S2 E1: Dr. Claudia Black on the Family Dynamics of Addiction

Today, the story of Dr. Claudia Black, who’s been a pioneer in trauma and substance use treatment for over 40 years. As someone who grew up around addiction, she knows how that environment can affect children. So now as a trainer, speaker, and author, how does she use her own experience to help each unique family find recovery? You can find out more about Claudia’s story and her books, including It Will Never Happen to Me and Unspoken Legacy, at claudiablack.com.

Click here to listen to part two of our conversation with Claudia Black.

Podcast Transcript

Claudia Black: Hi, I’m Dr. Claudia Black. I’m a senior fellow here at the Meadows in Wickenburg, Arizona. I’m the clinical architect of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, which is a program for young adults, 18 to 26, here at The Meadows.

David Condos: Dr. Black, thank you so much for joining us here at the Rio Retreat Center on the Meadows campus.

Claudia Black: Thank you. It’s beautiful here.

David Condos: Let’s start with your story, start from the beginning. What started you on this journey to helping other people with recovery, trauma, mental health, all that?

Claudia Black: I think for me, my story wasn’t intentional. I grew up in home where there was addiction. I grew up in a home where there was a lot of threat of violence. There was a lot of fear. In some ways, I think I grew up in a community that was very riddled with that, but I didn’t have any conscious thought that somehow I was going to go out and make a difference in the world in that arena. That was really a norm. It wasn’t anything that was identified, it wasn’t labeled, and it certainly wasn’t talked about.

David Condos: You seeing like it’s just how it was.

Claudia Black: It was just literally. When you’re raised in a family such as that, one, you often take on characteristics that will set you up to become a helping professional. That’s what was true in my case. I developed a great capacity for empathy towards others, capacity in which to listen because you need to be so hypervigilant in a home like that. For me, I became very self-disciplined, very goal-oriented.

I ended up developing a lot of characteristics that would, as I say, set me up to be in this kind of profession. What I really liked, what I really thought I was going to do was I thought I was going to work with really angry teenagers. I took my very first job between my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, my very first professional job with teenagers in residential treatment settings.

One of the things that I liked about those teenagers and they were all girls, females, was they were angry kids. They ran away and they acted out. I think I was attracted to that anger because it had been so squelched out of me, that I was in a family where anger meant rage, anger meant abuse. I was very intrigued by that part of their behavior. Something that absolutely was not safe for me.

David Condos: You’ve repressed that in yourself, or you’ve–

Claudia Black: Very much so. Very much. I think I’ve always felt that angry kids, sometimes were closer to speaking the truth about the reality than those who were so nice, such as myself, and that many times we develop a facade that says to the world, “I’m doing just fine in spite of,” but that facade has a lot to do with our own denial system. It has a lot to do with what we needed to do in order to be safe.

With angry kids, I always say that the kids who go through life with their fist clenched, their arms raised, sometimes their fingers protruding, saying there’s something wrong in my life and you’re going to darn well notice. As I said, I think for me, I was attracted to that because they were closer to the truth and in some ways I thought that made it easier to work with. I didn’t see myself working in addiction. I didn’t think about that. I was just a young person who’d come out of an addictive home.

As I said, I didn’t have much awareness around what that meant, but I went on to graduate school because I was a practical young woman. I thought, “I’m going to have to support myself. I can’t depend on anybody else to support me.” I needed a master’s degree to be able to continue the work that I was doing. It was in graduate school, again, very unlikely, very uncommon that somebody taught a course on alcoholism and the one that dates me as well because back then, the phraseology wasn’t addiction.

The phraseology wasn’t even chemical dependency. It was alcoholism. It was in that class for the first time I really understood what had happened in my home. Suddenly, I realized that my dad wasn’t just crazy, that there was a reason for his behavior and it was one word. In that one word what I also- would be taught was that this is treatable. There are people who recover from this.

For so many people raised in highly troubled families, they can become very good at talking around the issues. In doing so, they’re not necessarily speaking their truth. They’re just very verbally skilled. I was very good at talking around the issues. I began to learn some things about myself that I would start to pay attention to, and the clients that I was working with. I took my first job after graduate school. I thought I’d go back and work with angry teenage girls again, but I didn’t.

I took my first job in an alcohol treatment program. It was intriguing for me because I’m now a social worker. I’m supposed to do psychosocial assessments. As I sat and listened to the alcoholic, I so emotionally identified. Then as I was asked to develop a family program and I’d bring their partners or spouses in, I so emotionally identified, and I wasn’t either. Common sense said to me that if there were children, they needed to come in.

I have to laugh at myself. They asked me to develop a family program. They didn’t mean invite the children. They meant invite the spouses but I didn’t know that, and I had not learned to ask questions. I made this assumption and invited all these kids in. Literally in front of me, David, I had 5-year-olds, 12-year-olds, 25-year-olds, 35-year-olds kids. Then I saw the partners who themselves, for the most part, had been those kids one time.

Then I looked at the alcoholic, who for the most part had been those kids one time. Suddenly, this big hall that I was really lucky, pretty much at the same person. I actually began the early pioneering work on young children, adolescent and adult children from alcoholic family systems. It was happening at the time that I still was quite young and I still was going through my own healing and emotional process.

David Condos: Because you’d seen in your family, you’d seen in these families that are coming in that you’re helping and so, it just seemed like this natural thing that was missing in the world.

Claudia Black: Yes. It was missing in the world. It really was. Now, this day and age, these issues are commonly talked about on television. They’re inside scripts of movies but back then, that was not true. Back then, we didn’t talk about alcoholism or any kind of addiction in the family.

David Condos: Even though it was so prevalent in the real world.

Claudia Black: Absolutely, but you didn’t talk about it. You did not talk about physical abuse. You did not talk about sexual abuse. You didn’t talk about the mental health issues or depression or anxiety. There was such a stigma. One of the phrases I became well known for is what we call the dysfunctional family rules. You do not talk honestly about what it is that’s going on. Don’t talk rule.

You don’t feel, you don’t show people what you’re really feeling. You might show them the safest of all, I’ll show you how good I’m doing in the world and that I’m happy, or maybe the one thing I’ll show you is my anger, but I’m not going to show you anything else. We have don’t talk, don’t feel and you can’t trust. You can’t trust that other people are going to be there for you.

Those three dysfunctional rules became a common language because they cracked open something that had had such a huge stigma. In cracking open, we now had the opportunity in which to address all these different people who are being impacted, the addicted person, the partners and children of various ages.

David Condos: You put some language around that.

Claudia Black: I did. I think one of the greatest gifts was creating a language. It gave people a language in which to speak their truth and their reality. It gave them a language, a framework to understand what had even happened because as I said, when I understood that my father was alcoholic, he wasn’t just crazy, for most of us, we think there’s something wrong with us and then we think we’re unique in whatever it is, is wrong with us as well. That was really the foundation to my very early work. It led to a lot of visibility for me at a young age.

Then I’d write a book called That Will Never Happen to Me and then I begin to be speaking all over the country after that first national presentation that I did. It was a career that took off very quickly. Throughout all of that, I’ve always kept my hands in some kind of direct hands-on work with clients. One, makes my heart soar, two, that’s how I learned. You can learn when you’re speaking. You learn how to present to an audience. But in terms of learning about what I’m talking about, I needed to keep my hands in.

David Condos: Just to see their faces, see their reactions.

Claudia Black: Yes.


David Condos: To dive in a little bit deeper and a couple of points from the book, It Will Never Happen to Me, one of the things that you talked about there was these different roles that people fall into. You’re growing up in a family, everybody is having a similar experience, or they’re at least in a similar environment, but that plays out in vastly different ways. Talk about why that is. Why will somebody react in this way, somebody react in this way, and that can really set them off on a different trajectory for the rest of their life?

Claudia Black: People react differently in the context of literally the same family for a host of different reasons. One is it often has to do with, when I talk about children, they enter the family at different times. There’s a progression, particularly when it comes to substance addictions. There’s that early, middle and late-stage progression. When that older child comes into the home, chances are they’re going to come into the home a little bit earlier in the progression of the disease. Therefore, life has the potential to be more stable.

For the younger children, by the time they come in, a parent, or could be both parents, are further along in the progression of the disease. They don’t have near the stability that potentially that older child can have. Now another dynamic is I could be that younger child, and maybe the greatest gift I have is that I have older brothers or sisters because they may bring me the stability that my parents cannot.

Sometimes what you see is younger kids will have greater strengths because they had those older siblings. What I’ve just said is, one, that the youngest kids could be the ones most impacted because they’re further along in the progression, then again, they could be less impacted because of maybe stability of the older siblings in the home. We have lots of different variables.

David Condos: Within that, that older sibling is taking on a role of–

Claudia Black: Of being the parent. Oftentimes, your older kids are your very responsible kids. They become the parent to themselves. They become the parent to the other kids in the home. Sometimes they become the parent to their parents. They’re well-disciplined, they’re goal-oriented, and they’re very action-oriented. Then you get kids who find the best thing I can do is move into the woodwork and not draw any attention to myself. They hide. They’re lost children. They become invisible. I call them adjusters.

All this is usually about, I do whatever it is I need to do to bring me stability in this family. That’s what this role is about. For some kids, my job is to take the emotional pain out of the home. I’ll do whatever it is I need to do so you’re not so embarrassed. I will dance on the rooftop if that’s what I need to do to take the pain out of this home.

David Condos: To absorb.

Claudia Black: Yes. I become the placater, the emotional caretaker in the family. Then you have your angry kids. Then you have also sometimes your mascots, your family clowns. They’re trying to bring some relief and humor into this family.

David Condos: A distraction.

Claudia Black: All of this is going to have some long-term impact. It’s going to impact how you relate to others on an intimate level. It will impact, oftentimes, choices of careers. We get a lot of people in helping professionals who were caretakers. They’re nurses. They’re flight attendants. They’re out there taking care of other people’s needs. They might have had 20 years growing up of taking care of other people’s needs. They know how to do that well. In the moment, it makes them feel good. They get oriented– Social workers. I’m a classic example of that.

I know how to take care of other people’s needs, and I do that well. You find yourself a helping profession in which to be in. I don’t want to say that there’s benefit to one role over the other. I will say that there are skills in every one of these roles that, one, gave you a sense of survivorship and that you probably want to hang on to. It’s not so much what you learn, skill-wise, that gets you into trouble, it’s what you didn’t get to learn.

Let’s say I’m that responsible child. I learned how to take charge. I may be really good at taking charge. I might be really good at problem-solving. What I’m really poor at is listening. I’m busy calling the shots. I don’t know how to listen. That’s going to affect me in the workplace. That’s going to affect me in my personal relationships. It’s going to affect me as a parent. If I’m that placater, taking care of everybody else’s needs, I wouldn’t know my own need if it slapped me in the face.

As I always say, if you don’t know what your needs are, they’re not going to get met, and if your needs don’t get met, you’re going to be depressed. If I am that lost child, I don’t want to make a decision at all about anything. I don’t want to draw any attention to myself. I’m good at following. I’m a great follower. You tell me what to do, and I can do it, but I don’t know how to initiate. When people start to take a look at family roles, you get to keep the skills.

David Condos: It’s not that those skills are bad.

Claudia Black: No. It’s not those skills are bad, it’s what you don’t get to learn, that things don’t get rounded out. When I say, “It will never happen to me,” children of addiction are the ones more likely to become addicted than any other identifiable population. Now, with substances, that has a lot to do with the fact that you may have a genetic load, but just emotionally, if I am that person who’s taking care of everybody else’s emotional needs, to think about what alcohol and drugs could do for me, for just a moment, it can allow me to think about myself.

Well, at first, I feel a little bit guilty about that, but if I have a little bit more to drink or smoke or whatever I’m using, I don’t feel so guilty anymore. It gives me something that other people are able to acquire more naturally. If I’m that serious child and I’m busy leading the world, I don’t know how to play. I don’t know how to be spontaneous. I don’t know how to sit here and be with you on an equal basis.

You give me a little bit to drink or use, and suddenly, for just a moment, I’m going to take the burden of the load off my shoulders, and you know what? It feels good. That’s going to make me want a second drink and a third drink. People say, “Well, does that make them addicted?” No, but it makes them thirsty. It makes them want to go back a second, third, fourth time, and yes, and for many of them, they’ll become addicted.

David Condos: I like how you said earlier, like some of these people are doing fine. As far as the world, we see them on the surface–

Claudia Black: They look like they’re doing fine.

David Condos: They have it together. They still have been through all the same experience, the same environment. What would you say to them if they’re like, “I don’t need to talk about this, I don’t need help,” what would you say there?

Claudia Black: First of all, we actually have a phrase for that, that person who’s needless and wantless. We talk about that a lot at The Meadows. What I’d probably do is I’d probably want to appeal to what it is they’re not talking about. You’re really doing great at work. It’s really- obviously, you’re a big achiever, but the fact that you’ve not been able to maintain a relationship, even though you’ve tried in the last 30 years, but you’re not able to maintain that, or the fact that you don’t feel a sense of closeness with your children or your children are not feeling that closeness.

There’s always, while I may excel in one area of my life, and I may look good to the world, there’s another area of their life they’re not excelling at. They’re not excelling in their parenting. They’re not excelling in their intimate relationships. Somewhere, it’s leaking out.

David Condos: Just helping them get that perspective of, these are the other areas that you may be blind to.

Claudia Black: Yes. Also giving them credit for, obviously, you’ve been very resilient. You’re clearly resilient. You’re there. You’re a strong survivor. Against all odds, you’ve been able to do this and you’re able to do that and you’re able to do this, but let’s take a look at how this is for you. How is that working? Would you like that to be any different? “Well, I’ve lived this long. It’s not any different.” I know, but would you like it to be different? Because it’s possible. This is possible.

David Condos: For people who are growing up out of these families, they’re, eventually, many of them going on to start their own families. They’re having their own relationships. How does this end up playing out? How do you see this affect them later, once they’re in that in that place where they’re building their own families and relationships?

Claudia Black: Unfortunately, I see it because then I end up seeing their kids in trouble, typically. Oftentimes, they become very controlling parents. They are unrealistic in their expectations. They can be very perfectionistic parents, which sets kids up to feel like whatever I do is not good enough. They lack in healthy boundaries. They’re either too rigid with their kids, and again, unrealistic, or they’re too permissive with their kids.

One of the biggest consequences I see with so many of the young adults in trouble are highly enmeshed parents, parents attempting to get their emotional needs met through their kids because they don’t know how to get them met through their peers or their own adult partners. When it comes to parenting, if you’re raised in a family impacted by addiction, you often have a fear of anger, you often have a fear of rejection because of the abandonment that’s gone on, you may have a fear of conflict.

With all of those, even have a hard time setting limits and providing structure for your own kids. Children need structure, and they need follow-through and they need limit setting. I think one of our crises today is we have way too many parents who are choosing to be their child’s best friend versus their best parent. While they may cognitively understand that– I always say we do so much work, and for 40 years, we’ve done a lot of work with family members about non-enabling behavior, and they get it.

That enabling is hurting my husband, is hurting my wife, is hurting my kids, and yet they don’t change behavior. I think it’s because it’s a bigger issue than just understanding it and reinforcing behavior. I think it taps into that fear of rejection, that fear of conflict, and that need for approval.

David Condos: That’s been the coping mechanism.

Claudia Black: Yes. All those years, and they’ll just get passed down generationally.

David Condos: Obviously, you’ve been a part of this world for a long time, and social views have changed, views from within behavioral healthcare have changed. What’s one misconception that’s still out there? That’s still holding us back? What would be one more step in that right direction?

Claudia Black: I think that people still rely oftentimes too much on medication, and to see that there’s somehow, some one answer to people’s emotional problems and social problems. Also oftentimes, they see that answer is going to be through pharmacology. Pharmacology is really important, but the emotional healing will only come typically through some other kind of therapeutic intervention.

Again, I don’t want to say people shouldn’t be using medications. They’re often very indicated, and they’re much more effective today than they used to be, but to see that still is the sole answer. That’s I think have been a misperception that’s been with this for a very long period of time. I think that this isn’t really so much a misperception, but I think unfortunately, the economy still runs a lot of behavioral healthcare.

David Condos: Meaning what exactly?

Claudia Black: That sometimes, interventions are fueled by where the money gets made, like in the pharmacological world. I think that one of our misperceptions is that there’s somebody over here who’s going to provide all the answers, when I think we all need to be a part of the solution. I think wherever we’re at in our community, be I the neighbor, be I a family service agency, a church, a school, that we all need to take responsibility where we can. That is not just a treatment modality that’s going to be the answer to this.

When I think about just what we could do with our early childhood education in terms of seeing that children are getting more sleep, that they’re getting more nutrition, that they’re getting read to, at a younger age, and how can we bring that into our communities? How can we support families? The answer doesn’t just lie within treatment.

David Condos: Yes, there’s so many pieces that can help. It’s not somebody’s job over there who’s the therapist.

Claudia Black: Yes.

David Condos: Dr. Black, thank you so much for your time. We’ll dive in even deeper in the next episode about the Claudia Black Center, working with young adults, many of whom have grown up in these families, but to wrap up with this final question, for somebody who’s listening and they want to help, like you were just saying, it’s not just somebody’s job over there who’s a therapist, it’s all of us. For somebody who wants to help break this cycle of addiction in families, what would you say to them? What would be some steps they can take in their family, in their community, with the people around them?

Claudia Black: I think the first thing is to know that you need to ask for help. This isn’t something that you do in isolation. We always talk about the dynamics of addiction, in particular, being a disease of isolation, and the recovery is about connection. For that person who’s really wanting to somehow break that cycle within their own family system or maybe in their own neighborhood, it begins with some kind of connection and being willing to reach out and to find whoever is out there in those communities, because they’re out there in all of even rural America, you don’t have to just live in the urban area, and/or to be willing to be that connection yourself.

To ask that of the institutions that you’re involved in. Are you involved in a church that will speak the– The person at the pulpit, will they speak to addiction in a way that’s not judgmental and that lets people know that help is available? Is it in the school systems? Whatever institutions that are part of your world, everybody can play a role.

David Condos: Dr. Claudia Black is a senior fellow with The Meadows based in Seattle, Washington and Wickenburg, Arizona. She’s written over a dozen books, including her 1982 bestseller, It Will Never Happen to Me, and her most recent book, Unspoken Legacy. Find out more at claudiablack.com.

Beyond Theory is produced, written, and edited by me, David Condos.You can discover more from this podcast, including part two of my conversation with Dr. Black at beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening. I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.