The other day my good friend and colleague Dr. James Flowers (J Flowers Health Institute) and I were discussing the eloquence of the movie The Goldfinch, a drama with enthralling force and acuity depicting how early childhood trauma may lead to addiction and the ensuing deception amongst high wealth families.
The movie reminded James and I of our own childhood experiences – those of us who are Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) and the added pressures and unique perspective in high wealth families. It gave a searing portrait of how – like the main character in the story -many of our clients experience similar yet unique experiences that lead them in adulthood.
Like the protagonist, Theo Decker, we too met anxiety, sudden death and trauma at a young age. Theo, as you may know, survives a bombing accident that kills his mother while they were in an art gallery. Confused and despondent, he takes a valuable painting (the Goldfinch) and rushes out in a daze.
Abandoned by his alcoholic father, Theo goes to live with his wealthy classmate’s family, who live like a still-life painting, frozen in time. Though the situation seethes with subliminal tension, Theo finds respite in the picture-perfect family.
But his inner turmoil – beset with confusion, isolation and bewilderment – drives his unbearable longing for his mother. With no way to release this pent-up angst ,he clings to the one thing that reminds him of his mother: the small mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately sets him on a self-destructive path of addiction, secrets and lies.
Like Theo, I met anxiety, depression and trauma at age seven when my father, Sidney Sam Wallach, found life so unbearable that he hung himself with a custom curated tie. Sidney sadly followed in the footsteps of his parents who at the same age drank bottles of Clorox to quell their demons inside.
I grew up contending with a mother who as beautiful, creative and bright as she was, couldn’t hold off from the booze. Then she welcomed a new husband – a nefarious father figure who did not come from a wealthy family. His presence caused my uncles to disown my mother, causing us to experience the pendulum swing from extreme wealth to poverty in a sea of miniature alcohol bottles.
My friend and colleague James grew up in a privileged home filled with confusion. His father was a physician and his mother as lovely as the brightest bloom was an active alcoholic. Confusion reigned supreme. As Theo lost a parent at a young age, James experienced the death of his father which left him rudderless.
With the trauma of grief and loss for his mother eating away at him, Theo is skirted away from Park Avenue to Las Vegas when his father, an active alcoholic and gambler, reappears in his life. But he has ulterior motives – more interested in Theo’s inheritance and takes him to live with his girlfriend in a run-down subdivision. Here Theo meets Boris, a Russian immigrant, who also has alcoholic parents. Boris has another kind of trauma of his own: his father physically beats him. Theo and Boris form an unlikely friendship and together escape to a hazy dystopia of drugs and alcohol, a common ground where troubled young men like Theo and Boris often commiserate.
The story culminates with Theo’s father getting killed in a car accident, prompting Theo to take the painting and flee to New York. But like all geographics – moving locations to start anew without resolving the source of real problems – Theo drifts between the drawing rooms of the dusty labyrinth of an antique store where he works, the drawing rooms of the rich and the underworld, all the while drowning in addiction, self-loathing, and false relationships.
James, too, traveled across the country at the ripe old age of ten. His mother, having thought not much about it, told him to take a bus from Texas to Maine to visit his relatives. Already resilient and with a sense of adventure, James traveled often confused, a smooth talker who eventually found solace amongst fellow travelers who would take him in as filling his head with delicious sights and sounds. I also experienced my own geographics’ with my mother, jumping from one city to the next, a trail of addiction and family trauma always biting at our heels.
The Goldfinch demonstrates – as Larke Huang’s research has shown – how early childhood trauma and/or sudden death of parents can lead to addiction, mental health disorders, and relationship difficulties. The story illuminates the troubling issues of how to treat wealthy, high achieving people.
In working with high wealth individuals, James and I have learned to combat the following ideations:
- I am not like other addicts. Turn on a movie or TV show and you’ll find the stereotype of an addict — homeless, in shambles, on the street. As such, wealthy people experiencing an addiction disassociate with what they think an addict looks like from their own self-image. Theo like myself never really believed he fit in and believed he was impervious to the pain.
- I have walls built up to protect me from disorders like addiction. It can be tough to crack the veneer of a high-powered executive, coiffed in suit and tie or the country club’s golf attire and see that substance abuse can happen to anyone. While Theo and his friend Boris both know they need help, they have built a wall of defenses which one must break down so they can reclaim that hurt lost child.
- Fear of leaving work. Highly successful people often see their position as validation for their hard work and achievement, and as such have a hard time taking a break. They believe they are the sole reason for their company’s success if they take time away, the company will fail or all their efforts will crumble.
- Fear of Financial Loss. Substance misuse as we see with high wealth clients can cause lost resources and money because of poor productivity, bad decisions made while high, or even reckless behavior. In the end, it is important to help wealthy people understand that addiction has the potential to cause more financial strain than seeking out effective treatment. Only when Theo realized he was on the cusp of financial destruction and would ruin completely his benefactor, Hobie’s life, was there an opening for intervention.
- There may not be an “ah-ha” moment. Like many wealthy people – cushioned by financial and other resources – there may never really be a bottom to hit, making it difficult to see the signs of a real problem. Although Theo hit his “rock bottom” when he tried to take his own life, he unfortunately never got the help he needed rather he continued living
- Disappointing family, friends and colleagues. We often see wealthy CEOs and executives, who do not want to acknowledge their struggle with addiction and risk letting down the company and those closest to them. In addition, wealthy high achievers may have a great amount of responsibilities such as mentorship, leadership and guidance and fear letting those around them know about their struggles with addiction will hurt them. Theo did not want to lose his mentor and benefactor, Hobie.
- Confabulations and rationalizing behavior. Often people in this situation will find excuses for their behavior. I only drink when I’m stressed or I’m only taking the pills because the doctor prescribed them for me. Although these sound like legitimate reasons, beneath the surface is avoiding the truth that there is a problem and they don’t want to confront it. Confidence in one’s self is a key tenet of success, but the dangerous flipside of this token is too much confidence can forge walls of denial and rationalizing behavior. Theo and Boris began drinking and experimenting with drugs to remove themselves from the horrors of everyday life. Then their landlady gave them valium with the rationalization that they couldn’t sleep.
These last three are ones that were not exhibited by Theo, however they are often found with folks who experience trauma and addiction:
- Fear of stigma. People in powerful positions are associated with strength, confidence, and a rock solid moral compass. Their company brand promise – whether its tires, airplanes, hairdryers, or a food chain and restaurants – may be compromised. Tragically, parts of our society still view addiction as a weakness or moral failure, which sharply contradicts the key qualities of successful individuals. Add in public visibility and it can be difficult for an influential CEO or celebrity to seek help in an honest and open way.
- Fear of a permanent record. In addition to fear of shame related to addiction, successful wealthy people do not want this condition in a legal or insurance record, a paper trail that follows them the rest of their lives. Therefore, getting control of your addiction is important to avoid any high-profile legal repercussions.
- Fear of Being Wrong. With high wealth often comes inflated egos. “I am never wrong” and “I am always right” may play on repeat. Putting one’s ego aside and allowing others in, which helps create a recovery path forces the executive to put aside their know-it-all attitude, surrender and take direction – often a tall order for one who gives orders.
Whether your family is struggling with one of these common challenges or something completely unique to your situation, let’s talk and find a solution to help your family learn to thrive.