A parent's drug addiction causes various psychological symptoms for many children. In families where the parent relies too much on the bottle, the children and their needs are often neglected. It can be difficult for a child to understand why shared time is not the kind of shared time that other families have, for example doing hobbies together, but father or mother sits by the bottle and after a while talks strangely, neglects parenting responsibilities, acts uninhibited and eventually shuts down. Even as an adult, a childhood memory of a parent's drinking can give rise to several negative emotions in a person, such as sadness, shame and guilt.
Disturbing memories related to a parent's drug addiction and related negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself can be neutralized with EMDR therapy. However, it is not always possible. This happened recently, when my client got pregnant in the middle of the treatment period. For me, pregnancy is an obstacle to doing EMDR therapy. For the simple reason that I don't want to expose the fetus to the stress and anxiety reaction of a person being treated with the EMDR method, which arises as a natural body reaction when processing difficult memories. We therefore relied on talk therapy to complete the treatment.
My client is a 30-year-old woman (I'll call her Essi here), who has lived as the oldest sibling with a drug-addicted father for almost her entire childhood. Essi's parents divorced when she was little, and when it comes to her father's visits, she remembers that she often had to take care of her younger sister and they usually didn't do anything at that time because her father was always drunk. On some of the rarely actualized trips abroad, Essi was ashamed of her drunken father already on the plane. Essi only told her mother about her experiences as an adult. It was important to her to protect her father, who had been having difficulties at work for a long time.
Essi's father passed away unexpectedly in an accident a few years ago. Drugs were not involved in the accident itself. Painful memories related to the loss of her father had been processed with EMDR therapy before Essi became pregnant. However, Essi wanted to continue the treatment with talk therapy because she felt that she had not accepted and acknowledged her father's drug addiction and she felt it was important that this should happen. I decided to try the teachings of my psychotherapist teachers Ben Furman and Antti Mattila in talk therapy: let's change perspective and concepts and see what happens.
I drew attention to the fact that Essi used the term "alcoholic" when discussing her father's drug addiction, and her main emotion related to the matter was shame. We talked for a while about shame and I asked Essi what she would think if she saw children or young people on a plane traveling with their drunken parents. In her opinion, would these children be somehow shameful or should they feel shame about the situation? Essi laughed and answered quickly "no way, but rather I would think that those children can survive anything because they have to experience that". I took the opportunity and asked if this also means that Essi will get through everything and there is no need for her to experience shame. I knew from Essi's smile that she was reaching my thoughts.
We continued our conversation. When asked, Essi said that on some level she understands her father's alcoholism as a disease, but on an emotional level internalizing this point of view was a challenge for her, because her father had been in good physical condition and had otherwise lived a healthy life. I carefully asked Essi why she had decided to choose the term "alcoholic" when thinking about her father's drug addiction. Essi couldn't answer this. I told her that many different terms can be used for the same phenomenon, such as drug addiction, alcohol addiction and alcohol-related restraint disorder. At the core of everything is the father's inability to control his alcohol use and the addiction that develops from it. On the phenomenon level, Essi recognized this concept related to restraint well and stated that "at parties it never stopped at one glass". After thinking together for a while about the possible causes of the challenges related to the father’s restraint (e.g. difficulty at work and divorce) and with the increase in understanding related to the Essi’s phenomenon, I decided to do an experiment. I asked Essi to answer yes or no to the following questions:
- Can you admit that your father had an alcohol control disorder? Essi answered "yes".
- Can you admit that your father had an alcohol addiction? Essi answered "yes".
We agreed together that the concept of “alcoholic” can be moved aside without the phenomenon itself being ignored or rejected. Essi said that the use of new terms makes it possible to recognize the difficult effects of her father's alcohol addiction, give up bad conscience and awaken self-compassion. Previously, this was not possible for Essi.
Words have incredible power. They are the basis of human interaction. Words embody a person's thinking and feelings. Words can hurt and heal. Both in relation to another person and to oneself.
Ben once taught me that people could feel much better if they thought of themselves as having challenges instead of problems. They are easier to overcome in people's minds. Antti, on the other hand, taught me that the same issue can always be looked at from more than one perspective. It embodies flexibility and mental adaptability. These two excellent teachings are worth remembering and can be practiced when striving to live a good life and be at peace with your past.
Mattila, A. (2015). Näkökulman vaihtamisen taito. WSOY.
Furman, B. (2017). Ei koskaan liian myöhäistä saada onnellinen lapsuus. Lyhytterapiainstituutti.