A silent infiltrator | Addiction Professional Magazine Skip to content Skip to navigation

A silent infiltrator

February 6, 2014
by Patricia A. Reihl, LCADC, CAC
| Reprints
Patricia A. Reihl, LCADC, CAC

In today's treatment every counselor needs to consider the history of any client who grew up in a household where there was active addiction. We look at trauma as being a necessary issue to address in order to clear the individual's path to recovery, but there are subtle forms of trauma that occur in everyday living with an alcoholic, drug addict, compulsive gambler, or individual with any other form of addictive behavior.

Let us take a minute to look at the definition of trauma: Trauma occurs when one experiences a life-threatening situation or even just a situation that frightens and leaves a permanent memory. Just imagine a day in the life of a child who comes home to find his or her mother passed out on the couch or even absent from the house. Maybe there is a violent father or sibling under the influence of chemicals. The case also could be one of a family that cannot afford luxuries or even necessities because of a gambling addiction, or a situation marked by the irrationality or rage of an overeater due to use of too much sugar.

In today's world there are so many varieties of addiction including overspending, hoarding, Internet fixation, etc. Worst of all, however, is the individual's absence on an emotional and mental level that affects the lives of parents, children, siblings, and so on.

For many years these issues have been addressed by several well-known authorities on family dynamics, including Virginia Satir, Claudia Black, PhD, Janet Wotitz, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, and most recently Robert J. Ackerman, PhD. These pioneers found names for the roles family members begin to adopt and play. Over time some of the names of these roles have been changed by the authors, but all are very appropriate and informative when addressing a client's needs in treatment.

Take the “achiever” child—he or she excels in school, sports and other activities but all the while feels insecure internally, often not even realizing the feeling. This youngster can grow into adulthood as a Type A personality, possibly becoming a workaholic or alcoholic. Then there is the “mascot” child who draws attention away from the problem, always acting the part of the clown and feeling totally responsible in later life for solving all problem situations (often vying with the “enabler” for the spotlight in a family unit).

Look for subtle details

Over the years, time and time again in working with women, it has become obvious that there are levels of trauma that have occurred in their lives. Some trauma is of a serious nature that perhaps has not been exposed, but there are so many subtle details in a person's life to warrant further investigation. Some memories can become so buried in the recesses of the mind that they can color the tomorrows, and often it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The worst part is that these subtle occurrences are often overlooked on a daily basis.

It is easy in the house of addiction to make excuses, keep busy and ignore the problem. The mother will frequently cover up the father's indiscretions so the children are protected, but the children subliminally realize the issues. Or in a case of a sibling who has a drug problem, the other children in the family are placed in the background while the parents deal with the trouble. Resentments abound in those situations, but they are often internalized to avoid more drama. Sadness and chaos become the order of the day. These variables can leave a family divided, and separations often seem to be the only answer.

In treatment these issues sometimes surface between counselor and client or even between client and client. It is amazing to see what information comes to the surface when the exact nature of a situation is exposed.

Family dysfunction

So back to the beginning. It is the silent infiltrator that needs to be addressed in treating adults who have grown up in these addicted homes. Often this client will say, "Oh, I came from a nice background. No problem there; I had a great childhood." I addressed this subject of dysfunctional families in my recent book Two Lives One Lifetime. The book began as a letter to my children to be enclosed in my will, but during the writing process it became obvious that the history I was trying to give them was too involved for just a letter, so it became a memoir. The interesting part was that suddenly generational addiction began to surface as the words came to the page.

Children learn from parents. They grow formulating ideas, many of which are valuable but others of which are to be discarded. Those that are accepted as the norm are passed on to the next generation. It is our responsibility as counselors to investigate these avenues and address the subtle issues that may be the cause of a continued relapse or more serious overt behaviors. Bring back those old ideas, add in some new ones and begin to address generational addiction, the silent infiltrator.

It is my opinion after working in the addiction field for many years that we sometimes look for the deeper, more complicated reasons for a client's failure to recover and overlook the culture, history and relationships of the past family lives. This all can be very informative and helpful in uncovering those memories so often buried below the level of consciousness.


Patricia A. Reihl, LCADC, CAC, is a counseling professional specializing in substance abuse and gambling, working mainly with women and families over a 37-year career. Her experience includes directing a women's halfway house for 18 years and assisting women in reclaiming their children from foster care. She is the author of  Two Lives One Lifetime: The Story of Generational Addiction (Balboa Press, 2012). Her e-mail address is patreihl@yahoo.com.