Addiction & The Family Dynamics
No family or individual is immune to the harrowing effects of addiction. Just as with any other chronic disease, alcohol and drug addiction afflicts people regardless of educational background, age, ethnicity, income level, religion or sexuality. Any person can become an addict and anyone can be affected by that person’s addiction.
A loved one who has become addicted may raise difficult questions, lack of understanding and lots of frustration. Family members may find they struggle with emotions such as self-blame, sadness, fear, shame, guilt, depression, anxiety and a sense of powerlessness.
Addiction creates havoc in families and relationships. It destabilizes home environments, family life, finances, and mental, emotional and physical health. When a family member struggles with addiction, each unit of the family is significantly negatively affected.
Without professional assistance in helping the addict and affected family members, these effects can spiral more and more out of control, become long term and chronic.
Family Roles & The Disease of Addiction
In order to maintain a level of homeostasis, balance and stability within a family unit, each member plays a role or multiple roles. When substance abuse is added to a usually normal family dynamic, family roles tend to shift to adjust to new behaviours associated with addiction in an effort to maintain balance and order.
Often, family members may believe that the problem lies solely with the addict. This is a great challenge in getting family members to seek help for themselves. They often believe that once the addict goes through a process of recovery all will be fine. The sad truth is that family members may contribute to the problem.
Addiction can be the cause of abusive upbringings, trauma within a household, the loss of a loved one, or an array of other problems.
Many addicts and alcoholics feel a tremendous amount of guilt, shame and remorse around the distress, pain and worry they are causing their families. These feelings however are often not enough to get the addict to change. Because of the nature of addiction, a harrowing and destructive disease, it becomes more and more difficult for the addict to quit. And, they will often times do anything, regardless of the consequences, for their next fix. This, no doubt causes only further strife, pain, anger and resentment throughout the family.
A non-addicted partner or spouse, or an older child mostly assumes the role of the enabler. The enabler takes care of all the things the addict has left undone. This includes ensuring children are looked after and taken to school, taking care of finances and making excuses and justifications for the addict in business and social situations. The biggest problem with the enabler is that they are mostly in denial about the exact severity of the addict’s problem and instead of getting them professional help; they will continue to enable and cover up the reality of the situation.
Generally assumed by an older child in the family, this person is an overachiever and appears serious and confident. They tend to take on responsibilities in the family unit that exceed their developmental stage and often even assume the role of the parent. As addiction progresses this role becomes increasingly difficult to maintain as responsibilities begin to mount beyond their capabilities.
Using humour as a coping mechanism, some individuals take on the role of the mascot. The mascot will continue to maintain this role in an effort to achieve some comfort and light relief in the home.
This is often a child in the family who habitually misbehaves and display defiant tendencies in the face of authority. They often get into trouble at home and at school, and as they get older they may get into deeper trouble with the law. These behaviours are a reflection of a chaotic and poisonous atmosphere at home.
The Forgotten Child
Isolated from other family members in the chaos of a household dealing with an addict, this person will have trouble developing relationships as a result. This child may often engage in fantasy play in order to distract themselves from a harsh reality of poisonous physical and emotional home environments. They will also have difficulty adjusting in social situations and tend to isolate.
Once these roles are established during childhood, they become behavioural patterns that continue to evolve and play out throughout adulthood. Thus not only affecting themselves, but in turn all of those around them.
Family Members Need To Recover Too!
The basic foundation of recovery is conscious awareness of your own role in the situation. You need to take responsibility for your own actions and behaviours in all situations and you need to realise that the only part that you can change, is your own.
Recovery is about healing, growth and learning. It is a process of breaking old, destructive behaviours and finding, learning and practising new ways of living. In doing so the addict builds skills in order to live a healthy, whole and healed life. This process is just as important for the addict as it is for family members and loved ones and cannot be stressed enough.
Just as with addicts there are support groups for family members affected by a loved one’s addiction as well.
Self-Help Fellowship Groups
NAR-ANON – A 12-step programme for family and friends of addicts.
Al-Anon – A support group for family and friends of alcoholic.
Certain NA meetings – Open meetings welcome non-addicts. Usually, all NA meetings are closed to non-addicts, but an open meeting allows the friend or family member of the addict to hear others share their stories. This is beneficial in understanding the nature of addiction and how to be there for your loved one.
Support groups for family and friends of an addict or alcoholic offer help during these difficult times.
Feelings of blame and guilt: Often time family members blame themselves for the situation and this can cause crippling feelings of guilt. Support groups, counselling and therapy can help family members work through these emotions and continue living in spite of the condition of the addict.
Healing unhealthy and enabling relationship dynamics: In working through a relationship that has become enabling and unhealthy, the family unit can stay healthy and provide a safe and supportive environment for the recovering addict.
Providing understanding and support: One of the most difficult things to deal with is a feeling of being lost and alone. Support groups bring together those who are dealing with similar issues. This makes family members feel they are not alone, by hearing other people’s stories and learning from their experiences.
David is the Clinical and Development Director of Twin Rivers Rehab in South Africa and a UK Accredited Addictions Therapist with the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals UK. Articles/Blogs are written with the assistance of researchers and other specialists in the field of addiction and the recovery process