Elizabeth Devine, M.Ed., LPC-S, Director of Treatment Services at Austin Recovery

What if cancer was a secret?

Imagine a child who has a mother suffering from untreated cancer but no one explains this to her. She sees her mother growing weaker and sicker, but her mom smiles and tells her she’s fine. Many times her mother is unable to provide her with adequate care or attention. The girl begins to wonder if she’s done something wrong. She wonders if her mother loves her at all sometimes. She tries to make her mother feel better, but nothing seems to help. The other adults in her life make excuses for her mother’s fatigue and fragile moods. Everyone in the family seems somber and burdened but tell her she should be happy.  The adults in her life grow impatient when she becomes upset by what seem like small matters. The girl is chastised for causing a fuss when her balloon floats away. One day, she sees her mom struggling to stand and is quickly ushered out of the room. She is told that she didn’t see what she thought she saw. “Your mom just tripped,” she is told. She is instructed not to tell anyone about her mom’s “accidents” because no one would understand. They would think something was wrong with her and her family, that they were bad. They may even get in trouble. When this child repeatedly acts out at school or refuses to do her work, her teachers become frustrated and assume she is unmotivated and spoiled. She is told in numerous small ways, “Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.”

As you imagine the scenario above, you likely feel as though this girl’s experience is senseless. She needs an understanding of what her mother is going through so that she can also sort out her own experience. She needs to understand that her mother’s sickness makes it difficult for her mother to be available in the way that she needs to be, but that this girl is valuable, deserving of love and attention. She needs to accept that there is nothing she can do to fix her mother, but there are things she can do to help care for herself. She needs to feel validated, to know that she is not crazy for feeling what she feels or thinking what she thinks. She needs to know that there is nothing inherently wrong with her or her mother simply because she has a sickness. She needs someone to advocate for her to explain the family situation to her teachers and school counselors so that they are sensitive to this girl’s struggles and able to provide her with much-needed support. She needs to understand that she is not alone and that many families struggle in the way that she has. She needs to know that there are people who understand and can help.

In the same manner, the secrecy of addiction within the family is just as senseless. It is true that there is a stigma around the disease of addiction and that some will look on with judgment. Nonetheless, children need to be empowered to speak to someone who can understand. It is reasonable to explain that this family problem is private, but not a secret. Many times adults feel it better not to burden children with the facts related to addiction, but, even if a child has never seen an adult drink or use, they have often sensed the tension in the home. They’ve witnessed fights or the absence of someone who had promised to arrive. Unfortunately, without an understanding of addiction, they will often assume that what they are experiencing is in some way because of them, a perception worse than the reality. It is imperative that children growing up in a home where someone is abusing substances know they are not responsible for the problems in their family, nor are they responsible for fixing them. They need to feel empowered to ask for help, to express their feelings, to ask questions, and to learn healthy ways to cope.

With the care and support of healthy adults, children growing up in homes with those suffering from addiction have the capacity to develop resiliency. The challenges of living in such a home can cultivate excellent problem-solving skills, emotional depth, and a witty sense of humor. Many grow into appreciative, grounded adults. By learning how to talk, trust, and feel, they are better equipped to break the family cycle of codependency and addiction within their own families. They can put an end to the secrecy and shame, senseless pains to endure.

About the Author

Elizabeth Devine is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and has a variety of therapeutic experience. Her career began at the Elisa Project providing resources and coordinating conferences and events intended to educate and raise awareness regarding eating disorders. From there, she transitioned to New Beginning Center offering counseling to both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. She worked for several years as the Clinical Coordinator of the Betty Ford Center Children’s Program in the Dallas area providing support and education to children and their caregivers who suffered from substance abuse disorders. In this role, she provided training and supervision to new professionals in the mental health field. Until recently, she maintained a private practice working with a broad range of issues and ages including grief, codependence, recovery from abuse, relationship challenges, LGBT issues, parenting, children and adolescent challenges. She has spoken nationally regarding children, domestic violence, codependence and familial recovery from addiction.


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Last Updated ( Monday, 21 April 2014 11:53 )