HEALING FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS IN RECOVERY. By Peter C.
I grew up in a family with many painful issues. My sexual addiction
sheltered me from this pain during childhood and adolescence. Later, it
estranged me from my family and isolated me from lovers and friends.
My mother was an alcoholic, driven by fear, anger and control issues. Her
constant shaming and rage made me think that nothing was ever good enough,
that doom and destruction were imminent and that my feelings were to be
mercilessly ridiculed if they didn’t conform to her rigid view of reality.
This created a reservoir of unresolved anger that kept us at each other’s
throats until I was 30.
My father coped with her demands and oppressive intensity by escaping into
his work. He had difficulty showing his feelings. He expressed his care
primarily through financial support. We had one intimate converstaion in
the 27 years before I joined SCA. When I was 11, I gave him a copy of a
song about a father and son. When he asked me about it, I couldn’t express
my desperate yearning to be close to him. All I could do was cry for about
five minutes while he held me. We promised to get closer but never really
connected again until I was 29.
In second grade, my school called and told my family I was masturbating
during class. They sent me to a child therapist who assured me I was safe
to tell him anything in total confidence. I told him that our gardener had
molested me weekly between ages 5 and 7, and he immediately told my mother.
I was ashamed of the sex with the gardener, but I was more afraid to tell my
parents because of the total chaos that I knew it would cause.
From then on, my mom and I played a cat and mouse game about masturbation.
I would do it 10 to 15 times a day, and she would sneak around, check my bed
sheets and underwear, pick my door lock and spy to catch me. Whenever she
got upset about my behavior, she’d lecture the family about the gardener and
verbally crucify my dad for not putting him in jail. I felt more shame from
the constant verbal abuse than from the memory of being molested. At 15, I
was arrested in a tearoom on Christmas Eve, while shopping with my dad.
The police officer read me my rights while his partner found my dad and told
him what had happened. That Christmas was spent listening to my mom drink,
cry and scream about the gardener and the arrest. The rest of the family
tried to avoid the subject as much as possible. The court sent me with my
father to a program for juveniles. A woman met with us for about ten
minutes. She told me to stay out of trouble and said that I did not belong
After my arrest my mom’s drinking got worse, and my sex and food addiction
expanded to drugs and alcohol. I was arrested again at 16, for alcohol and
hashish, resulting in another ten-minute trip with my dad to the same woman
in the same program. Again she admonished me to stay out of trouble and
said I still didn’t belong in counseling.
Over the next few years, things got crazier, and we all got much better at
avoiding our feelings. My mom and I had vicious fights each day. I went to
the refrigerator to eat, and she ran to the bar to drink. At 17, I was up
to 357 pounds and her drinking was continuous day and night. When I wasn’t
fighting with my mom, I was in tearooms or getting stoned. My dad escaped
into twelve-hour days at the office.
We once went for family counseling. When the therapist suggested that my
mom might be part of the problem, she stormed out of the session and we
never went back. From then on, the family just fell apart. My brother and
I moved out. He buried himself in work and relieved the stress with drugs
and alcohol. I lost weight, discovered gay bars and got totally enmeshed in
serial addictive relationships. My dad spent all day at work or hid in his
den and watched television until my mom drank herself to sleep. Each of us
exiled ourselves to separate worlds and did not communicate. Each year we
would act like a family at holidays, but her alcoholism, my sexual addiction
and the family estrangement progressed to the point that even limited
contact became difficult.
Occasionally, evidence of my sexual addiction would break through and affect
my family. I would temporarily move home and smuggle boys over the balcony
at night. Each morning my mom and I would play a game when I tried to sneak
them out. Once, I made an abortive attempt at suicide over a lost lover,
but called my dad before passing out. He came over, got my landlord to let
him in and gave me help. I couldn’t tell him why it had happened, and he
didn’t know how to ask.
At 27 I found SCA. I got a sponsor and tried to work a program. After two
years, I was still acting out with hustlers and porno, so I decided to go
into treatment at Golden Valley. I was terrified to discover that my family
needed to attend family week. I had no idea how to ask them.
My sponsor said, “act as if.” With his support I set up a dinner with my
dad. The next night my sponsor, my dad and I met at a coffee shop. After a
few deep breaths and a prayer or two, I told him that I was gay, that I was
a sex addict, that I was going to a treatment center and that I wanted the
family to fly to Minnesota to take part in family week. When he got over
the initial shock he said he would discuss it with my mom. That was the
last time we really talked until treatment.
At Golden Valley I processed a lot and formed a real bond with the other
addicts in my core group. Even so, I was terrified when my family walked
through the door three weeks later. My mom held it together until our first
therapy group, then all hell broke loose. During the next week every family
secret from incest to pregnancy came out. After 29 years of “No Talk
Rules,” nothing was held back. It was very scary, but the fact that every
other family was going through the same thing provided a lot of support.
Each member of my family came away from Golden Valley with something
different. Until treatment, I always saw myself as the black sheep of the
family. I thought that if I had just done “it” better, we wouldn’t have had
so many problems. “It” was everything from my weight, education, career,
friends and social skills to my homosexuality and self identity. Since I
couldn’t change the failures of the past, I felt irreparable, with no hope
for the future. I felt responsible for the family’s problems and
In treatment, I learned that my mom’s alcoholic enmeshment and my dad’s
workaholic detachment had thrown the family out of balance. An orgasm
offered me escape from all that turmoil. I discovered that I wasn’t
intrinsically a bad person, but a normal human being who had learned to cope
and survive through dysfunctional behaviors. Today, those behaviors don’t
work for me any more. I now have boundaries. If I choose to let go and
turn it over to a higher power, I can maintain an environment where slips
are not required.
My father changed a lot during family week. He arrived very skeptical and
judgmental of the entire process. When he discovered Patrick Carnes wasn’t
available for private counseling, he stood up and lectured the entire staff
during a workshop (I almost died!). By the end of the week, however, he had
bonded with the other fathers, broken through his denial and identified with
the addicts. He made an honest amends for the past and a sincere commitment
to really work at healing our relationship in the future.
My mother approached treatment with a closed mind. She saw herself as the
sacrificial lamb who would save her son, through chastisement for the sins
of the family, from the affliction of homosexuality. She deemed that we
were wrong, that she was right and that, if we had just listened to her and
done everything she had said, none of this would have happened. She scolded
us daily for airing our dirty laundry in therapy group. She disavowed most
of the information that came out. She left Minnesota in total denial of her
part in our family process and was resentful of everyone for subjecting her
to what she saw as unjustified persecution. At the advice of my therapist, I
set a boundary of no contact with her after treatment. She was still too
toxic, then, for my recovery. She tested this boundary by calling my
office, listening in on phone calls with my dad and manipulating other
family members. I simply hung up if she called or answered the phone. I
told my family that I had to do it to take care of myself.
After Golden Valley, my dad realized he was co-dependent to my mom’s
drinking, and he decided to try Al-Anon. He found a sponsor, went to
meetings, took a service commitment and started working the Twelve Steps.
He came to SCA with me, and I went to Al-Anon with him whenever possible.
It was a real thrill when he got stuck on the Third Step and called me for
help. I felt closer to him than ever before.
With the support of his Al-Anon group, my dad began to consider treatment
for my mom. One year after Golden Valley, the family arranged an
intervention with her. She agreed to go to Hoag Hospital. Although she
stayed in denial throughout treatment, the second family week was beneficial
At Golden Valley just getting the truth out into the light was all we could
do. After a year of digesting that truth, Hoag enabled us to actually
resolve some of the issues. My mom remembers Hoag as the worst time in her
life, but her raging and drinking diminished afterwards. She became much
more respectful of boundaries, and I gradually felt safe to reopen
communication with her.
My family has come a long way in the two years since Hoag. Bonding with my
dad has progressed to daily contact and a level of honesty and intimacy I
hadn’t dreamed possible. We’ve had wonderful talks about his father, my mom
and his true feelings about me and our relationship. We’ve explored
sensitive topics like fear of death (I’m HIV+, and he’s 78 with a heart
condition), my sexuality, SCA slips, and problems with my lover. It was not
easy. We both had to face our fear of intimacy. The Program gave us
support and the tools to communicate.
Progress with my mom has been slower, but today we have an ability to talk
that we never had before. The level of disclosure is still “public
information only,” but I am closer to risking more intimate thoughts and
feelings. She has made a genuine attempt to let go of running my life and
judging my feelings and behavior. She even made amends for the past and
admitted that her actions may have hurt more than helped. Once, we couldn’t
complete a conversation without arguing or hanging up. Today we talk weekly
and are even thinking of a retreat together to Mount Calvary.
My feelings about myself and my family have evolved throughout my recovery.
First I was in denial of their effect on my addiction. Then I moved into a
“victim stage” where I let myself experience long buried anger and hurt.
Finally, I discovered how to separate my parents as people from their
behavior. Today I accept them just the way they are — as flawed human
beings exactly like myself. Once we learned to communicate, I was able to
examine their relationships with their own families. They were doing the
best they could with the skills they were given for intimacy and acceptance.
The Promises say, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on
it.” SCA gave me the strength to face my family and our relationship. The
Program taught me how to let my boundaries down, trust, take risks, reach
out to my dad and accept my mom. It helped me release secrets, walk through
my shame, and let go of my family’s reaction to my truth. Most of all, it
gave me back the love of a family I had always wanted to have, but never
dreamed to hope for.