S3 E6: Dr. Tian Dayton on Helping Adult Children of Alcoholics

In part two of our conversation with Dr. Tian Dayton, she talks about helping adult children of alcoholics. The assumption used to be that addiction didn’t affect the family, It only affected the addict. We now know that unnamed pain leaves a lasting mark the entire family, and Dr. Dayton seeks to help those affected by addiction unpack their past to create a better future.

Podcast Transcript

David Condos
Welcome to Beyond theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, that brings you in depth conversations from the frontlines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m David Condos, our early years leave a lasting impact on how the rest of our lives play out. And for adult children of alcoholics, it can lead them with trauma they might not even realize they have. So how does childhood trauma specialists Tian Dayton, help people unpack their past and create a better future? Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go beyond theory.

It’s my pleasure to welcome back Dr. Tian Dayton, thank you so much for being with us.

Dr. Tian Dayton
Thank you for having me.

David Condos
Yes, so, in the last episode we covered some of your personal story, the journey you took to doing what you do with psychodrama specifically. And so now we’ll dive into your new book Soulful Journey of Recovery, and what you’re speaking about here at the US Journal Conference in Arizona. So first of all, tell us kind of why this book and or you’ve written 15 books. So So what’s, what’s special about this one, what, what motivated you to write this book?

Dr. Tian Dayton
Well, I love to write, I love to have a writing project. I love I believe in books. I believe books can change your life. And I wanted a you know, people do best of songs, you know what I mean? So this is sort of “best of” I wanted to do kind of a “best of” book because every book I’ve written has really been something I’ve wanted to explore in depth, alright, not something I have been exploring in depth. Because remember grief, for example, when I wrote about grief, heart wounds that we didn’t talk about grief as non-death related. When I wrote that book, we talked, we think grief happened when somebody died. And I thought no grief has happened. I’ve had a lot of death in my life, but people are still alive. So I ended the steps to

David Condos
relationships.

Dr. Tian Dayton
Yeah, so the death of my family, the death. I mean, it the family as I knew it, we’re still family. But the death of my sober father, the… anyway, loss is really what you’d call it. But we didn’t think it needed grieving in my day. So that was a big deal for me to kind of associate grief with trauma and with life loss. That was a lot at that time. And my books have all gone along that trauma and addiction, I wrote thinking that I need to connect these two things, I mean, Bessel’s research head, and I thought this is this is at the base of our field, I need to I waited for somebody else to write a book about it, because I thought it really wasn’t the person. And 10 years later, nobody had written it. So I thought, ‘Well, okay, I’ll write that.’ And so I write what seems useful. Psychodrama, of course I write about because that’s what I do. And this one, I wanted to write something that just talked about everything that I thought was the most valuable along somebody’s path of recovery. So this book has each of the categories that I think you encounter on the journey of recovery. And I know that the younger generation likes interactive things, and I’m all about interactive things. So every chapter has exercises so that you can personalize the material and really make it relevant and…

David Condos
you will learn it.

Dr. Tian Dayton
Yeah, it’s exactly it’s a journey, because it’s interactive. I’ve put guided imagery on my website to support the exercises. So I’ve tried to make it fun. I think recovery, it think should be fun, you know, and it should be cool, and it shouldn’t be kind of juicy. And you know, you can get into it, then it’s neat to heal that. Yeah.

David Condos
And so the the subheading for this book is talking about, you know, adult children of alcoholics adverse childhood experiences. And so specifically the with the adult children of the alcoholics, if somebody listened to the last episode, they know that that’s your story growing you know, growing up with a father who had an addiction. You’ve been in this work for over 35 years now. So could you kind of give us a glimpse as to what the landscape looked like back then? You know, in the 70s, 80s. What you know, how did people view addiction especially related to how it affected the family and the children?

Dr. Tian Dayton
Well, first of all, nobody thought it did affect the family. They thought we just need to get the alcoholic sober and then everything will be fine. And we did that we got our dad sober for not a matter of weeks, but not for long, but, uh, we were anything but fine, we were a mess. And now we had lost our whipping boy. I mean, we had blamed everything on dad. And now he was sober. And we, we didn’t know what to do with our pain. And it turned into hate. And it turned into blame. And it turned into shame that we couldn’t call shame. So that turned into blame. And with all of this unnamed pain was there as he sobered up, and I remember sitting with dad, who was drinking a glass of water and saying, This is what my drink from now on, and looking around at our family, and even in eighth grade, I knew he would never be able to stay sober in our family. Because we hated him…

David Condos
.t..his just wasn’t an environment that would sustain that, or what

Dr. Tian Dayton
we couldn’t let him get better. He had to stay in his position as the sick guy. And we needed him to because…

David Condos
that’s how the family had kind of grown around how

Dr. Tian Dayton
we call, we were like this warped, you know, thing that had grown around, you know, mushroom, and it was creepy. And we needed a fall guy and dad had been the Fall Guy. And when dad died, we needed new fall, guys, and then we just begin a game of hot potato. You know, we can’t get it to where we are interesting people, we’re fun, we’re smart, we’re all that stuff. But we can’t quite get past this thing.

David Condos
Now, and so you say, at the time, you know, a few decades ago, people didn’t even think it affected the family to have an addiction around. How has that changed? How have you, How have you seen that develop? Like in in our society…

Dr. Tian Dayton
Family programs. That part of getting an addict sober, is inviting the family in, and hopefully good programs, getting the family to own where they are, it’s not like, everybody’s got to own their part. That’s a sort of a blaming position. I think everybody has to understand our hurt they’ve been and how disillusioned they’ve been and how disappointed in the system and what the secondary gains are for the each of them of having some guy act out all the problems on their behalf. Because remember, systems pop alcoholics. So the alcoholics don’t come out of nowhere. And in this day and age when there’s so much available drugs, but some people don’t choose to use drugs to self-medicate. You know, so there are a lot of questions that need to be answered to figure out why somebody became an addict in that system. And what’s, what’s the system’s responsibility?

David Condos
like the family system?

Dr. Tian Dayton
Yeah, the family system. Family systems produce scapegoats. And alcohol can be a manifestation of a family disease. So people need to get square with themselves otherwise they just continue to live out the family disease.

David Condos
And and so the other you know, term from this book subheading is the adverse childhood experiences, could you unpack what that is, and maybe how it’s distinct within the broader spectrum of trauma?

Dr. Tian Dayton
Well they  nailed it on with the research. Kaiser Permanente had a fellow called Vincent Poletti, who was doing a clinic for people with for obesity, right? He was very successful, he got everybody losing weight, they were making lifestyle changes, so forth. But then at a certain point, they all kept dropping out of the program. And being a researcher, he didn’t say they were doing something wrong. He said, ‘Why are they dropping out on the program? Let me let me understand more.’ So he interviewed them all. And he found out practically in most cases, that they’d been sexually abused, that that the food was medicating that kind of pain. And that losing the weight so relatively quickly, made people feel exposed. And I understand this because I was raped actually, when I was 19. And I gained 20 pounds in four weeks. And I remember looking at the mirror and saying, ‘Okay, good. I don’t look as attractive now.’

David Condos
So that was your that was your body’s response to that. That was your mind’s response.

Dr. Tian Dayton
It was some thing’s response. I just, I just was self medicating with enough food to gain that much weight and I’d been somebody who was very careful. I mean, I didn’t have a good eating habits and still do but at that moment. That was my response because it’s so terrifying to be raped. It’s so terrifying to be sick that you know sexually abused. It completely takes over. You can’t say no. It completely takes…

David Condos
out of control or you are not in control.

Dr. Tian Dayton
Somebody is overpowering. You and your you are either going to get killed or you are going to get raped. I mean, that’s sort of what it boils down to. And the sexual abuse has other you know, you’re being overpowered by a family member who’s got you in their thrall. I mean, who you need to survive, right? So your ability to to say no, and to be in charge of your body is taken away from you. Once that happens. You’re it’s an open season for yourself and your self image and you’re in the way you’re seeing even maybe, I don’t know, but it all really see yourself, the way you see yourself. So I know having had that experience, I recognized full studied right away. And then he, he, he came to understand that this food was covering up something it wasn’t just self medication, it was also protection, right. Rob Anda from the CDC Center for Disease Control, recognized that this was a potentially big study. Now Kaiser Permanente was funding the study simply to figure out why people came to the doctor more often. They weren’t looking for anything specific. They were just asking the question, what contributes to more doctor visits, because they wanted to figure out how to reduce it. What popped up over and over and over again, in the research was a parental addiction, they weren’t looking for it. It just was one of the determining factors in adverse childhood experiences. Because once you have an addicted parent, you’re more likely to have a physically abusive parent and emotionally abusive parent, a sexually abusive parent, because the governors are down for the addict, they’re acting out behaviors go up. And so aces tend to cluster, you don’t have like one adverse childhood experience, you tend to have a cluster, it’s very seldom that you live with addiction, and there aren’t any other clustering abuses. So people with high what they call Ace scores are more at risk for health, physical health problems later in life. Now, remember, connecting the mind and the body is a big deal. In our current culture, we end my day, if you said, Oh, you mean my emotional issues, you know, lead to physical problems, that’s nonsense. And you get kind of a little look of, you know, silly thought you Why would you say something like that? Now, people through these researches are, understand understanding that what happens to you emotionally affects your body and your, your likelihood and your immune system and all of it.

David Condos
And so the the adverse childhood experiences are the ACE study that kind of drew the correlations that that kind of tied everything together as far as that,

Dr. Tian Dayton
yeah. What experiences in childhood, lead to more doctor’s visits, living with addiction, living with sexual abuse, being sexually abused, being physically abused, being emotionally abused, having incarcerated parents, poverty, all of the factors that contribute?

David Condos
Yeah. And so then another kind of factor when you’re talking about somebody who grows up in this type of environment is there attachment? Yes. So could you talk about kind of how that plays into this, why healthy attachment is important and what can go wrong when it’s not there?

Dr. Tian Dayton
Well, attachment is fundamental to everything. A baby’s attached to their parents, and parents should be attaching to their babies. Naturally, you don’t you don’t survive without attachment. There was a whether there was in the 1400s, there was a Spanish King, who did an experiment, he wanted to see what language children would speak if nobody taught them. So he raised them without parents, right. They were fed. They ran around, and they, but they weren’t taken care of. They weren’t talked to played with and they all died. So they were being fed food. But they all died.

David Condos
Because they didn’t have that connection.

Dr. Tian Dayton
They had no attachment. They had no people loving them, holding them, touching them, caring about them, tuning into them, being mindful of what their feelings were of, of creating feedback loops of interacting with them. So nothing grew neurologically right, and their bodies just caved in. So we need love and attachment is much more than food. We need to feel a sense of connection with primary people. that’s those are the early attachments. And if you’re a therapist, you know, you get sort of tired of tracing things back to the earliest attachments all the time. But in fact, if you don’t you miss the, you miss the healing, because, for example, in an alcoholic family and an addicted family system, the constant object that children need consistency and regularity to it to know what to expect to attach without anxiety. But if they have a caregiver, that is inconsistent, they attach with anxiety, they, they learn what what love feels like…

David Condos
…they learned to expect anxiety and instability.

Dr. Tian Dayton
They they learn, they feel unstable, unstable, because the because the person they love isn’t there on a consistent basis, they don’t expect instability, children, always I think, at some level expect to be able to attach. They’re like little natural things that expect to be able to attach, if you’re not there to attach they then there, there’s not that constant feedback loop, or if your attachment is, you know, sick,

David Condos
they learn a sick attachment. Yeah. And so you’ve talked about some of the research and the studies over the years that have caused big steps forward breakthroughs in this type of work. What does some of the modern neuroscience what are the latest scientific medical breakthroughs? Tell us about this about ACS about attachment about about ACLs?

Dr. Tian Dayton
The big thing with neuroscience is it brings the body into the picture. I mean, with psychodrama when I started in psychodrama, I had to explain it to everyone. Nobody understood why talk wasn’t enough. Why can’t you just talk these things over? Once you understand it? Why isn’t better? Well, once you understand it, it isn’t necessarily better your body has to experience feelings. We process our emotions in our limbic system. We not in our heads, if people try to think their feelings, they you’re not very well integrated bonding, you know that. That doesn’t mean you how do you fall in love through your head? How do you carry a baby through your head? How do you have sex through your head, you have that through your body, through the emotions in your body that are integrated with if you split the mind in the body and make them two different entities. It’s a depressing way to live. It’s a dissociated way to live. So neuroscience is saying, wait, the mind and body are connected. They are interrelated systems. And they are constantly interrelated, which is why I can look at this cup and pick it up. My brain is telling me to pick it up if it weren’t a constantly integrated system. I would I would just think the thought of picking it up. And I would think my hand is sitting there, but I wouldn’t. You know, if you have children, if you hold them, if you take care of them. They are all over you. Little healthy children want to be on top of you. They want to pull you they want to pull your face. They want to touch you they want to feel you near and there’s another at Bellevue, there was a study of babies that were constantly getting sick, right? So nurses were instructed not to text them because you shouldn’t touch them. You make it sick. A doctor took over this Ward and took all those signs down and put up signs saying pick up the children cuddle the children there, their immunity. Now they didn’t get on a special antibiotic. It was just from the contact from the physical contact, loving care and coddling and it affected their immunity physic Yes. It tells your body to say yes. I’m healthy. I’m alive. I’m part of this. I it’s worth being here. Somebody values me.

David Condos
Yeah. And so you’re at the conference, use journal training. You’re speaking with people who are working on the front lines doing this work, you know, therapists, people who are working at recovery centers. What’s your message for them? What do you hope they take home to their lives in their work?

Dr. Tian Dayton
do this simply and do it daily. Live the right way? Don’t try to think the right thought all the time. Live the right thought. have simple pleasures. My grandmother used to say I’m easy to please. She’d say Honey, I’m easy to please. That’s why we all adored my grandmother. I said grandma What’s your secret? Honey, I’m easy to please. Easy to please be spiritually alive, be appreciative of life up not daily. All through the day. be appreciative of life be appreciate love what you Have living what you don’t have just brings more of what you don’t have. love what you have, it expands in your gaze, though it’s like watering the universe, the universe is alive, water it with appreciation and love. Because then it will keep growing. If you if you keep seeing it as a deficit, it will keep creating itself as a deficit. It’s like a big petri dish.

David Condos
Yeah. And so, we’ve we’ve mentioned some of your books, of course, what would be one other, you know, book resource, something that you’d recommend for somebody listening who wants to dive in even deeper,

Dr. Tian Dayton
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. When I ran into vessels work in the mid 80s, I felt I was stunned. It was it explained everything. I went from being a diagnostician to thinking, trauma, no trauma, which is just understanding trauma. It made my work so much easier. And I set about integrating psychodrama with his trauma theory, at that point, so every I have been that’s been my sort of specialty, I would say, is integrating. How do you psychodrama and treating trauma? Because it’s a specialty? Yeah, it requires its own body of knowledge. And so I would say Bessel’s work if you want to understand trauma. Start there. Peter Levine’s work?

David Condos
Yeah. good places to start.

Dr. Tian Dayton
Yeah, there’s a lot of good work out there. But that’s where really I’ve gotten a lot out of that. Yeah.

David Condos
Yeah. All right, we’ll talk to date. And thank you so much for your time again, just to leave listeners with one last thing. What would be a favorite piece of advice. So it’s something that has meant a lot to you, that somebody gave you over your journey, or something that you find yourself passing on?

Dr. Tian Dayton
You know, keep it simple. love what you have? That I guess I said that already. But I think I think we’re in a culture that is teaching us to love to want what we don’t have. And we are the losers. Because if you love what you have, and I’m not saying stay, if it’s terrible, I’m not saying all of that kind of stuff. But I think love what you have, stick through it, build it build on what you’ve got, if you possibly can, because you will. I know the joy of being a grandparent with my husband of who is the father of our children. Who loves the grandchildren. The way I love the grandchildren. It’s, it’s really something in the sense of thread and integration for everybody concerned is a very reassuring and very solid, it’s all silver threads, but they’re solid. So I think, love the children you have, love the grandchildren you have, and we all want what we don’t have and that’s fine. It’s motivating. But don’t live there. That’s a that’s. That’s too bad.

David Condos
You miss out on what you have.

Dr. Tian Dayton
There it is. You miss out on what you have.

David Condos
Dr. Tian Dayton is a former New York University professor of psychodrama, who now serves as a senior fellow with the Meadows based in New York. Learn more about her work at tiandayton.com. Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by me, David Condos. You can discover more from this podcast, including videos of each conversation at beyondtheory.podcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening to season. And I hope you’ll join us again next time for Season Four of Beyond Theory.

Beyond theory Podcasts

LISTEN ON