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The Critical Effects of Loyalty
Human beings are socialized to function in groups, villages, tribes, etc. So it’s no wonder we have an innate need to communicate with each other, trust each other, rely on each other, and help each other. We want to give each other the benefit of the doubt when it comes to uncertain circumstances. We want to be loyal to our loved ones and friends and we want them to return that loyalty. These are normal needs, and in a normal living environment these needs work well for us. But what happens when the life situation is abnormal?
The disease of addiction definitely has a serious impact on life circumstances. Many of the behaviors of addicts are fundamentally narcissistic due to the nature of the disease. In fact, some of the most obvious signs of addiction are related to the addict’s behavior that does not conform to social norms. It is common for an addict to lie, cheat, steal and commit crimes to satisfy their selfish short-term high needs. These actions are taken without thinking about how these behaviors affect others; the thought process is focused solely on the immediate satisfaction of the perceived need for self-actualization. In short, the addict is not interested in medium or long-term results, nor is he interested in maintaining or developing any lasting relationships: these kinds of thought processes do not enter the addict’s mind. An addict is only interested in immediate selfish needs. This story can help describe the impact of addictive behavior and how loyalty is involved.
Jane is a 54-year-old divorced woman with two children. She has been an alcoholic and drug addict since she had her last child 28 years ago. When her last child was six, Jane was desperate for another prescription for opioids; however, the normal doctors she went to for prescriptions did not give her another scenario. Jane found herself traveling to a part of town known for drugs and violence: she had her six-year-old son with her. She found a man on the street who said he knew where to get drugs. Jane left her six-year-old in the car and followed the man into the dilapidated building. There, Jane demonstrated for the first time how to inject heroin, and the euphoria was intense. Jane was raping more men then, and she didn’t care that much. While Jane was at the drug warehouse, her vehicle, in which her six-year-old child was waiting, was stolen in pieces. The child was placed on the sidewalk in front of the pharmacy. Hours passed before Jane’s power dissipated enough for her to realize the situation and go check on her child: her child was nowhere to be found. Jane returned home and told her husband what had happened, and he called the police. Fortunately, Jane’s son was at the police station in the care of Child Protective Services after being reported by a citizen. Jane’s husband covered up for her abandoned behavior, and Jane agreed to see a therapist for her problems. Jane’s husband also stopped giving Jane access to money. It wasn’t long before Jane was working as a prostitute, while her older child was at school, to raise money to buy heroin. On several occasions, Jane had to take her younger child with her because she did not have money for a babysitter. When she was at home, Jane was usually high on heroin and completely incompetent as a parent. Often, her six-year-old child would go an entire day without food, drink, or supervision. Eventually, Jane was arrested for soliciting and possessing narcotics. Child Protective Services launched a full investigation and the husband left with the children to stay with the children’s grandparents. The six-year-old desperately wanted to stay with Jane, despite how neglected she was. Jane was sentenced to an addiction rehab program where she desperately tried to find the answer to living a sober life. After returning home with her husband and children, she quickly fell and sold her jewelry and electronics to pay for heroin. Her husband filed for divorce and insisted that she retain joint custody of their children because she is their mother. When the children were staying with their mother, the oldest child, at the age of twelve, began to be a parent, taking care of Jane and the youngest child and reporting to their father that everything was fine. Occasionally, when Jane was sick with withdrawal symptoms, the oldest child would ride his bicycle to pick up medicine for Jane. One day Jane overdosed while her children were in the house. She was again sent to rehab for addiction, and her children were assigned to her husband exclusively through the courts. While in rehab, Jane attempted to take her own life, leaving a note saying she couldn’t take the pain of hurting her family.
This sad tale of turmoil and dysfunction presents many elements of broken loyalty. There is a husband who covers up his wife’s addictive behavior and insists that the mother should raise her children despite the dangers of the relationship. There is a child who wants to be with his mother regardless of treatment or dangerous consequences. There is a child who feels the need to protect and care for the family despite the child’s twelve years of age. And then there’s Jane, whose only loyalty was to herself: even when she tried to take her life, her intentions were purely selfish and without a thought to the effect such an action would have on her children.
In another example, John was a 20-year-old addict with eleven months of sobriety and was staying in a sober living home. John had many bouts with relapses and an addiction treatment program because he primarily used methamphetamine at the age of sixteen. He met a girl at a self-help meeting who helped him feel excited and wanted. John fell in love with this girl who had a long history of relapse and rejection from treatment programs. The girl had been 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 to him about his choices, but John felt an intense loyalty to the girl and avoided his support system. One evening, the girl asked John to do drugs with her while they had sex. John tried to say no, but the temptation was eating away at 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 his girlfriend that night. John lost his job within a week, lost the support of family and friends within two weeks, and soon after that he was broke. John began breaking into cars and houses to support their lifestyle of drug use and living in motel rooms. John was inevitably arrested for home invasion and robbery. After being released from prison thirty days later, the girl had already found a replacement for John; someone who could provide drug money and a sense of security. John was heartbroken, but he didn’t go back to using drugs. For the next three months, he worked very hard on his sobriety. Then John saw the girl again at a self-help meeting. She was in the hospital and sober for a few days, she told John that she loved him and that only her addiction stood in the way of her love. John decided she needed help in her recovery and began seeing her every day. It was only a matter of weeks until both returned to using drugs and breaking into homes to support their habit. The girl eventually left John for another man who had more money and a nice home. John went back to prison for three years.
This story depicts a type of loyalty that appears to be focused on the other person, but is actually completely self-centered. John’s loyalty to the girl was grounded in his own desire to feel needed and to be a provider for another. Despite the girl clearly taking advantage of John’s intentions, he remained loyal to her. The girl’s loyalty to John was also selfish because she remained loyal only as long as John was able to serve as her financial provider.
As these stories show, loyalty in the addict’s family system is often skewed. It is common for individuals to cite loyalty to another as a reason for unhealthy behavior. Because this type of loyalty is often modeled within an addictive family system, it is considered a normal part of life. The accepted opinion in the family system with addiction is that every member of the family must come to the aid of the one who is in trouble. This type of loyalty is harmful because it can lead to unhealthy behavior by all members of the family system. Another common form of loyalty occurs when one or two parties in the family take responsibility for the addict’s life in order to try to fix the addict. This type of loyalty ignores the addict’s basic need to take responsibility for themselves and replaces it with a self-righteous form of control, often with the addict’s full approval.
Healthy forms of loyalty are always identified with a clear set of behavioral boundaries. Healthy loyalty exists in a relationship with mutual reward, and the reward is not only in itself. Harold Laski stated, “Healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” Loyalties are shades of grey, not black and white. And loyalty is earned.
It can be a difficult task for an individual in a family system with unhealthy loyalty to practice healthy loyalty. One of the best places to get support for acting with healthy loyalty is in a self-help group like Al-Anon or Coda. A therapist can also be very helpful. Regardless of the venue, it’s very important to have an honest conversation about loyalty and how feelings and behaviors come across in situations that call for feelings of loyalty. With practice and reinforcement, a healthy loyalty is acquired.
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