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Michele’s grandfather, a Boston city police officer, would spend his hours after work at one of the local bars. He was brought home many evenings by the bartender or another local businessman in the neighborhood.   Michele’s mom was the third of his four daughters. From the time she was seven years old, she would fix him breakfast every morning and make sure he was taken care of. Her own mom had become too angry to deal with the situation.  Michele was told this story by her mom when she became an adult.  Her mom loved her dad very much and at a very young age unknowingly became his caretaker in an alcoholic home.  This was a time when treatment for this disease was not widely available or desirable.  Alcoholics Anonymous was in its infancy and the word “codependent” didn’t exist in Webster’s dictionary.

Fast forward to the next generation and Michele’s mom married a salesman whose job took them from the Northeast to southeast Florida.  They raised two children: a son named Michael and a daughter named Michele, who was the oldest by five years.  Like a lot of the families of the 1950s, it was a home filled with love, fun and challenges.  One of the challenges was a health issue that required her then nine-year-old brother to be hospitalized for a six-week period to determine what was wrong, plus additional time for surgery and recuperation. During this whole time, he was given strong painkillers to keep him comfortable.  Reflecting back, and based on what she now knows about genetics, Michele feels this may have been the time when her brother’s addiction was triggered.

Once her brother entered middle school, drug use became a regular occurrence. Being older, she was finishing high school and preparing for college.  She then married and moved away for a while, so her connection to her brother’s addiction was remote.  Her parents did not share with her the severity of his addiction until she and her family once again lived near each other. They also kept it quiet from other friends and family.  Keeping the secret was how they knew to handle it.  As his problems escalated, with a DUI and jail time, her parents sought out treatment for him. Programs at the time were for the patient only. The need for family treatment and participation was unrecognized.  The cycle of short-term treatment, periods of sobriety and relapse became the family’s cycle of hope.

Michele, now married with a family of her own, also took on the role of a supportive sister and daughter. She was trying to encourage and help her brother during times of sobriety and relapse, while her parents continued to use their financial resources for treatment in hopes their son would find recovery.  They continued to include her brother and his family in family gatherings.  Over time, Michele recognized the effect her brother’s disease was having on her family.  Her parents’ health was suffering and one of her daughters, though young, did not want to be around her uncle’s erratic behavior.  She herself was conflicted at times. Her concerns for her own family were growing. This disease was effecting three generations, just as it had done in their family’s generations that came before them.  But the understanding of this disease and its treatment was progressing.  Her parents and brother did not live to see these changes, but Michele has. She has learned about the genetic side of addiction, codependency and the importance of family treatment, as well as the need to educate her own children. She is able to look back with a perspective she didn’t have while living within the active phase of the disease.

Today, she knows that if her family had that education and treatment that families have today, things could have been different.   She knows that she would have responded to her brother and parents differently.  She would have been more understanding of her mom and the enabling behaviors that had been with her since childhood. Making sense of this has given her an understanding that brings with it some peace of mind.  Her relationship with her brother would have been one with more patience and would have given her the ability to stand back and let him work out his own recovery.

She continues her own healing as she pays it forward to others.  Michele will always listen to those who need to talk.  She was one of the first people I reached out to when I experienced this disease in my family, before I understood her story.  Michele wears her love and care for people on her sleeve.  If one of her patients or a friend in need opens up to her, which happens regularly, she will ask if they want suggestions. If they do, she takes it a step further. She will ask if they want to talk to someone who is currently living in a family who is going through something similar and may refer them to me.  She gives me the opportunity to pay it forward.  She truly wants the best for others.

Michele has seen the disease of addiction take from the generations of her family.  As a family member, she has seen enabling and codependency take a family’s love and turn it on itself.  Her willingness to educate herself about addiction and understand the family’s role has allowed her to be open to a family’s process of recovery.  She has given her family a great gift, one that has the ability to change their story for future generations.

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