#144 – Episode 144 – Addiction Family Rules with Tamara Kirby


When we live in a family where there is addiction, dysfunction, or mental health issues, there are hidden ‘rules’ we have to follow. In this episode, Veronica and Tamara discuss the three main addiction family rules; don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust.

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What This Episode Is About

Whatever your family looks like, there are unspoken rules that are often passed down generationally.

These aren’t rules that someone sits you down and tells you once you reach a certain age. These are the ones that you just know. The ones you pick up along the way, probably through the actions of your parental figures.

It’s important to know that even if you look around your life and don’t see any addiction, these rules can show up in a lot of homes where there are dysfunction and mental health issues at play.

In my family, I can’t pinpoint any addiction but there were a lot of mental health problems and the emotional rules were certainly in place and they help to keep addiction alive.

In this episode, Tamara and I are sharing some examples of how these rules play out. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Don’t Speak
    “I was arrested in front of my daughter and my response to that event was not “It’s gonna be okay.” It was “Don’t tell anybody.” – Tamara Kirby
    This one is especially problematic when we come into recovery because we’re so afraid to talk about the truth of what’s happening and silence actually becomes a form of denial. Tamara remembers enforcing this rule herself when she hit rock bottom. After being arrested in front of her daughter, before comforting her she told her not to tell anyone about what happened.
  • Don’t Feel
    “Stop being so dramatic.”
    There are so many variations on this one – “Here we go again” or “You’re so emotional.” For boys, we see a lot of the toxic masculinity messages that boys don’t cry and aren’t supposed to feel. As with many of these rules, this is centered around fear and insecurity and the result is that people shut down emotionally. Growing up, I heard “Don’t upset yourself” a lot. It was really clear that my emotions were very distressing to my family and the message I got was that I wasn’t allowed to have those feelings and I needed to stop.
  • Don’t Trust
    When you have a family member in active addiction, so many lies and broken promises are involved. Those repeated disappointments, combined with gaslighting, leave children of addicted homes with a tendency to question themselves and their reality pretty frequently. Tamara struggled with not being able to keep her word to her daughter and even after getting sober, it took years of work for her to finally regain her trust.

We can make choices to change the rules. – Veronica Valli

We all have these hidden rules but we don’t have to continue to live by them.

The recovery process is about breaking all of these rules but chances are, the family system is going to be quite opposed to that.

In recovery, you start to change but the family system often hasn’t changed. That’s an extremely difficult dynamic for both sides and can end up sabotaging your recovery.

A well-facilitated support group can be a great element in your recovery for this very reason.

We recreate our family systems in whatever group we’re in, whether a work group, therapy group, or friend group. That makes it a good place to begin to change the beliefs that we’ve held and to break the unspoken rules that fuel our addictions.

Unlearning the rules is a process.

Just how they adjusted to our addiction, they will also adjust to our recovery. – Tamara Kirby

You don’t have to choose recovery over your family but you do have to choose yourself. Over time, the family often readjusts to what’s happening, just as they were able to adjust to our addictions.

Inevitably, when we change, it changes the people around us. Like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripples go out.

They may not go all in but it’s possible to have sobriety and also have your family.

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