Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2007 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
The Therapeutic Genius of Pia Mellody
By John Bradshaw, MA
Pia Mellody joins the company of those who have created highly effective therapeutic models and who can put their theories into practice with unusual skill. Pia's approach is phenomenological, resulting from her own painful struggle with codependency, as well as from thousands of hours spent interviewing and working out healing strategies with patients at The Meadows.
Pia began her unique journey as the head of nursing at The Meadows. In her early days, she suffered from low self-esteem, unhealthy shame, and a hyper-vigilance that accompanied her need to be perfect in every aspect of her work and life. She lived in that lonely place of non-intimacy, polarization and silent anger that most codependents experience.
Pia decided to get some help for her problems at another treatment facility, where she found the experience not only frustrating, but ineffective. Her problems did not seem to fit into any consistent category of the Diagnostic Manual. When she completed treatment, she continued to try to make sense of her raw pain and confusion, reaching out to others to try to get assistance in alleviating the distress. She was grappling with an inner distress exacerbated by a sense of defectiveness, the inability to engage in really good self-care, and living in reaction to other people. Thanks greatly to her, this condition is now called "codependence." At that time, there was no coherent theory or therapy for the problem.
Early Roots of Codependency
Prior to Pia's work, some relevant work had been done concerning the reality of codependence. Ludwig von Bertalanffy's work titled General Systems Theory had filtered its way into several arenas of psychotherapy, notably Ronald Laing, Virginia Satir, and The Palo Alto Group (Gregory Bateson, Don Jackson, Paul Watzlawick and John Weakland).
In 1957 in Ipswich, England, John Howell concluded that the entire family itself was the problem, rather than just the symptom-bearing individuals. Dr. Murray Bowen developed "The Bowen System" of family therapy. He clearly posited the whole family as the problem, maintaining that the most distressed and under-functioning person in the family triggered the rest of the family into over-functioning behaviors. The more the family members over-functioned, the more the distressed person under-functioned. Thus, the more the family tried to change, the more it stayed the same. Bowen was convinced that the whole family was in need of therapy. Bowen did not use the word "codependency," but he emphasized that, like a mobile, every member of a diseased family was dependent on his or her other family members.
Dr. Claudia Black, currently a Senior Fellow at The Meadows, wrote a now classic book called It Will Never Happen To Me. In it, she described the symptoms she carried as an adult that stemmed from living with an alcoholic father and a co-alcoholic mother. Dr. Black made it clear that her whole alcoholic family was diseased, and that each member was codependent on the alcoholic father.
Soon hands-on clinicians like Dr. Bob Akerman and Sharon Wegscheider Cruse (a protégée of Virginia Satir) were describing the symptoms of the adult children of alcoholic families as "codependent," although no one knows who first used the term "codependency."
I did a 10-part series on PBS in April 1985 that met with a huge public response. In it, I used a mobile to describe the family system, moving it energetically to show how the whole family is affected in dysfunction, and allowing the mobile a lightly moving homeostasis to show its functional state. I devoted two parts of this TV series to issues I called "codependency," although my grasp of the concept was still vague and lacked a consistent theory of explanation.
Outside the recovery field, which deals with addictions of all kinds, was the work of Karen Horney and Theodore Millon. Horney's Neurosis and Human Growth presented many descriptions of a dependent personality. Horney's description touched upon many of the primary symptoms of codependency, which Pia Mellody later organized into a coherent theory. According to Horney, those lacking healthy adult autonomy and interconnectedness sought their fulfillment and a sense of self from other people. For these people, relating to other people became compulsive and took the form of blind dependency. Horney used the phrase "morbid dependency."
In the International Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurology, John Masters wrote: "I think that mainline academic psychology has not done enough extensive work on dependency as it relates to codependency as an identifiable personality disorder. Codependency is now seen by many to constitute a painful problem for certain clusters in our society. We are on a primitive frontier with regard to understanding codependence."
Psychiatrist Dr. Timmon Cermak, in Diagnosing and Treating Codependence, argued that codependency was on par with other personality disorders. "To be useful though," wrote Cermak, "codependency needs to be unified and described with consistency. It needs a substantive framework and, until this is done, the psychological community will not recognize codependence as a disease."
Enter Pia Mellody
It was at this point that a young nurse stepped onto the arena of modern psychology and made an extraordinary contribution.
One day, Pia Mellody walked around the corner of a building and had a moment of clarity. She thought of AA and how alcoholics start recovery by simply telling the stories of their troubled drinking. They share their experiences and strength in embracing their shame and their first glimmers of hope.
Pia realized that hundreds of people had passed through her office at The Meadows with stories very similar to her own. For one thing, a large majority had been abandoned, abused and neglected as children. Pia had long suspected that her own symptoms stemmed from her traumatic childhood and severely dysfunctional family system.
At this point, Pia began interviewing the many people who came to The Meadows with stories of abandonment, neglect, abuse of all kinds, and enmeshment with a parent, the parent's marriage or the whole family system.
As Pia interviewed person after person, a unique and clear pattern emerged. All had five similar symptoms:
They had little to no self-esteem, often manifested in the carried shame of their primary caregivers;
They had severe boundary issues;
They were unsure of their own reality;
They were unable to identify their needs and wants;
They had difficulty with moderation.
These symptoms together marked an extreme level of immaturity and a level of moral and spiritual emptiness or bankruptcy. Patients shared their sense of relief in just being able to identify and talk about the distress they were in.
With an interviewing approach fueled by her intuition, Pia Mellody had discovered what she called "codependency." She had come to understand the word "abuse" in a much broader context than clinicians had previously understood it. Pia also showed how codependents carry their abusive caretakers' feelings. Our natural feelings can never hurt or overwhelm us; their purpose is to aid our wholeness. Our anger is our strength, a boundary that guards us. Our fear is our discernment, warning us of real danger. Our interest pushes us to expand and grow; our sadness helps us complete things (life is a profound farewell). Our shame lets us know the limits of our curiosity and pleasure; it becomes the core of modesty and humility. And our joy is the marker of fulfillment and celebration. "Carried" feelings lead to rage, panic, unboundaried curiosity, dire depression, shame as worthlessness or shamelessness, and joy as irresponsible childishness.
Pia later saw the five core symptoms as leading to secondary symptoms: negative control, resentment, impaired spirituality, addictions, mental or physical illness, and difficulty with intimacy.
Pia believed that alcohol and drug addiction, sex addiction, gambling addiction and eating disorders must be treated before the core underlying codependency can be treated.
Understanding that addiction is rooted in codependence is another contribution that Pia helped to clarify. Years ago, Dr. Tibot, an expert on alcoholism, saw that there was an emotional core to alcoholism that he called the "disease of the disease." Pia's work has certainly corroborated that intuitive insight.
Pia Mellody's most important contribution may be how she and her groups of suffering codependents worked out strategies of healing. They did this through trial and error. The results were so striking that The Meadows encouraged Pia to develop a workshop titled "Permission to be Precious." It was an instant success, and Pia began to take it to different cities around the U.S. Soon she wrote a book, Facing Codependence, with Andrea Wells Miller and J. Keith Miller. Later she developed a powerful approach to treating love addicts and their counterparts' avoidant addictions. Her most recent book, The Intimacy Factor, is the only relationship book that treats the core "grief feeling work" around early abuse, neglect and abandonment. I believe that other self-help relationship books fail because they do not address these fundamental issues. "Feeling work" involves exposure, vulnerability and what Carl Jung called "legitimate suffering." Pia has done her share of that and has the know-how to gently nurture others through this work.
Pia's work has become the core model in treating addictions of all kinds and the core of codependence they rest upon. She has personally led hundreds, probably thousands, of people suffering from codependency into recovery and wholeness.
Pia answered Dr. Timmon Cermak's challenge to do the work that established codependency as a treatment issue. She not only found a consistent way to conceptualize this source of suffering, but she found the know-how to address it.
The time has come for a broader recognition of Pia's art and genius.
Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2005 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Inner-Child Work: Some Evolutionary and Neuroscientific Reflections
By John Bradshaw, MA
For the last 27 years, I've reflected on the power and efficacy of inner-child work. Recently I found two areas of knowledge quite interesting and enlightening: the evolutionary theory of neoteny and the neuroscientific study of the brain.
In 1988, I was presenting my inner-child workshop to a group of holistically oriented dentists. I arrived the day before I was to begin and discovered that one of my most revered mentors, Dr. Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist at Princeton, was giving the keynote address.
When I began my workshop the next day, Dr. Montagu, 84 years young, was in the audience. He participated in the entire two-day workshop, doing all the experiential exercises. At the end of the workshop, he gave me a manuscript copy of a book he had written that was to be published later that year. The book was called Growing Young. It presented an extremely complex argument for the theory of neoteny, an evolutionary theory that many biologists, ethnologists and anthropologists believe is a necessary complement to Darwin's theory of evolution. Montagu told me that what he had experienced in the workshop mirrored what his book outlined as a major focus for psychotherapy.
Neoteny is defined in biology as "the retention of fetal or juvenile traits by the retardation of developmental processes." The prolonged childhood of humans is unique among all life forms. Since humans are the apex of evolution, there must be some evolutionary reason for our prolonged childhood.
Montagu cites a number of renowned scientists who believe that Darwin's theory of natural selection is not fully sufficient to account for human evolution. There is, they believe, another mechanism at work in evolution, first noted by Edwin Drinker Cope in 1870. Cope discovered what he called the law of acceleration and retardation.
While I'm not qualified to present the scientific argument for the theory of neoteny, I'll tell you what excites me about it in terms of inner-child work.
Retardation of development allows us humans to avoid limiting our brain development to the specialized focus of survival.
The juvenile chimpanzee is quite humanlike compared to the adult chimpanzee. The adult's head and jaws are elongated and no longer round. The elongation is due to the fact that chimps must focus all their attention on survival. The early need for specialization forces the ape's brain into an elongated pattern. The vast number of neurons in the chimp's brain are pruned to a relative few concerned only with survival.
For us humans, our prolonged childhood (from birth to 14 years) opens the door to many experiences that allow our brains to expand. This non-specialized use of our brain offers us enormous possibilities for creativity and freedom.
Montagu quotes from the Journal of Auroville, which recounts communication from a flying saucer. The alien says, "The trouble with earthlings is their early adulthood. As long as they are young, they are loveable, openhearted, tolerant, eager to learn and eager to cooperate with others. By the time of adulthood, most human adults are mortal enemies." I'm not prone to believe this statement came from an alien. However, the human race says it wants peace more than anything, yet we keep having wars.
For Montagu and his biological colleagues, the goal of human maturity is not adulthood as we now conceive it, but adulthood as actualizing our childlike traits, such as openness, tolerance, docility, spontaneity, love for others and willingness to cooperate.
To sum up neoteny, Montagu asserts that "we are designed to grow in ways that emphasize rather than minimize childhood traits." Montague asserts that the understanding of neoteny is urgent in terms of human survival. History teaches us "that only the races with the longest childhood were able to stay in the cultural mainstream."
A century of clinical psychology and psychotherapy has helped us understand that we are by nature open, curious, tolerant, loving, playful and joyful. Life is not an ongoing warfare, as philosopher Thomas Hobbes and others have believed. All humans have a deep and persistent desire for wholeness and, when we are emotionally dis-eased, we deeply desire recovery. We intuitively know that being violent to ourselves and/or others and hating ourselves and/or others are not what our nature intended and will not bring us happiness.
Psychotherapy helps us clearly see that violence and hatred of ourselves and others are primarily reactions to childhood, trauma, abandonment, neglect and chronic abuse of one kind or another.
The inner child is a symbolic metaphor for the natural child's preciousness, as well as the natural child's adaptation to trauma, abuse, abandonment, neglect and enmeshment (the wounded child).
Inner-child work aims at helping us re-own the natural child within us (the precious child). In order to reconnect with the primal energy of our natural child, we need to grieve the wounds resulting from our abandonment, neglect and abuse. Once we've grieved our early losses, we can learn the things we needed to learn at each of our developmental dependency stages. These learnings create the self-esteem and the safe boundaries that we need in order to be open, tolerant, non-judgmental, spontaneous (rather than forever on guard), loving and cooperative. It seems clear that our neotenous nature demands that we do "inner-child" work when we have been traumatically abused, abandoned, neglected or enmeshed.
When I was actively addicted, I used my addiction to feel my childlike aliveness. Without my addiction, I felt dead. Addictions are abortive ways we choose in order to be restored to the natural childlike traits of our beginnings. Ultimately, addictions result in irresponsible childish behaviors. Healing the wounded inner child is necessitated by the theory of neoteny.
Recent Development in Neuroscience
Recently, Thomas Hedlund, the supervising clinician in more than 35 of my recent inner-child workshops, excitedly told me that he had just finished a workshop with Dr. Allan N. Schore, a clinical faculty member of the U.C.L.A. David Geften School of Medicine and an internationally recognized expert in the neuroscience of the brain. In the workshop, Dr. Schore had presented a complete neuroscientific explanation for the effectiveness of inner-child work in general and my inner-child workshops in particular.
Dr. Schore is one of the major pioneers of a paradigm shift in understanding psychopathogensis and therapeutic change. This paradigm shift that directly affects clinical practice focuses on the centrality of emotional processes and the role of the self in human function and dysfunction.
What Dr. Schore has made clear is that childhood abuse, abandonment, neglect and enmeshment damage a child's need for healthy attachment, i.e. secure bonding. Attachment disorders damage the functionality of the right (or non-dominant hemisphere) of the brain.
With a "good enough" early attachment, a person can learn to handle stress without overreacting. Because they have been loved, touched and given appropriate space, they feel loveable and can be loveable to others. The empathic mutuality of "good enough" bonding is the foundation of a unified sense of self.
Dysfunctional Attachment and the Non-dominant Hemisphere
Dysfunctional attachment impacts the nondominant hemisphere in any or all of the following ways:
Loss of ability to cope with stress
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.), which reflects a severe dysfunction of the right hemisphere system
Since early trauma is usually cumulative and chronic, there is evidence that longterm autonomic reactivity can lead to "neuronal" structural changes, involving atrophy, shrinkage and permanent damage
Since the right hemisphere has an adaptive capacity to regulate affect - the most significant consequence of the stressor of early relational trauma is the loss of the ability to regulate the intensity and duration of affect - (REACTIVITY)
Loss of the capacity to assimilate new experiences - the personality cannot enlarge
Tendency to disengage socially
Dissociation and defensive projective identification.
I invite the reader to explore Dr. Schore's work in his two volumes, Affect, Dysregulation and the Disorders of the Self and Affect, Regulation and the Repair of the Self. In my "inner-child" workshop, I work on the first three childhood developmental stages. I place great emphasis on the attachment bond and our early developmental dependency needs (the needs that can be met only by depending on another person). Codependency is the major outcome of attachment disorder because its primary symptomology is the result of a failure to get our developmental dependency needs met.
Most inner-child work is aimed at the nondominant hemisphere of the brain. I use a lot of imagery meditations and age regressive techniques (so that a person can grieve his wounds at the age-appropriate stage at which his attachment rupture took place). I use music to stimulate the "felt thought" intelligence of the right brain. I divide participants into groups of six or eight, and let the group members become non-shaming "benevolent witness." They serve as mirroring faces who offer validating feedback, which legitimizes the pain of the person sharing a story or scene of shameful abuse. The group work helps the sharing person reduce his dissociation and own his prospective identifications. Being reconnected with his own feelings, a person can begin his grief process.
"Inner-child" work is thus conceived as grieving and redoing each developmental stage of early and middle childhood.
The new relationship that emerges is the relationship with one's functional adult and inner child (the reconnection of the self with the self). The inner child is understood as a metaphor for our natural child of the past, whose feelings, needs and wants were bound in toxic shame.
Dr. Allan Schore expresses his conception of the paradigm shift in treating attachment disorder as follows: "The treatment of attachment pathologies is currently conceptualized to be directed toward the mobilization of fundamental modes of development and the completion of interrupted developmental processes."
Happily, many of us have been using this model for quite some time.
I could write a lot more about the neuroscientific basis of inner-child work as a paradigm shift in understanding psychopatho-gensis and therapeutic change, but the limits of this short article do not allow it.
I hope this modest presentation has been stimulating for the reader. I invite those interested to read the work of Joseph Le Deux, Diane Foshe and Antonio Damasio, along with the work of Ashley Montague and Dr. Allan S. Schore.
About the Author
John Bradshaw, Fellow of The Meadows, has combined his exceptional skills as counselor, author, theologian and public speaker for the past four decades to become a world renowned figure in the fields of addictions, recovery, family systems and the concept of toxic shame. John has written three New York Times best-selling books: Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child; Creating Love; and Healing the Shame That Binds You.
The Spring/Summer 2009 edition of The Cutting Edge, The Meadows' official newsletter, has just been published. Highlights of the issue include three feature articles and information on upcoming events offered by The Meadows.
Claudia Black, a Clinical Consultant for The Meadows, is the author of Deceived: Facing Sexual Betrayal, Lies, and Secrets. Says Claudia, "Nearly a decade ago, I began to work with women confronting sexual betrayal. It was this professional experience that inspired me to write Deceived: Facing Sexual Betrayal, Lies and Secrets, a book for female partners of sex addicts. Much of this article is excerpted from that book, published by Hazelden in April 2009."
Another Meadows author, John Bradshaw, discusses his new book, Reclaiming Virtue, in Author to Reader. According to John, "Reclaiming Virtue is a very ambitious book. I originally conceived of it as part of my own Stage Four recovery work, but I later came to the realization that the book is more like a record of my own struggle over the past 50 years."
In Twisters & Roller Coasters: Living with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Arizona licensed therapist Debra L. Kaplan discusses her work with CPTSD patients, its history, treatment options and prognosis.
You'll also find information on The Meadows' new Integrated Evaluation program; a list of upcoming workshops and seminars and symposiums; and details on The Meadows' free lecture series. The Cutting Edge is available in both HTML and PDF formats.
Note: This article is an excerpt from Claudia Black's book "Straight Talk". It was originally published in the Fall 2003 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Straight Talk from Claudia Black: What Recovering Parents Should Tell Their Kids About Drugs and Alcohol
Whether you sobered up last year or 15 years ago, you may be wondering what to tell your kids about your past addiction. Dr. Black shows readers five very different families and how these parents have talked to their kids about recovery, relapse, and the children's own vulnerability to using drugs and alcohol in an addictive manner.
Discussion tips and easy-to-understand facts are shared in boxed sections to help parents focus on key issues. Topics include:
The basic healing messages that young children need to hear if parents who have recently become sober are raising them.
How to talk to adolescents, teens and grown children about the basic characteristics of addiction, including denial, preoccupation, loss of control, change in tolerance and withdrawal.
How to discuss genetic and environmental influences that can contribute to becoming chemically dependent, including the latest brain chemistry research.
How parents in early recovery can begin making amends and building sober relationships with their children, whether the children are young or grown.
Age-appropriate strategies to reduce a child's risks for experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
This book is aimed at parents who are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction but is also relevant to non-addicted parents who grew up in addicted families.
The following is an excerpt from chapter one:
On December 31, 1986, the day after I got sober, the last thing I wanted to face was what I had done to my kids. Prior to sobriety, as a father, what I had going for me was the law, the Ten Commandments, and the tradition that adult men protect their kids. So when I became sober, the first thing I wanted to do was quickly reassert their respect for me based upon everything I had going for me. This might have worked when they were small and I had drank only a short period, but, by the time I got sober, nobody could say that I deserved all the respect that the law and the Ten Commandments provided for. I realized I was going to have to get to know the kids and vice versa. For me it meant being friends first. The kids really wanted me to be a parent, and I wanted to regain their respect. Today I have been in recovery for several years and have regained that respect, but not by asserting what I had in the first place but by "letting go" of the outcome of my relationships after I had done all I could to change, trusting that God would then do His thing.
It has always been my belief that parents truly love their children and genuinely want what is best for them, yet that message often becomes convoluted, inconsistent and sometimes nearly non-existent when addiction begins to pervade the family system. As much as parents want to correct this, the focus of early recovery is often on recovery practices, the marriage or partnership, and job or career. This is coupled with parents frequently just not knowing what to say to their children, or how best to interact with them. This confusion can be as true for the adult child as for the adolescent or younger child. In many cases it is easy to ignore the issue of what to say or how to interact with your children if someone else, such as an ex-spouse or grandparents, predominantly raises them, or they are adults living on their own. Children can also impede the process by pretending all is just fine between you and them because you are now clean and sober. And, in fact, for many it is better already. Or they distance themselves from you with aloofness or anger.
The inability to be intimate, to share yourself with your children, to be there for them, is one of the most tragic losses in life. Having worked with thousands of addicted parents, I've seen their eyes shimmer with tears and glow with love when they talk about their children. As I wrote this book, I interviewed a host of parents, and I was inspired by the depth of love and vulnerability shared as they talked about how addiction impacted children, and the hope their recovery would provide them the positive influence and connection that they would like to have with their children.
What Do You Say To Your Children?
In recovery there is a lot of wreckage of the past that needs to be addressed, and there is a lot of moving forward that will happen as well. What your children want most is to know you love them.They want you to be there for them and with them. That can be hard to recognize if your children are angry or distant. It can be hard to do, given the priority needed to learning how to live clean and sober. Creating new relationships or mending old relationships doesn't happen overnight. The most important thing you can do for your children is to stay clean and sober. Yet while you are doing that, there are so many little steps you can take with your children to begin to be the parent they need and the parent you want to be. It is my hope this book will help you in this journey. Thomas, a recovering parent, shared this story with me.
My daughter was grown by the time I got sober. More than anything I loved her and wanted her to know that. I wanted her to know that the parent she saw all of her growing up years wasn't the real me- that there was this whole other me, this place of love that I had for her that I had lost control of due to my drinking and drugging lifestyle. The hardest part was being honest. Then I had to be willing to listen and not argue with her about how she saw me. I know what she saw. She saw the addict. She couldn't see my place of love; it was too well hidden. So I listened and I didn't need to argue, I was now in my place of love. But I really wanted her to know that the things I had said or done was not the real me. Yet it could sound like a cop out. I wasn't trying to cop out. She had her experiences because of how I acted in my disease.
I talked; she listened. She talked; I listened. Together we have healed.
Addiction is a devastating disease. It ravages one's physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being. The greatest pain is that it impacts those we love the most- our children. In recovery we learn that addiction is a disease, that it is not a matter of will power or self-control. We surrender to our powerlessness over alcohol and other mind-altering chemicals. We put one step in front of the other, often following the direction of other recovering alcoholics and addicts before us. We rejoice and celebrate recovery. For the first time in a long time, we begin to like ourselves. We begin to let go of our insecurities, our fears, and our angers. We begin to look beyond ourselves, and when we do, many of us are confronted with the reality that this disease is not just ours alone. Addiction belongs to the family. Confronted with that stark realization, how do we empower ourselves to make a difference in our children's lives so that they do not repeat our history?
Most children raised with addiction vow to themselves and often to others, "It will never happen to me. I will not drink like my father, or use drugs like my mother." They believe they have the will power, the self-control, to do it differently than their parents. After all, they have seen the horrors of addiction, and shouldn't that be enough to ensure that they don't become like their parents?If I were to meet with a group of children under the age of nine who were raised with addiction, and ask them if they were going to drink or use drugs when they were older, it is very likely that nearly 100 percent of them would vehemently shake their heads no. If I were to come back six years later when these children are teenagers, half of them would already be drinking, using drugs or both. The majority of others would begin to drink or use within the next few years.
These children will begin drinking or using out of peer pressure, to be a part of a social group, to have a sense of belonging. Kids often start to experiment just to see what it is like, and many simply like the feeling. Some will find that alcohol and drugs are a wonderful way to anesthetize or medicate the pain of life. Alcohol and drugs momentarily allow their fears, angers, and disappointments to disappear. For some it produces a temporary sense of courage, confidence, and maybe even power. Aside from the emotional attraction that alcohol or drugs may provide, the genetic influence may be such that these children's brain chemistry is triggered within their early drinking or using episodes, and they quickly demonstrate addictive behavior.
As a recovering parent or spouse/partner, what can you do to stop the chain of addiction? What do you say to your children about your addiction? What you say and do depends on your own story.
About the author
Claudia Black, Clinical Consultant for The Meadows, is a world-renowned lecturer, author and trainer internationally recognized for both her pioneering and contemporary work with family systems and addictive disorders. She is also past Chairperson of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and presently serves on its Advisory Board. Dr. Black has been featured in numerous publications, appeared on many national television shows, and written several well-known books, including It Will Never Happen to Me, Depression Strategies: Practical Tools for Professionals Treating Depression and her latest book, Straight Talk.
Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2004 edition of The Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Child Abuse in the Name of Religion
By Robert Fulton, MA, LISAC, Administrator, The Meadows
The father, like an Old Testament prophet, roars out the moral law at the child he cannot control. If the parent does not see or hear what the child's sinful deeds or thoughts are, certainly God does, and nothing gets past God. If the child does not learn to behave according to the holy law - to abide by its prohibitions against impure sexual thoughts and deeds, against drunkenness and dancing and sloth, to be neat and finish one's food - the child is damned. Obey God; obey your parents. And if punishment is not enough to change the child, God's damnation will be forthcoming as certainly as the sun rises.
The Bible-thumping parent, like the Old Testament God of wrath, lays down the law to his child.
He teaches that right and wrong are external concepts, sanctioned by a relentless God, and that disobedience is the measure of personal failure and evidence of flawed humanity. This substitution of power and control for nurture and love is the setting for traumatic abuse in the name of religion - a denial of the inherent worth of the child and the perfect imperfection of his developmental energies and appetites. Often there is a sexual element at the heart of the parent's own developmental immaturity.
Religiously abusive parents instill in their children a fear of an ogre in the sky with a great big chalkboard, writing down everything these children do - and that if these deeds are not erased, they will be damned. These parents have no idea how to maturely educate and guide their children, usually because they were never taught by their own parents. They make God into a Marine drill sergeant whose bellowed orders cover up their own feelings of parental inadequacy. Their denial of their anxiety and fear and the repression of their sexual energies infect the air like an undiagnosed epidemic, and it is the child who becomes diseased.
Let us say that a religiously abusive parent discovers his child's masturbation. He says to the child, "I know what you are doing, and although I may not see you doing it, God knows and sees what you are doing. If you continue to masturbate, you are going to be damned." The parent, because of his own psychosexual immaturity, cannot walk the child through a natural sexual evolution in a functional way, and rather projects onto the child his own primitive fear of sexuality. In angry self-righteousness, the parent invokes external authority to maintain control and to go one-up so that he can, like the Wizard of Oz, hide behind his role on the family throne. Most often, these "God-fearing" parents think they are frightening the wits out of their child for the child's own good. The child will now feel defective around a normal developmental stage, which the parents do not celebrate or honor. Instead, they demonize normal sexuality and shamelessly terrorize the child in the name of "holiness."
Parents who revert to the authoritarian threat of Biblical punishment are fear-based. They need an external control system because they don't have an internal control system. The child will carry the poisonous inheritance of his parents' shameful immaturity as he grows into adulthood, ruining his own attempts at intimacy in posttraumatic throwbacks to his original shaming.
Having been tyrannized into the same emotional and intellectual box with his parents, that child, should he ever become reflective and seek freedom from parental coercion, will rebel and develop the core issue delusion of taking his value from one being. But it is a sad truth that the budding desire to gain freedom will be shame-based and will eventually take a dark side, as the adult wounded child seeks relief from his shame. And as we see so often at The Meadows, this search for lessened shame will take on a medicative state, even if it is addiction in the name of a delusional freedom, a delusional selfdefinition and the delusional authenticity of rebellion.
Since the child's gratification will be shamed-based, resentment and remorse enter his adult relationships whenever he seeks gratification. All of his emotions are knotted up in the tentacles of carried shame, so when he steps outside the template of his parents' shamelessness, he takes their shame with him; he re-experiences the notion that he is defective, even in the midst of gratification. He feels the childhood shame of his parents' debasement of normal human developmental emotions, even in the rebellion through which he seeks his freedom from tyranny.
When he experiences the ecstacy of being outside the box, the wounded adult child has his wires crossed and must go outside the norm in order to find this ecstacy. Perhaps this adult wounded child will look to a prostitute in order to get subconsciously in touch with the shame, fear and intensity his posttraumatic stress require. The adult wounded child will demand shame, fear and intensity from the experience, because these emotions were present at the ego age of his original wounding. To be himself, he will search for the familiar, even though it is painful and degrading. He has become hardwired by posttraumatic stress.
These kinds of shame-based actings out will involve the adult wounded child in the blame game, in which he blames his partner for the remorse, guilt, inadequacy and anger he experiences when he has sex or when he seeks relational gratification. Daddy gets the blame, the partner gets the blame, and religion gets the blame. Everything but himself is at fault.
He does not have the tools to be self-empowering and accountable. Not having the power to defend himself, he will characteristically react as a victim - of everything bad that happens in his life. The adult wounded child goes into a victim stance as a way of coping with his lack of personal skills. He feels himself a victim to the spouse, to the parent... he is even a victim of God: "Dear God, how can You have abandoned me?"/p>
Some stay in the "poor-me" victim stance, while others flip into the aggressive offensiveness of "screw you." Not able to ask what their role was in all of this, or what they need to do in order take care of themselves, they attack from the victim position. These victim attacks take them from one-down to one-up. Addiction, always a one-up posture, is often concomitant with the victim stance.
Abuse and the Parish
When I was involved in parish life, a corps of volunteers kept the parish running. The pastoral team would always falsely empower these people by lavishly praising them. These volunteers needed self-esteem - people who did not have self-care, people who wanted a daddy or a mommy because they didn't have one when they were growing up to tell them how wonderful they were.
In parish life, so many people get their esteem externally. The healthy goal is to give from a place of fullness, to give of the fullness of yourself freely, without manipulation. If I give myself away so that you will tell me I am wonderful and I can feel good about myself, I have given myself away, and this is codependence. It is not self-esteem; it is other-esteem.
The good of the institutionalized church is not more important than the good of the individual. The persons who suffer in this paradigm of other-esteem are the children of parents who, while serving the church, are not at home parenting. They are at church buying their esteem. The church, by being a failed parent to its own priests and parishioners, recruits failed parents who willingly accept the church's abuse of authority and labor for the greater glory of the church, inc.
What this says to the children of these needy parents is that both parent and child have no value; they are less-than. It perpetuates a vicious shame cycle in which the parents get their esteem on the outside, and are abandoning their children in order to do it. The church requires failed parents to buy into its own failure of parental responsibility, and it applauds the failure by calling these abused parishioners "the faithful."
The spiritual demise of the church occurred because the church has opted for power, greed and secrecy over connection, empowerment and intimacy. The invitation of St. Francis of Assisi was to rebuild the church - not in terms of bricks, mortar and coffers - but in terms of being present and spiritually connected: to give a voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless. The church needs to accept that invitation, so, like a parent to a child, it can nurture and love and be loved by God in return.