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The Critical Effects of Loyalty
Humans are socialized to function in groups, towns, tribes, etc. So it’s no wonder we have an innate need to interact 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 precarious situations. We want to be loyal to our loved ones and our friends, and we want them to return that loyalty. They are normal needs, and in a normal life these needs work well for us. But what happens when the condition of life is abnormal?
The disease of addiction certainly has a major impact on life circumstances. Many addictive behaviors are fundamentally narcissistic due to the nature of the disease. In fact, some of the most obvious signs of addiction are related to addictive behaviors that do not conform to societal norms. It is common for addicts to lie, cheat, steal, and commit crimes in order to satisfy their short-term needs. These actions are taken without thinking about how these behaviors affect others; the thought process is focused solely on the immediate satisfaction of a perceived self-survival need. In short, the addict is not interested in medium-term or long-term results, nor is he interested in maintaining or developing lasting relationships: these types of thought processes do not enter the addict’s mind. The addict is only interested in the selfish needs of the moment. This story can help illustrate the impact of addictive behaviors and how loyalty is.
Jane is a 54-year-old divorced woman with two children. She has been an alcoholic and addict since she had her last child 28 years ago. When her last child was six, Jane was desperate to get another prescription for opioids; however, the regular doctors he was seeing for prescriptions would not give him another script. Jane found herself traveling to an area of the city known for drugs and violence: she had a six-year-old child with her. He found a man on the street who said he knew where to get the drugs. Jane left the six-year-old in the car and followed the man to a dilapidated building. There Jane was shown how to shoot heroin for the first time, and the euphoria felt intense. Then Jane was raped by multiple men, and she didn’t care that much. While Jane was inside the drug house, her six-year-old son was waiting to get parts for his stolen vehicle. The child was placed on the sidewalk in front of the drug store. It was several hours before Jane’s high wore off enough that she made sense of the situation and went to check on her baby: her baby was nowhere to be found. Jane found her way back home and told her husband what had happened, who called the police. Fortunately, Jane’s son was at the police station in the custody of Child Protective Services after being turned in by a citizen. Jane’s husband covered up her erratic behavior, and Jane agreed to see a therapist for her problems. Jane’s husband also stopped giving Jane access to any money. It wasn’t long before Jane was prostitution herself, while her older son was at school, to raise money to buy her heroin. On several occasions, Jane would have to take her young child with her because she didn’t have the money for a daycare. At home, Jane was usually high on heroin and completely incompetent as a parent. Often her six-year-old 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 moved with the children to stay with the children’s grandparents. The six-year-old desperately wanted to stay with Jane, no matter how neglected she was. Jane was sentenced to an addiction rehabilitation program where she tried to find the answer to living a sober life. When she returned home to her husband and children, she quickly relapsed and sold some of her jewelry and electronics to pay for heroin. The husband filed for divorce, insisting that she was their mother and maintained joint custody of their children. When the children were with Mother, the oldest child, who was twelve years old, became a parent, taking care of Jane and the youngest child and making sure everything went well for Father. Sometimes, when Jane was sick with withdrawal symptoms, the oldest child would ride his bicycle to get Jane drugs. One day Jane overdosed while her children were at home. She was once again sent to rehab, and her children were placed in the custody of her husband by the courts. 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 confusion and dysfunction represents many elements of misplaced loyalty. There is the husband covering up for his wife’s addictive behaviors and a mother having to raise her children despite the danger of the relationship. There is a child who wants to be with the mother regardless of the treatment received or the dangerous consequences. There is a child who finds it necessary to protect and care for the family, even if the child is twelve years old. And there is Jane, whose only loyalty is to herself: even in trying to take her own life, her intentions were selfish and without thinking of the effect this action would have on her children.
In another example, John was a twenty-year-old addict, eleven months into sobriety and living in a sober living facility. John has had many highs and lows since he was sixteen years old using mainly methamphetamine and an addiction treatment program. He met a girl at a self-help meeting who helped him feel excited and wanted. John, on the other hand, fell in love with this girl who had a long history of being in and out of treatment programs. The girl had been sober for a week when John met her and they had sex for the first time. John was surrounded by people who tried to talk him out of his options, but John felt a strong loyalty to the girl and rejected his support system. One evening, the girl asked John to take drugs with her while they were having sex. John tried to say no, but temptation ate 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 the girl that evening. Within a week John lost his job, within two weeks he lost the support of his family and friends and soon after that he was penniless. John began stealing cars and houses to support his lifestyle of drugging 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 John’s replacement; someone who could provide drug money and a sense of security. John was heartbroken but didn’t go back to using drugs. He worked very hard for his sobriety for the next three months. Then John saw the girl again at a self-help meeting. She stayed in the hospital and was sober for a few days, she told John that she loved her and it was only her addiction that stood in the way of her love. John decided he needed help in his recovery effort and began seeing him every day. It was only a matter of weeks before they both started using drugs and robbing houses to keep up their habit. The girl eventually left John for another man with more money and a nicer house. John sent him back to prison for three years.
This story represents the kind of loyalty that appears to be focused on another person, but is actually self-centered. John’s loyalty to the girl was born out of feeling needy and wanting to be a provider for another. Despite the girl’s obvious use of John’s intentions, she remained loyal to him. The girl’s loyalty to John was also self-serving, as long as John was able to act as a financial provider she remained loyal.
As these stories show, loyalty is often distorted in a system of addiction. It is common for individuals to perceive loyalty to another as a reason to act in healthy ways. Because this type of loyalty is modeled within an often dependent family system, it is considered a normal part of life. An accepted sentiment in an addictive family system is that every member of the family must come to the rescue of the one in trouble. This type of loyalty is harmful because it can lead to unhealthy behaviors for all members of the family system. Another common form of loyalty occurs when one or two family members take over the addict’s life in order to try to fix the addiction. This type of loyalty ignores the addict’s basic need for self-care and replaces it with a self-centered form of control, often with the addict’s complete approval.
Healthy forms of loyalty are always identified with clear behavioral boundaries. Healthy loyalty is in a relationship of mutual reward, and the reward is not just self-serving. Harold Laski stated, “A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” Loyalties are shades of gray, not black and white. And loyalty is earned.
For a person in a family system with unhealthy loyalty, cultivating healthy loyalty can be difficult. One of the best places to get help dealing with healthy loyalty is in the company of a self-help group like Al-Anon or Coda. A therapist can also be a huge help. Regardless of the venue, it’s important to have an honest conversation about loyalty, and how feelings and behaviors come across in situations that call for loyalty. With practice and reinforcement, healthy loyalty is achieved.
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