What does genealogy and family history have to do with recovery? Everything. Our family tree has the roots of our codependency, alcoholism, or addictions in it. Just as we get our genes from our ancestors, we get our dysfunctional behaviors, either inherited or through their influence. In recovery, it is helpful to understand where the dysfunctional behavior comes from in ourselves and in our immediate family members—parents, siblings, children. We need to understand the people who shaped us and the people who shaped them. Often, we find researching our family tree will fill us with healing, love, and understanding for our family.
I recommend you try to trace at least five generations of your family, starting with yourself and your siblings and then your parents, grandparents, and your grandparents’ parents and grandparents. Most of us knew our grandparents and they played significant roles in our lives. Similarly, who our grandparents were was shaped by their parents and grandparents so to understand our grandparents we need to understand the generations before them.
It may or may not be easy to find this information. Sometimes our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles can fill in details. Sometimes we have no one we can ask. Sometimes our family members may not even want to talk to us about the family—they may feel those things are better left alone—that in itself is a clue of dysfunction and information we will be stronger for knowing. Family members are the best source of information but their memories may be faulty, or they may only know what their parents or grandparents told them, and that may not be everything. We can also consult birth, death, and marriage records, censuses and historical information about the community where our ancestors lived. But how does this information help us?
Say your father was emotionally abusive, and you have realized over the years he has low self-esteem, which he compensated for by trying to control you. You remember your grandfather as a mean, ornery old man. You might even know that he physically abused your father as a child. But as you research, you learn more. Your grandfather was an immigrant to this country. Back in his home country, he had to work as a young boy to help support the family because his own father died when he was twelve. He had a mother and younger siblings to help support. Imagine the burden on him. Imagine how difficult it must have been for him to leave his family to come to the United States to find a better life for himself. Imagine being an immigrant in a country where you didn’t speak the language and you knew no one. Imagine finding that life here was not much better than back home. You found a wife and had a family but you were still poor. Imagine living through World War II, daily fearing for your mother and siblings that you left back in Europe. Imagine losing one of your children in a fire. I would think that would give you some reason to be mean and ornery. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does make it understandable, and grandpa then took out his frustrations on dad who in turn took them out on you.
It’s just a start. Remember grandma has her story too. Think about it—your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents—that’s thirty people whose lives have directly or indirectly affected your life. By knowing their stories, we can trace the dysfunction, the pain, as well as the positive aspects about them that we have today. It leads to a better understanding of ourselves, where our dysfunction came from, and how we can keep it from continuing to rear its ugly head by finding different means of dealing with life’s frustrations.
In the process, we will also see the triumphs. Maybe dad was emotionally abusive, but unlike his father, he never hit his children. In his own way, he tried to do better, to break the cycle. And grandpa—he didn’t know how to deal with disappointment but he still worked so life would be better for his children than it was for him. That’s love even if not spoken. When we understand our family members, we can see them as whole, complicated people, but people who tried to do better, just like us, and we can continue that family tradition, not of dysfunction, but of trying to do better. Whatever we end up finding in our family trees, we will better understand how dysfunction began and worked in our families and we will be better prepared to deal with the imprints that have been passed down to us.
Irene Watson, MA, is author of The Sitting Swing: Finding Wisdom to Know the Difference, and co-editor of The Story that Must Be Told: True Tales of Transformation, and Authors Access: 30 Success Secrets for Authors and Publishers. She is a workshop leader, managing editor of Reader Views, and president of a non-profit Higher Power Foundation. Irene lives next to Barton Creek in Austin, TX, with her husband Robert.