Recovery’s Generational Impact

By Ken Wells - 03/09/2021


Series Two: Blog Ten

Recovery engages the losses in life experience that we often bury. Addiction begins as an innocent response to hurtful behavior or unwanted feeling and germinates and grows to a place that chokes who you are. For some it appears to be a gradual progression. Others describe the addictive behavior as an instant hook.  Yet for all, addiction is the result of losses buried and a lifetime of numbing the pain from known and unknown hurtful experience.

None of us who are addicts signed up for being an addict. Exactly why we became an addict is uncertain for sure. For decades we were told that we were genetically predisposed or we have simply made poor choices. For me as an addict, both are true. I was predisposed from my father’s family which was dominated by alcohol and sex addiction and my mother’s family which was dominated with impression management. Today’s enlightenment suggests that while genetics plays a role, we underestimate the environmental influence in our lives beginning from conception in the womb.  The emphasis is upon trauma–your response to traumatic events in your life. Although all of these factors make sense, sometimes it is difficult to explain why I grew up learning to be a sex and work addict and others who have a very similar environmental background have no addictions at all. Or why some people who grew up with similar traumas responded with behaviors that landed them in jail whereas I ended up being an addiction counselor. Was there an influence in life that molded a behavioral response at a critical developmental time in life? We may never know for sure.  

Addicts are often judged and condemned. Many in our society believe addiction is simply about making poor choices that should be punished. Our prisons are full of addicts who have made poor choices. There is a mentality that if addicts have to pay for their destructive behavior by being sent to prison, then they would rehabilitate and stop the destructive behavior. Millions of dollars are spent each year to imprison addicts for their behavior. They leave prison untreated and face a society with the stigma of being a felon with few options for treatment and rehabilitation. This punitive approach to addict recovery has proven unsuccessful.

The journey in recovery is sometimes harrowing and ofttimes circuitous. It is humbling to face the life experiences that molded you into an adult child. Slowly and painfully, recovery unveils how your actions and decisions as an adult were guided by childhood experiences grounded in self-doubt and fear. You learned to manage the dysfunctional family you were raised in by determining what to think, do, or say in order to avoid the most pain. You learned to rely only on yourself to get by and survive. Years later, although an adult in appearance, you find yourself dominated by childhood reaction, haunted by unresolved trauma that wreaks havoc in your life.

Most addicts learn to impression-manage very well to regulate fear which dominates their lives. Feelings are frozen from childhood trauma.  They can have a tough exterior but are weak and fragile on the inside. Hypocrisy and incongruence, often referred to as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde persona, become a standard way of functioning. Addicts live a life that is never free from fear. 

Recovery is about creating a legacy for the next generation.  A major component in passing addiction from one generation to the next is the dynamic of shame which moves from one generation to the next through secrecy. Secrets are about things hidden and things not talked about. Shame is the payload. Everyone knew that grandpa drank and cheated on grandma but no one talks about what they know. 

In recovery, we learn to expose the secrets and the losses that were buried.  Memories and feelings float to our conscious awareness and we are asked to address these uncomfortable experiences. With great discomfort we embrace hurtful experiences as a child. We are confronted with behaviors other than our addiction that we did and are shameful and painful to face. We must address moments of immaturity in our present life when we have given our power away and show up like a child in our adult relationships. 

The reason we do this in not only for sober living but for the greater vision of legacy we pave for the next generation. Addressing painful hidden family addictions and dysfunctional behaviors allows the next generation to build upon our courageous choice to break the domination of shame that is passed from one generation to the next. While talking about the secrets is not enough to change destructive behavior, there is no change without exposing our shameful past. As a country we are unable to unravel and detach from a shameful past of racial domination unless we face our legacy of behaviors like lynching and other horrific destructive practices. This requires that we discuss these horrific events to understand its impact on our society in the here and now. By stalking the shame, we drain the pool of pain and eliminate its domination for the next generation. This is the way it is with addiction. There is no benefit in glorifying horrendous addictive behavior or in wallowing in the mud of it all. Yet, facing the fear of abandonment and sending clear messages not only frees you from the clutches of addiction but also emancipates future descendants so that they are not burdened with the addictive behaviors of past generations. 

Never underestimate the way in which your attitude to grow yourself up in relationship choices profoundly impacts the next generation.  The challenge is to speak out when shame screams that you be silent. Ready yourself to challenge conventional wisdom and sacrifice comfort for healing that turns your children from despair and reconnects them with what is sacred–your truth. By personal example, recovery presents an alternative vision, an alternative way of living life free of shame, free of addiction.

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