses and pressures that your parents experienced in relation to getting your developmental needs met. Share what you discover with someone who you would like to know this information. 

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