We always encourage family members to seek counseling, because active addicts, along with inactive ones who are not in recovery (dry drunks), make everyone around them a little bit crazy. The uncertainty, disappointments, emotional and — often — physical mistreatment, and the other aspects of loving an addict are not the ingredients of good emotional and physical health. And then there’s the anger.
Anger is a perfectly normal emotion with an essential purpose: it keeps us from becoming incapacitated by fear. Along with denial, it gives us the energy to work our way past the obstacles that we run across in life. If we believed every negative thing that was said about us, or if we allowed ourselves to be stymied by the many obstacles that crop up in our day to day existence, we’d never get anything done.
These things hinder us not only because they’re in our way, but because they bring fear along with them — fear of failure, fear that we’ll look bad, fear that we won’t measure up to our own self-image or the expectations of others, and fear of economic, social, or physical injury. Anger and its little sisters indignation and annoyance give us the energy to overcome those fears, big and small, real or imagined, and to move onward. To put it another way, no one functions well when they feel powerless or vulnerable, and anger helps us feel powerful.
Of course when anger gets out of control (rage), or we allow it to become habitual (resentments), it causes problems. This can happen because we enjoy the feeling of power, or — because one of the characteristics of anger is tunnel-vision — it can help us overlook our own part in things, and make it easier to shift blame to the other party. Anger depersonalizes our adversaries and makes it easier for us to justify our own behavior toward them. All of these things have their uses, but they can obviously be seriously misused, as well. Furthermore, over time, these ways of thinking about individuals and the world can become ingrained, and extremely difficult to change when they are no longer of use.
Finally — but by no means least important — the physical changes that are produced by unresolved anger (undischarged energy) can be long-lasting and can create physical problems that are often fatal. Stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular complications, eating disorders, other addictive disorders, diabetes, depression, frequent illness, and non-specific pain issues such as chronic head, neck and back pain can all be results of unresolved anger.
Anger doesn’t go away by itself. If it isn’t discharged by physical and/or emotional release, or if it isn’t dug out, examined, and allowed to run its course, it will continue to produce stress and make life difficult. This is especially difficult for family members of alcoholics and other addicts, because it isn’t “nice” to be angry in our culture, especially at family members, and practically never at authority figures lest they discharge some of their own anger issues in our direction. Children are required to respect older people, for example, even when they have irrevocably proven themselves unworthy. Talk about powerless…
So, families of addicts almost always have anger issues to address. There are probably other things as well. Children, in particular, have a tendency to blame their parents’ problems on themselves, and those things need to be addressed. Emotionally abused family members can add self-esteem issues to their anger, and everyone has resentments: birthdays missed, money misspent, obligations unmet…and on, and on.
It’s imperative that these things be put to rights. Whether or not the alcoholic/addict stays clean, whether or not the family stays together, every one of the members have their lives irrevocably changed. Unless the damage of those changes is dealt with, none of them will have the lives they deserve. In the next article, we’ll discuss some options.