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The Critical Effects of Loyalty
People are socialized to work in groups, villages, tribes etc. So it’s no surprise that we have an innate need to communicate with each other, to trust each other, to rely on each other, and to help each other. In uncertain situations we like to give each other the benefit of the doubt. We want to be loyal to our loved ones and our friends and we want them to return that loyalty. These are normal needs, and in a normal life system these needs work well for us. But what if life circumstances are unusual?
The disease of addiction certainly has a serious impact on life situations. Because of the nature of the disease, many of the behaviors of addicts are fundamentally narcissistic. In fact, some of the most obvious signs of addiction are related to the addict’s behavior that does not conform to society’s norms. It is common for addicts to lie, cheat, steal, and commit crimes to satisfy the short-term need to get high. These actions are taken without thinking about how these behaviors affect others; The thought process focuses only on the immediate gratification of a perceived self-survival need. In short, the addict is not interested in mid-term or long-term results, nor is he interested in maintaining or developing a lasting relationship: such thought processes do not enter the addict’s mind. The addict is only interested in their selfish needs of the moment. This story can help illustrate the effects of addictive behavior and how obedience is involved.
Jane is a 54-year-old divorced woman with two children. She has been an alcoholic and addict since having her last child 28 years ago. When her last child was six years old, Jane was desperate to get another prescription for opioids; But the general doctors he was looking to get the prescriptions wouldn’t supply him with another script. Jane found herself traveling to an area of the city known for drugs and violence: she had her six-year-old with her. He found a man on the street who said he knew where to get drugs. Jane follows the man into a building, leaving her six-year-old child in the car. There Jane was shown how to shoot heroin for the first time, and she found the euphoria intense. Jane was then raped by multiple men, and she didn’t seem to care that much. While Jane was inside the drug den, her car where her six-year-old was waiting was stolen for parts. The child was placed on the sidewalk in front of the drug den. It was hours before Jane’s height dissipated enough where she was able to understand the situation and go look for her child: her child was nowhere to be found. Jane finds her way home and tells her husband what happened, who calls the police. Fortunately, Jane’s son was at the police station under the supervision of Child Protective Services after being turned in by a citizen. Jane’s husband covers up for her irrational behavior, and Jane agrees to see a therapist for her problems. Jane’s husband also stopped allowing Jane to receive any money. It didn’t take long for Jane to prostitute herself to raise money to buy heroin, while her older child was in school. On several occasions, Jane had to bring her young child along because she had no money for a babysitter. When at home, Jane was usually high on heroin and completely incapable of parenting. Often her six-year-old would go whole days without food, drink or supervision. Jane was eventually arrested for solicitation and possession of narcotics. Child Protective Services launched a full investigation and the husband moved with the children to live with the children’s grandparents. The six-year-old desperately wanted to be with Jane, despite how neglected she was. Jane was sentenced to an addiction rehab program where she desperately tried to find answers to a sober life. Returning to her home with her husband and children, she quickly regrouped and sold her jewelry and some electronics for heroin. Her husband filed for divorce, insisting that she retain joint custody of their children because she is their mother. While the children lived with their mother, the oldest child, who was twelve years old, became a parent, taking care of Jane and the youngest child and reporting everything to the father. Sometimes, when Jane was sick with withdrawal symptoms, the oldest child would cycle to get medicine for Jane. One day Jane overdosed while her children were at home. She was again sent to addiction rehab, and her children were awarded sole custody to her husband by the court. While in rehab, Jane attempted to take her own life, leaving a note saying she could not bear the pain she had caused her family.
This sad story of turmoil and dysfunction represents many elements of loyalty. There is a husband who covers for his wife’s addictive behavior and insists that a mother must raise her children despite the dangers of the relationship. There is a child who wants to stay with the mother regardless of the medical or dangerous consequences. There is a child who feels the need to protect and care for the family even though the child is twelve years old. And there’s Jane, whose only loyalty was to herself: even in trying to take her own life, her motives were entirely selfish and without concern for the effect such a move would have on her children.
In another example, John was a twenty-year-old drug addict who had been sober for eleven months and lived in a sober residence. John struggled with relapse and addiction treatment programs since initially using methamphetamine at age 16. He met a girl at a self-help meeting who helped him feel excited and wanted. John became attracted to this girl who had a long history of bouncing in and out of treatment programs. The girl was sober for a week when John first met her and they had sex for the first time. John was surrounded by people who tried to talk him out of his choices, but John felt an intense loyalty to the girl and distanced himself from her support system. One evening, the girl asks John to drug her while they have sex. John tried to say no, but temptation ate into his compulsive nature. John quickly convinced himself that the girl wouldn’t do anything to hurt him because she said she loved him. John used heroin and cocaine with the girl that evening. John lost his job within a week, lost the support of his family and friends within two weeks, and was short of money soon after. John began burglarizing cars and homes to support their lifestyle of drugs and motel room living. John was inevitably arrested for home invasion and robbery. After being released from prison thirty days later, the girl had already found a substitute for John; Anyone can pay for drugs and feel safe. John was heartbroken but never returned to drug use. For the next three months he worked hard on his sobriety. Then John saw the girl again at a self-help meeting. While she was in the hospital and sober for days, she told John that she loved him and that it was only her addiction that stood in the way of her love. John decided he needed help with his recovery efforts and began seeing her every day. It was only a matter of weeks until they both returned to using drugs and robbing homes to support their habits. The girl eventually left John for another man who had more money and a nicer house. John found his way back to prison for three years.
This story exemplifies loyalty that appears to be focused on the other person, but is actually completely self-centered. John’s loyalty to the girl was founded on his desire to feel his own need and to be a provider for others. Despite John’s obvious use of the girl, he remains loyal to her. The girl’s loyalty to John was also self-serving because she was only loyal as long as John was able to act as a financial provider for her.
As these stories exemplify, loyalty is often distorted in an addicted family system. Loyalty to others is common as a reason for individuals to act in unhealthy ways. Because this type of addiction is often modeled within family systems, including addiction, it is considered a normal part of life. An accepted feeling in a family system with addiction is that every member of the family must come to the rescue of the person in trouble. Such loyalty is harmful because it can lead to unhealthy behavior by all members within the family system. Another habitual form of dependence occurs when one or two family members take responsibility for the addict’s life in an attempt to fix the addict. This type of adherence ignores the addict’s basic needs to take responsibility for themselves and replaces it with a self-righteous control, often with the addict’s full approval.
Healthy forms of loyalty are always characterized by a clear set of behavioral boundaries. Healthy loyalty exists in a relationship with mutual reward, and the reward is not only self-serving. Harold Lasky said, “A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” Loyalties are grey, not black and white. And loyalty is earned.
For a person in a family system with unhealthy loyalty, practicing healthy loyalty can be a difficult task. One of the best places to find support for acting with healthy loyalty is with a self-help group like Al-Anon or Coda. A therapist can also be a tremendous help. Regardless of the setting, it’s important to have open conversations about loyalty and how feelings and behaviors are being encountered in situations that require a sense of loyalty. With practice and reinforcement, healthy obedience is obtained.
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