Looking into Family Secrets to Aid Recovery

Posted on February 10th, 2014

son talking to his father about family secretsCarrying family secrets buried deep within does nothing to help recovery. In many ways, refusing to find out, acknowledge or accept what’s been hidden for so long only exacerbates addiction. How can you heal when you suspect, but are afraid to discover, that there’s a history of alcoholism that spans generations in your family, or that your mother’s youngest sister was illiterate, walked the streets begging for money, and suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder later determined to be schizophrenia?

If you want answers, or clues to help you better understand factors contributing to your own addiction, look no further than your family tree.

How do you do this without stirring up unpleasant memories, causing family rancor or inflicting pain on those whom you love? There are some things you can do to try to pry loose long-held secrets among your family members, but be forewarned: Use tact, be diplomatic, take a little at a time and be grateful, and don’t hold grudges over what you learn.

Get Them Talking

The first tip is to get your relative talking. For some family members, this is a no-brainer. Your uncle Manny, always a spinner of tales, may get so wound up in retelling stories about your dad that you have to find a way to politely excuse yourself to end the discussion. While Manny pauses for a breath, ask a pertinent (but not impertinent) question about something he’s said. Maybe you learn that your dad lost a sister at a young age, but you’ve never heard any details about the death because your dad won’t talk about it. Now may be the time to find out what happened. What you discover may or may not be relevant to events in your life, or it may provide clues as to why you and your father haven’t always been that close. After all, haven’t others mentioned you bear a strong resemblance to your long-dead aunt?

Suppose everyone’s gathered for a traditional holiday family celebration and, as typically happens, some of the men have too much to drink, start raising their voices and creating tension. Someone, perhaps your mom or grandmother or grandfather, exerts a calming influence and things settle down for a time. Is such behavior something you’ve grown up with and come to believe is normal? Does violence ever erupt? Have you or other family members been hurt as a result? How did you deal with this? If you believe you can talk with someone in your family about these things, it may illuminate more about your environment growing up, and that of your parents and grandparents, for that matter. You can start to see patterns that may play into your own foray into alcohol or drugs or other addictive behavior.

Keep in mind that you’ll likely hear a lot of things that make you smile, reliving certain good times again. Not everything you learn will be such a terrible secret. Much of it will just be new to you, a gift of knowledge about your family heritage that helps enrich your life and gives you strength.

You’ll never know unless and until you take the initiative and get them talking.

Unpeeling the Layers One by One

In therapy, your counselor asks you to describe what it was like growing up, or to recount your worst fear or you take part in a type of therapy to help you deal with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that requires you to revisit traumatic experiences. This may fill you with dread, not being all that eager to revisit something that may have been painful.

Maybe you’ve shoved those memories so far back in your mind that you feel like your chest is constricted, you can’t catch your breath, or you feel like you might faint. Maybe you aren’t consciously aware of some of the actual events, as they may have been outside your experience at the time. You only felt the effects, but may not have known the cause.

Perhaps talking with family members who have a better recollection of what happened could be beneficial. Facts are what you’re after, along with how others reacted in the aftermath, particularly with you.

The more you know about such secrets, in the family and outside it, the more you’re helping to unpeel the layers of resistance. To heal, you have to be willing to face that which you’ve hidden deep inside, to learn how to cope with stress without resorting to self-medicating through alcohol or drugs, or compulsive shopping or workaholism or binge eating.

Think of this process as unpeeling an onion. At first, your eyes may sting and water, but that soon goes away as the onion is fully peeled, rinsed under cold water, and placed into a pot or dish to cook or bake. The onion goes to work, adding to the recipe, bringing out the intended flavors and deliciousness of the meal being prepared.

Remember that you are a product of what you do, what’s happened in your life, but most of all, what you choose to do about your life from this day forward.

Just Because Something Happened Doesn’t Mean you’re Destined to Repeat It

Will dredging up all sorts of family secrets lead to a belief that you can’t do anything about your fate? If you find out that there’s mental health disorder going back generations and alcoholism and/or drug abuse is rampant on both sides of the family, do you throw up your hands and resign yourself to continuing the pattern?

If dysfunction has been the norm in your upbringing, do you feel there’s nothing you can do to avoid repeating it with your own family?

Here’s a solid truth: Just because something happened in the past does not, in any conceivable way, mean that you’re destined to repeat it. You can change your behavior, the way you think and react – or overreact, the way you have faith or believe in yourself and your capabilities. You are the architect of your destiny, not the past, not any family secret come to light.

Looking into family secrets, then, can help in your overall recovery if, and this is a big one, you use them as informational material to provide insight and understanding. You cannot change the past, but you can change yourself, beginning now.

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