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Denial runs deep in family battling addictions

“Jason” told me he was bi-polar.

When I asked him whether he had seen a doctor or been hospitalized, he said, “No, but my Mom says my Dad was bi-polar and it runs in families.”

I asked whether his dad had taken medication for bi-polar disorder or been to a doctor, and Jason said that he didn’t think so but that his dad, now deceased used to have mood swings.

I was talking to Jason because he tested positive for marijuana at his job and was sent for an evaluation. Jason’s sincere belief was he smoked marijuana to relax because he had bi-polar disorder.

I asked Jason whether there was any alcoholism or drug addiction in his family. He said no but his dad had a drinking problem and his mom used far too many pills.

As it turned out, Jason’s father had been treated for alcoholism many times and died of drinking-related causes. Jason’s mom, in her own prescription drug-induced haze, needed to find a way to justify her husband’s erratic behavior. She first told herself and then, once she was sufficiently convinced, everyone else her husband had “mood swings,” which morphed into today’s vernacular, bi-polar disorder.

Jason’s Dad may have had other mental conditions, but his diagnosis was alcoholism, and “Jason” had never faced that fact. He was unaware the denial in families can be deeper and more complete than the denial of the alcoholic themselves.

In Jason’s family, the word “alcoholism” had never been spoken. In this case, a 24 year old man had been unable to see through the veil of assumptions, half-truths and lies of convenience that were woven, from his mom’s perspective, “to keep the family together.”

Jason’s mom had grown up in an alcoholic family herself. She was deeply ashamed of her family and saw alcoholism as a weakness. She spent her entire childhood fearful, angry and bound to avoid that set of circumstances in her adult life. She became an educated and self-sufficient woman with a master’s degree in nursing.

Despite her resolve, her inability to address her own denial produced a second and third generation of addiction.

Addiction runs in families, too.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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