Addiction is often thought of as a disease that affects a single person – the one who is dependent on and is unable to break free from a chemical substance. This is an understandable misconception. The life of the person addicted to drugs and/or alcohol becomes clearly unmanageable as the dependency progresses. We see the person’s life fall apart, manifested by loss of jobs, relationships, physical and mental health, social life, and the list only goes on. But what about the family of the addict? How are the lives of the family members affected by the addiction of their loved ones?
For a long time these questions were not answered and furthermore, not even asked. The families of the addict have been overlooked and the attention has been focused on the addict himself. Meanwhile, we discover that addiction of a family member has a drastic effect on the family as a whole. The National Council On Alcoholism And Drug Dependence describes addiction as “A family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics». When we look at a family as a unit, a sum of many parts, this begins to make more sense. John Bradshaw, one of the most recognized authors and motivational speakers on addiction, family dynamics, and co- dependency, brought light to the concept of addiction as a family disease through his video series “Family’s Secrets”. Bradshaw talks of the family as a dynamic system – “When there is a problem, the whole system is affected, not just the individual”.
So what does this look like in simple terms? When a person becomes consumed by their addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, their loved ones in turn become consumed by their own unhealthy behaviors, which revolve around the addict. One of the most prominent issues is that the entire family becomes consumed by the addict and his using. This unhealthy pattern of enmeshment with the addict’s disease is called co-dependency, and it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some of the following are common symptoms displayed by the co-dependent family:
Obsession with the addict
Attempts to control
Hope /Wishful thinking: “if only”
Unable to hold the addict accountable
No or limited healthy boundaries
Give money, time, energy
Unable to say “no”
These are clearly pretty severe symptoms and just like the addict is unable to get better on his own, the family requires help to break free from these unhealthy patterns of behaviors. Self-help meeting such as AA have been around since 1935, while self-help groups for the family came about some time after, with Al-Aanon being formed in 1951, Nar-Anon in 1986, and CODA and Adult Children of Alcoholics forming in the mid 80’s. All of these groups follow the 12 Step model of recovery, yet target the family members of addicts rather than the addicts themselves.
The idea of family members getting help was originally met with controversy and even resistance. The common response was “He’s the sick one! Why would I need help?”. This in itself is a type of denial, similar to the denial used by the addict. It’s common for the family members to get so wrapped up and consumed by the problem of the addict, that they begin to completely neglect and underestimate any problems of their own. As a result, just like the addicts’ life is dependent on the drug, the families’ life becomes dependent on the addict.
To demonstrate how similar the diseases of addiction and co-dependency are, lets take a look at a table below, which lists some common behaviors for both, the addicted individual and the family.
- Obsession: life revolves around using
- Compulsion to use
- Emotional & physical illness
- Obsession with the person using
- Compulsion to control the person using (urge to cure)
- Emotional & physical illness
The behaviors appear to be practically identical, and in a similar manner these behaviors end up driving the family members’ life to complete chaos. Whether the co-dependent is the wife that fails to hold her husband accountable, allowing time after time to cause her physical, financial, or emotional pain. Or whether it’s the mother who obsesses on being able to protect her son, allowing him to use drugs in her house and even financially supporting his habit in order to protect him from the dangers of “the streets”. These behaviors are destructive to the person engaging in them as well as to the addict, since they enable the addiction by either preventing the natural negative consequences from taking place or by providing the means to engage in addictive behaviors.
Each member of the effected family responds differently to addiction. It is not atypical for a mother to take on the role of the enabler, refusing to kick her son out of the house or cut him of financially, while the father may try to control the using, roaming through his son’s personal belongings in a fit of rage, looking for drugs. Both of these are examples of co-dependent behaviors but they are expressed differently by different members of the family due to each member playing a different family role. A great resource for understanding the dynamics of a co-dependent family are John Bradshaw’s video series Bradshaw On the Family: ten-part series, 1985 and Bradshaw On: Family Secrets: six-part series, 1995.
Just like an addict needs outside help to find a way out of his addiction, it is important that his family gets support and recovery as well. Addiction puts strain on relationships within the family as its members become anxious, mistrustful, and distraught. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness can set in and become an underlying theme of the entire family. Marriages fall apart and the non-addicted children can become neglected or draw away from their parents.
At Genesis Recovery, we know that addiction hurts the whole family. This is why we find that it is absolutely essential that solutions are designed to restore the whole family and not just the addicted individual. While we stress that family members attend self-help meetings such as Al- Anon, Nar-Anon, or Coda, we also reach out to the families through family sessions held at our facility. As our residents approach their treatment completion, we begin working with their families in order to ensure that there are healthy coping mechanisms in place and a vital understanding present within all member of the family. Whether the resident will be returning to live with his family, or will be transitioning into one of our sober livings, we want to be a part of restoring the family relationships.
By Mila Kisina