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Seeing the unseen heroes

One of the most painful moments we treatment providers ever experience is seeing the damage that chemical dependency does to “innocent bystanders” – particularly the children growing up in these families.

If you haven’t experienced it yourself, it’s hard to imagine.

These young people are raised in a system that’s in full-on denial of reality. Not just in the little ways we all sometimes fool ourselves, but a denial so deep that some of the most outrageous ways of seeing things can seem normal.

These children grow up with at least one parent who distorts the entire family’s perceptions of people and situations so they can maintain the flow of alcohol or other drugs. Drug-seeking is virtually always under the surface.

These are families where one or more adults have little tolerance for long-term gratification. They typically want everything now, and often believe that life is stacked against them.

Moreover, these families experience powerful emotional swings. The alcoholic or addict can be over-sentimental and maudlin one minute – and quickly turn self-pitying and even cruel the next. This creates significant confusion for young minds.

These situations are often made even worse when the alcoholic or addict is supported by a “co-dependent” spouse – the person who was supposed to help prevent injury in the first place.

Unfortunately, the damage is very real. Given what children of alcoholics and addicts so often face, it’s easy to see why they learn to mistrust their judgment – even their own perceptions of reality. (This is sad, because they were so often right all along.)

Many come to believe that trusting other people is just too risky – so they have trouble developing relationships based on mutual trust and respect. They may well develop chemical dependency themselves, or go into relationships with those who do. All that feels familiar to them.

It’s also not unusual for them to develop the symptoms of post-traumatic stress: hyper-vigilance, over-control, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, eating disorders, and more. These are the responses of a sane person who’s exposed in their formative years to an insane world.

While witnessing this damage is painful, those of us who work in treatment centers like Serenity Lane also see inspiring stories of courage and strength come out of these situations.

After all, there are powerful and effective answers for people who grew up in these kinds of warped environments. There are Al-Anon and Alateen of course, for families, friends and children of alcoholics. And there are skilled therapists who specialize in these issues.

Men and women coming out of the most awful situations can and do find the path to healing.

Every day, we see people unlearn lessons taught by warped parents and re-establish a sense of confidence in their own view of reality. This recovery typically doesn’t get the kind of celebrations given to someone who’s staying clean and sober, but it is in no way a minor achievement.

It takes courage, fortitude and perseverance to overcome the effects of growing up in an alcoholic or addicted home – and people do it every day. Like so many treatment professionals, I see people coming from unhealthy situations who are deeply committed to having a better life. They’re getting it for themselves – and extending it to the next generation.


Written by Jerry Gjesvold, former Serenity Lane Employer Services Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer.

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