What happens around our table.


When our extended family was seated around my grandparent’s thick, oak dining table—one given to our great-grand-father as debt payment during the Depression and that had been elongated by inserted leaves for the gathering— the discussion would inevitably escalate until one of the men slammed a fist on that table and stomped out of the room. Usually this was Pop, my mother’s father, disgusted over where the political discourse had gone. Incredulous that these people in his house were so damn backward thinking. Not infrequently, it was my own father who’d set him off. My father had a prickly relationship with Pop. On the other hand, Mama, my grandmother, loved everyone, brought out the best in all, including my father (plus he was Catholic!) and that was reciprocated. But she’d get pissed at theatrics. “Oh N.S.!” She’d hiss, always calling my grandfather by his initials. “For god’s sake!” She’d toss her napkin down and go through the swinging kitchen door to retrieve the desserts for the rest of us.

My father got into it with my uncles too. Later, my sisters, who are a decade older than me, battled it out with Pop, a white, upper class, college-educated man who’d lost his fortune in the second big market drop of the Depression in ‘34. Throughout adulthood, he’d had a rough ride with substances but finally committed to sobriety on the day his first grandchild, my sister, was born. Those drunken years deeply affected his family and were especially ugly for Mama, whose wifely duties were primarily to cover for him. My sisters, however, brazenly challenged Pop’s views on charged topics like civil rights and Middle East politics. They were living and attending nearby colleges and had fresh, compassionate, vibrant minds with perspectives my grandfather couldn’t possibly fathom. But despite fundamental differences in their belief systems, he relished their verbal sparring and witnessing his granddaughters passionately debate. He always believed that as they matured, they’d come around to see the world as he did. On that point, he was wrong about my sisters.

I was too young to get in the fray and, frankly, too interested in getting to the dessert course. Mama had a special technique for swirling cinnamon into her pumpkin pie. But the gentle, old-married- couple bickering, sometimes all-out barking, between my grandparents remains in my memory, as does the way Mama plied my father, her son-in-law, with the fig preserves he loved to eat for breakfast while patting his shoulder lovingly, even on those mornings after a blow-up with Pop. Food has always been currency in our family culture.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sitting around that big table with my uncle who knew it irked my disciplined, raised-on-nothing father when he ate an entire roast beef in one sitting, or made us hysterical with the jokes thirteen-year-olds tell that no polite person would repeat. Especially at the dinner table. Mama’s children, my mother and two uncles, often joked about the horrific events that had happened in that house with a raging alcoholic. Or when there was no money. And it was hilarious. These were flawed and scarred adults who, along with the kids, shared a love for one another despite the chaos and ancient familial grievances; we also shared in our love for Mama and her pound cake, apple pie and the chocolate sauce she taught all her granddaughters how to make (for the record, and contrary to my cousin Janet’s assertion, mine’s the best rendition). I can still hear the din from the television console and smell the sweet pipe smoke wafting from that tiny den, where my grandfather would plant himself in that squeaky leather recliner whether after storming out of a room or just because it was that time of the day. Or because Jeopardy! was on and we’d all compete to show him who was the most clever.

Of course, Mama and Pop are now gone. Many heated discussions amongst family members outlived them. Raised voices. Storming out of rooms. And likely there are more to come. At more recent family gatherings, cousins laugh about the differences; we roll our eyes, grateful we’ve even stayed connected (thank you Facebook). It goes unsaid that we share a deep love for our flawed grandparents who we are sure would love us as much today as ever, even though we casted votes for candidates they would certainly consider ghastly.

Mama had a way of cutting through it all with a sense of humor. I wish I had her talent. On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful my grandfather lived his later years sober, and that I now understand how difficult this was for him. I am grateful we have recipes. And most of all, loved ones to feed.

Here’s wishing that you too find that which surpasses the ugly discussions in life on this day of gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving.

As always, we welcome your comments:


Addiction: A Family Affair

Post by guest blogger, Alice Tanner.

We are honored to present a post by guest blogger, Alice Tanner, Addiction Recovery Consultant and Intervention Specialist, founder of Bay Area Intervention. Because more than 60% of individuals diagnosed with a serious mental illness are dual diagnosed with substance use, we know this is a critically important topic for discussion.

Photo Credit: William H. Bender, ca. 1910

Photo Credit: William H. Bender, ca. 1910

Ever heard the saying, “The family that plays together stays together?” Well, here’s a twist: “The family that recovers together discovers together!

As a “family” disease, no longer do clinicians and mental health practitioners believe that “the problem” lies solely with the person who lives with addiction and, or substance use. Today, we know the disease of addiction has an equally strong and destructive counterpart, co-dependency, which is the role families and loved ones play. We now understand that those closest to the person diagnosed with substance use have also unwittingly become unwell in the downward progression of addiction. The maladapted coping tools developed to deal with the behaviors and attitudes of the addiction don’t work. An example of a weak coping tool is when a family member tries to control substance use by getting rid of the chemical, or by nagging, threatening, or pleading for the using to stop. These tactics may work for a while, but soon substance use resumes, often more hidden and escalated. Over time these ineffective and unhealthy coping skills become entrenched. When a family finally seeks professional help, usually through intervention, they begin to learn that addiction is not just Joe or Jane’s problem, that it is a family disease and that recovery must involve the whole family.

Recovery from addiction takes a lot of time and effort. It requires total transformation, changing from the inside out. This transformation is not intuitive, easy, or passive. We are quick to understand the need and desirability for a person who abuses substances to change, however, not so quick to understand or believe the need for the family to change. The source of the constant codependent pull is the belief that, “If John stops drinking and creating all this trouble, I won’t have to be so ______________________ (controlling, watchful, financially helpful, etc). The myth is that if the substance user gets well, the family and friends can get back to a “normal” life because the bad behavior and resulting consequences will stop. Nice idea, but it’s not the way it works. Truth is, without family recovery the codependent coping behaviors continue; they just manifest differently.

Families, blind to their own need for recovery, are content to let their addicted loved one do the recovery “thing” while they get back to “business as usual.”

Families are often challenged to understand that recovery is a family affair. Just as it was once incomprehensible that life could ever get as bad as it did for an addicted loved one, or that family life would be disrupted by the chaos of addiction, families frequently do not quite believe they need their own recovery. They must come to accept the necessity for systemic change in the same painful way they accepted a loved one’s addictions. Families, blind to their own need for recovery, are content to let their addicted loved one do the recovery “thing” while they get back to “business as usual.” At best, this path is a detriment to solid recovery and, at worst, a derailment to it.

How families engage their own recovery is not an easy or simple question to answer or navigate. In general, families successfully do so by addressing unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that were cultivated in order to cope with the addiction that was taking over their family. For example, families learn to stop cushioning the consequences of their loved ones drinking and drugging. Family members willing to learn about addiction and co-dependency can begin the recovery process. When loved ones implement coping tools and behaviors just as their addicted loved one does, it creates supportive relationships in a difficult, but necessary, transitional time. Over time, the whole family changes and grows. The family enters recovery together. And, they all come to understand that recovery is not a spectator sport for the addict . . . or the family!

What does the family that recovers together discover? Hey, go for it and let us know!

More information about Alice Tanner and Addiction Recovery services can be found at: http://www.bayarea-intervention.com.

As always, your comments are valued.

Have we talked enough about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death?

Philip SHoffman


Within hours of learning of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, reportedly by heroin overdose, discussions popped up in the media about how tragic the loss of an artist so wildly talented and committed to his craft. Then, in less than a day, the discussion opened about the tragedy and consequences substance use. And yes, weeks later, here is yet another. Among the mix of excellent pieces about substance use include David Sheff’s Time.com blog post (http://ideas.time.com/2014/02/02/how-philip-seymour-hoffman-could-have-been-saved) and the surprisingly insightful Russell Brand: my life without drugs (www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/mar/09/russell-brand-life-without-drugs).

Since a family member began having substance use issues, I have been searching to comprehend this struggle — a task for an outsider that is much like the practice of yoga, as one never reaches full knowing. As a practice, therefore, I read many of the articles that popped up in the media after Hoffman’s death. I don’t usually look at the comments, but the other day I did. More than one commenter wondered why we’re still talking about it, and another said, “He’s just another loser Hollywood celebrity junkie. Who cares?”

The comment marginalizing Mr. Hoffman’s, or anyone’s life to that of a “junkie” reminded me of something Esme, a mother and contributor to our Behind The Wall project, had once offered. Esme’s oldest daughter lives with a serious mental illness that would sometimes lead to ugly displays of rage. Once, another parent learned of one such incident, and declared that neither of Esme’s two daughters would be welcomed in her home —as if the illness could catch or be transferred in some way. As if a person with a mental illness chooses to be incapable of rational thinking.

But Esme was circumspect about the way others may view her as a parent, her children and family. She says, “I understand because people who don’t deal with mental illness don’t get it. I wouldn’t expect them to. It’s hard for another parent to understand. Because of my own experiences, I am able to not judge other parents but I don’t expect the same from others because it’s human nature to be judgmental.” Esme felt hurt when her daughters were ostracized out of ignorance. But she knows that her experiences have given her a more open, empathic view.

“It’s not their life and good for them they don’t have these problems.”

Esme would rather her daughter not live with a brain disorder, but the outcome of the arduous journey parenting and advocating has made her more empathic. About those who can’t possibly understand what it means to live with mental illness, to love or care for a loved one who does, she says, “It’s not their life and good for them they don’t have these problems.” Ironically, these people who have no idea about what it is like to live with mental illness and, or substance abuse, have no idea how very fortunate they are.

For those of us who do have the tiniest inkling about the challenges of living with a serious mental illness and / or substance use, we don’t see Mr. Hoffman as a “junkie”.  We see his death as the reminder of how difficult it is, day by day, for a person who lives with substance use because we know that this is a brain disorder with a treatment protocol that boils down to arming oneself with a steely will and determination comparable to training for the Olympics, except the gold medal comes in the form of another day of life, and possibly one with moments of joy. For some, living sober requires a change in friends, geography, or lifestyle. And I’m not even getting into what it’s like for loved ones who want to help a person struggling with substance use.

That Mr. Hoffman lived for more than two decades clean and sober is a remarkable accomplishment given the access he had through his wealth and celebrity. We keep talking about Hoffman’s death because it’s a cruel reminder that the struggle with addictions is not reserved for junkie losers.

Comments are always welcome: