When a person becomes an addict it doesn’t just affect them. It affects the entire family. Every family has their natural flow and routine. Each family member assumes a role and in order for a family to work well together, they must support each other creating a balance. When the balance is threatened it can turn into chaos. This is exactly what happens when a family member becomes an addict. The other members of the family are expected (by choice or not) to put all of their energy into that one person thus throwing the balance off.
Substance Abuse can be a Family Illness
Millions of families are faced with the issue of substance abuse and addiction. For people who are seeking treatment it is critical to understand their families and the role that they play in their use and addiction. Addiction does not just impact the abuser. Addiction impacts the entire family and this is why working with families and bringing them together is so important for the treatment to be successful. In order for there to be an optimal outcome, family members must pay close attention to how their own behaviors relates to the user.
When working with families there are two concepts for everyone to understand and what role each family member plays when dealing with these concepts. The first concept is enabling. Enabling is when a family member or close friend knows and readily helps the abuser use alcohol or drugs. They will claim that they do it for love or protection but in actuality they are only hurting the long term outcome of the person who is abusing. The next concept is codependency. Codependency and enabling often go hand in hand. Family members who are enabling or who are codependent are typically in denial of the behavior of the user and also that they are in fact enabling or dependent on them. These family members also feel as though they need to control the user which in turn lowers the family’s self-esteem. Family members choose to cope with their behavior by looking at other psychological problems yet failing to address to real one; addiction. For example, if a mother and daughter seek counseling because the daughter is acting out, the mother may solely put the blame on the daughter. However, if the counselor is able to uncover the truth they will then be able to recognize that the daughter is acting out due to the abuse or addiction.
Families who experience addiction in their homes are typically faced with the problem of alcohol as this is the most commonly abused substance today. When seeking a spouse, an individual typically seeks one who displays a similar pattern to theirs in regards substance use. Overtime, if an addiction starts to progress the use generally becomes uneven and gradual to a point where one person becomes full blown alcoholic and the other is able to keep their use to a minimal level. When these families progress with children they often have control issues, lack of emotional independence, and guilt. These families overtime develop unwritten rules which consist of not speaking or thinking about the use and to never question the user, ever. Marriages are very difficult to sustain when both or one person is abusing drugs or alcohol. If both people in a marriage are alcoholics the family system will often become a train wreck with instability. When only one person in a marriage is an alcoholic, the spouse of the alcoholic typically lives in denial, fear, and embarrassment and will do everything possible to keep the issue hidden or under control. This is also the case if the substance abuser is a child or adolescent. The parents will also feel the feelings of embarrassment and might try to fight it by controlling it themselves.
Children of alcoholics are forced to mature at a very young age. They develop life skills and work at hard at keeping peace in the family. This unfortunately will take the attention away from the child’s home life from people who could have really stepped in. For example, if a child is getting good grades and is very mature while never breaking rules, there is no reason for a teacher or other adult in their life to question what is going on behind closed doors. When these children become adults they become Adult Children of Alcoholics. There are many growth and support groups for these adults with the most popular one being Adult Children of Alcoholics which has a design similar to AA. There is a lot of controversy as to whether adults will be mentally disturbed if they grow up in a home with alcoholics. With this in question, more research needs to be done as there are obviously millions of adults who may have grown up with families of alcoholics but do not feel the need to seek out support groups or mental health professionals. ACOA meetings have decreased after the initial take off and it is suggested that these adults may not need a lifelong commitment to fix only a portion of their life’s experience.
When working with families who have one or more persons with substance use disorders it is important that the entire family is on board with treatment and recovery. People in recovery need their loved ones to help them thrive. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to get everyone to understand their role and how it relates to the addiction due to denial and disbelief. However, there has been much success to the entire family if everyone agrees to work together. When families attend therapy together it increases motivation and brings attention to family patterns. By changing family patterns that work against the client’s recovery the family can learn how to cope with not only other family members but themselves as well.
Doweiko, Harold E. Concepts of Chemical Dependency. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2009. Print.