The Lost Child. The “role” of a lifetime.
April 15, 2021
Coming from the proverbial broken home (parents divorced at a very early age), I first identified with the role of Lost Child. I felt alone and rudderless. Obviously, the negative impact on me in assuming this role stands out. I had no one on which to model my behavior, and so sought after role models, and, being a just a child, I made many bad choices in this process, some crucial. Finding a group of older, troublemaking teens in the neighborhood became my de facto family system. Drugs and alcohol were our glue.
Did I find the role of Lost Child? Or did it find me? Permit me a few paragraphs to set the stage for this “role” of my lifetime…
Having been clean and sober for nearly twenty years, I am deeply familiar with the 12-step model for recovery (I actively participate in Alcoholics Anonymous and am grateful for the program) but I also recognize that AA and NA are not treatment programs and that there are other modalities and therapies for helping patients achieve long-term sobriety.
That being said, I feel my message resonates with young people and I am interested in helping them in particular. Part of this reasoning has to do with my own recovery journey and how I have always endeavored to tailor my message to those still raw in their recovery, or even still using. I feel a kinship with individuals who struggle accepting AA’s first step: that of being powerless over drugs and alcohol and accepting that their lives have become unmanageable. Perhaps I remember all too well the lonely child I once was, and still am, and am motivated to divine sobriety from these kindred spirits.
Over the years, I’ve heard many people “in the rooms” state that they were “born alcoholic.” Something akin to being an addict and not knowing it until consuming that first beer or line of cocaine, when suddenly the beast appeared, soon taking over their souls. Others argue that they learned how to become alcoholic and/or addicts by observing key influencers in their life, i.e. parents or peers and modeling their behavior accordingly. Nature or nurture? Be the addict’s roots steeped in blood or sewn up from the environment, nothing captures both of these ideas like the concept of family. By definition, family systems involve heredity. Many proofs exist linking disease to the family tree: “Diabetes runs in the family.” Why wouldn’t the same probabilities exist for the disease of alcoholism? Yet, inheriting “the sins of the father” can also happen independent of a biological blueprint. The alcoholic father or mother create a dysfunctional solar system in whose gravity no child can escape.
As with most paradigms, the likelihood is that both variables (heredity and environment) play equally potent roles in the creation of most alcoholics and addicts. Whether one leans toward one school of thought or the other matters little when considered through the lens of family systems. My own experience is indeed a mash-up of the two. Both my parents have drinking problems: one identifies as an alcoholic and is in recovery. My father does not and is not. Both my brothers struggle with alcoholism. Oddly enough, no one else in my known family tree has anything closely resembling what I went through, as an alcoholic and an addict. So, depending on how one were to frame the argument, my disease is either clearly inherited from my parents or we in the immediate family were merely anomalies.
Personally speaking, I believe my own addiction was as much a function of my environment as bloodline if not more so. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly aware of my parent’s drinking. However, their early divorce and the circumstances it led to absolutely were pivotal in my descent into alcoholism and drug addiction. I grew up the proverbial “latchkey kid.” Left to my own devices, without suitable role models, I readily discovered kinship with the drinkers and druggies in my neighborhood and high school. With no one looking out for my best interests, I fended for myself, creating a dangerous family out of a motley crew. Shit happens.
Still, my family’s dynamics (or lack thereof), created myriad opportunities for my addiction to grow or, perhaps better said, created a particular stage set for my role as a son, brother and addict to intertwine and bind together.
Within role-playing dynamics of family systems, most latchkey kids (a child who is at home without adult supervision for some part of the day, especially after school until a parent returns from work) might identify with all four basic roles: hero, mascot, lost child and scapegoat – taking one on as the family evolves or devolves. Then latching on to one role more than any other. That was my experience. Feeling abandoned by my parents because of their early divorce and their own ambitions and hedonistic patterns, I felt alone and rudderless, a lost child. To this day, I feel that my sense of being the “other” began here, as the lost child. Yet, I aspired for more and would come to embrace characteristics in line with the hero archetype: the firstborn son in my family unit craving attention, adulation and accolades. To the degree I got these rewards was commensurate to how much I embraced the role. I did pretty well. As I grew older I came to romance the Lost Child role (way before I ever heard of family systems). I learned to live in my head and spent a lifetime refining my creativity, becoming a copywriter, author and defining myself as a right brain, creative person. I also became an addict and alcoholic, where I discovered inside my head could be a “bad neighborhood!”
Interestingly, my brother, beset with the same variables as me, struggled far more than I did (with school, with friends, with the law) and so this lost child quickly became the unquestioned scapegoat of the family, a role he sadly typifies to this day. Perhaps my brother needed the emotional support of a loving set of parents more than I did. He was compulsively getting into trouble. It seemed to find him. And he seemed to make it worse. For example, when arrested for smoking pot in the schoolyard he made it worse by lying about it, and then, making a bad situation terrible, denied that what he did was wrong in the first place. This scapegoat seemed to always be defending him self. His acting out only made me look good, relatively speaking. It became an aspect I relentlessly exploited.
For long stretches we both acquired and cultivated the defining characteristic of a mascot: namely, being the funnyman. Using humor (the darker the better) we learned the dark art of sarcasm and became lifelong cynics in the process. And to think this all started being family mascots, deflecting with jokes, our own sadness and pain.
Before and after my recovery, I’ve become attuned to seeing these roles and variations presented by others. In particular, I’ve found it to be useful form of “profiling” within the treatment community. Understanding how archetypes and roles played a part of each of my client’s addiction stories as well as how they present within the context of the milieu is a pragmatic and fascinating way to build rapport and create a therapeutic relationship.