​In this house that I call home
In this house that I call home
Nobody knows the party rules
I gotta get in but there’s no room

X, “In This House That I Call Home”

Time for Celebration?

I didn’t know it at the time — in fact, like everyone in our extended family, I celebrated — but my mom’s sobriety was a deathblow to a way of life I had depended on. I know now that in a weird way her drinking had kept me safe all of my life up to that point.

“How many times have we seen that when we get what we thought we wanted — even when we were totally certain — it isn’t what we wanted after all?”Mark

As explored elsewhere, the jointly created and sustained irrelationship defense is often combined with other compulsive addictive behavior patterns — excessive drinking, drug use, binge eating, and the like. Such combinations are particularly difficult to work through either alone or when a partner is involved. Like other addictive patterns, irrelationship shares core features, obsessions and compulsions: it’s entrenched, chronic, repetitive, and leaves the user in a place of loneliness, pain and helplessness.

Core Features of Substance Use Disorder

The criteria generally used to define a Substance Use Disorder are:

  1. Taking the substance for longer periods and in larger amounts than intended
  2. Desire to curtail or reduce substance use but unable to do so.
  3. Obtaining, using and recovering from substance use occupies increasing portion of the individual’s time.
  4. Continual or recurrent cravings and urges to use
  5. Use of the substance disrupts performance of ordinary activities and obligations associated with normal routine in the home, school and workplace.
  6. Persistent use despite problems in relationships related to using.
  7. Gradual disappearance of social, occupational or recreational activities in favor of using.
  8. Repeated use of substances despite dangerous situations that may develop around using.
  9. Continuing to use despite psychological and physical problems related to using.
  10. Need for increasing amounts of substance to obtain the desired effect (“increased tolerance”)
  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which are relieved by taking more of the substance.

Ray continued:

By the time my mom got sober, there was really nothing else — nothing else in either of our lives. We had become the center of the universe for each other. But suddenly there were all these other people coming in and out of our lives: a sponsor, other people in the fellowship — other “drunks” who talked about how “helping” my mother was what stood between them and a drink. Anybody could see it was a good thing for her, but it was pretty confusing that it didn’t feel like such a good thing to — or for — me.

“Alcohol Use Disorder” is the clinician’s handle for what is popularly known as “alcoholism.” Its core symptoms include increased tolerance, withdrawal, and interference with pursuing other important goals and activities, as well as repetition and compulsion.

Core Features of Irrelationship

“Like a drug addiction, irrelationship sneaks up and takes over everything in your life while you do your best to remain convinced that nothing’s wrong.”Daniel

Similar to alcoholism, people involved in irrelationship use it as a defense against anxiety-provoking aspects of intimacy. Irrelationship is a “habit” first developed in early childhood to cut oneself off (“dissociate”) from painful experiences, especially loneliness, very much as Ray experienced growing up:

Isolated and lonely? Yeah, but it took awhile to hit me that my mom’s drinking was letting me off the hook from facing my own conflicts. I didn’t have to deal with the fact that her drinking had finally stopped anybody else from coming around — my father, grandparents, anybody. Now it seems like it should have been a no-brainer, but I never stopped to consider what I was getting out of my mom’s alcoholism or out of trying to treat it, although there were definitely people who put that question to me.

Though Ray thought his delayed insight into his relationship with his mother’s alcoholism should have been a “no-brainer”, the ability to see what’s really going on from the middle of a highly dysfunctional situation is rare. Openness to believing something familiar might, in fact, be severely toxic is key to starting to get well sooner rather than later.

Addiction and Irrelationship Can Sustain One Another

Like anxiety and depression, addiction can underlie irrelationship. Addiction can shore up irrelationship by keeping those affected by it so inebriated by a false connection with their partner (their “song-and-dance routine”) that both parties, invested as they are in their routine, resist any insight into what is actually happening — or not happening — between them.  Addiction and irrelationship actually sustain one another.

It was just she and I against the world.  And though I complained about it — a lot, in fact — it was our world, our home. Yeah, mom was the house drunk, but she was my house drunk. And she kept my hands full. She was constantly being threatened by protective services and by my school that I was going to be taken away. Meanwhile, I stayed in this delusional state. Well, I say, “I,” but it was obviously something we colluded in. I knew she needed me, and keeping her safe was what mattered to me the most. And under the circumstances, it was a full-time job.

Ray and his mother had totally bought into their system, despite how destructive it was and how it had isolated him, beginning in childhood. “You-and-me-against-the-world” was their irreltionship routine: mother was the house drunk and Ray was her protector who not only kept her “safe” but safely hidden. However, the only things about this that were truly hidden were the danger of her drinking and Ray’s complicity in it.

“I wonder where love comes into it.”Grant

Part II, The “House Drunk”: Finding Our Way Out Together shows what happened and what can be learned from it.

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