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Addiction can make families prone to chaos

When “Don” arrived home from work, the first thing he did was start looking for the potential disasters awaiting his attention. As usual, the drama was at the door. One kid had been given an in-school suspension for fighting in school, and he had to hurry to get the high schooler to his outpatient counseling.

He had spent his ride home fuming about how he had been overlooked, once again, for the best assignment and what he might say to his supervisor tomorrow. His wife wasn’t home yet, but things weren’t going well there either.

When everyone was home, it often sounded like the primate house at the zoo; yelling, arguing, insanely loud music; in a word, chaos.

“Don” had stopped drinking about a year ago and had only in the last several months started a recovery program. He had no idea when he stopped drinking his life was as chaotic as it turned out to be, and at this point in his sobriety he had no idea how to remedy that problem.

“Don” and his family were, in fact, addicted to chaos. They didn’t know another way to interact. The unspoken rules were “every man for himself,” and desperate to be heard and understood, the loudest voice gets the most attention even if it’s negative attention.

“Don” and the family had essentially been in the alco-school of acting since the beginning. All members participated in the way that they could to keep the chaos going, because if it stopped, they would have to face the pain they all felt. Unknowingly, they used external chaos to hide their own internal chaos. Mom was afraid “Don” would go back to hiding, withdrawing and drinking in the basement, and both boys felt confused, abandoned and out of control. Nobody was secure enough yet to acknowledge their feelings, much less talk about them.

With a little sober time, hard work on his own dramatics and some behavioral reassurance for the family, “Don” can trade the chaos in for some awareness, some patience and eventually some calm communication.

• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email by visiting


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