Addiction in the Family–Families in Crisis

Whenever there is an addiction in the family, that family is in crisis. And, many families live in addiction-related crisis for many years. The stress and strain on all family members are chronic and severe when they live in the same home with an addicted loved one. Also, when family members interact frequently with an addicted loved one outside the home, the same is true.

An addictive illness is a progressive and debilitating condition. And, its effects are rarely contained to the individual who has it. We are social beings and very connected to those we live with and love, so one family member’s addiction has a significant impact on others. Even across generations, addiction continues to impact family members many years later.

The Family Roles Established When There is Addiction in the Family

When there is an addiction in the family, all family members assume roles to adjust to it and to cope with daily life. The addiction takes center stage whether it is openly acknowledged or not. Even in families that don’t speak about the addiction problem in their midst, the issue is foremost in everyone’s mind and dictates everyone’s experience to a great degree.

Each family member adapts as best they can, so they can function in daily life. And, there are many ways in which family members gravitate to a specific role. Often one adopts a role because of natural inclinations and personality, but also because other family members encourage it. All family roles somehow serve a function. However, because the family is living in distress and abnormal conditions, these roles are functional only in distressful and abnormal situations. Outside the family, they often are self-sabotaging and can be exceedingly dysfunctional. Consequently, family members who have lived with addiction for a long period of time, often need help to adjust to healthier relationship patterns outside that situation.

Some of the roles within an addicted family are caretaker, enabler, scapegoat, rebel, appeaser, clown, hero, and mascot. There are more, but these are among the most common. The caretaker assumes responsibility for others and attempts to meet their needs; the enabler smoothes the way for the addict to use; the scapegoat is blamed for things that go wrong; the rebel acts out; the appeaser wants everyone to be happy; the clown distracts from seriousness; the hero works hard to give the family pride, and the mascot is endearing and a focus of favor. In combination, such roles keep a family living with addiction moving forward.

Individual Distress When There is Addiction in the Family

By the time an addicted loved one gets to rehab, family members are apt to be acutely distressed, depleted and debilitated in their own right. And, according to the role they have played, their distress will be slightly different than other family members’. For example, the addict’s chief enabler is likely to feel both relieved and guilty, as if he or she has failed in their role to make the addict comfortable.

Such mixed feelings among all family members occur, and are the reason family recovery from addiction is a difficult and often overwhelming experience. Feelings are always strong and they result in ambivalence and confusion. The appeaser, for instance, also feels relieved that the addict is in treatment, but can feel a great deal of inner chaos when treatment causes upheaval in the family. As an appeaser that family member desperately wants everyone to be happy all the time, and to avoid conflict and upset at all costs. Healing from addiction will not allow family members to gloss over strong emotions and upset, however.

All family roles will provide such conflict and difficulty for each member when treatment for the addict enters the family picture, but the family has the opportunity to move into a profound period of healing if they can work together and make good use of professional help. Fortunately, effective addiction treatment programs include family in their efforts, and family members can find a good deal of support and help as the addicted loved one is treated.

Loss and Grief When There is Addiction in the Family

The types and amount of loss and grief in a family that has an addicted member would fill a lengthy list. And, each family member will have their own unique experiences of loss and grief caused by the addiction. Fundamentally, there is a pervasive loss for each member, and that is the loss of healthy growth and development opportunities. The needs, hopes, ambitions, goals, and dreams for each individual’s life are compromised by the needs of the addict, and the family’s focus on those. Also, the family is often in ‘survival mode’ and so the support and nurturance one could use for individual development are diverted away to survival and coping with the addiction instead.

Along with interruptions in natural growth and development, there are emotional losses related to having an addicted family member. Particularly if the addicted loved one is a parent, there can be lifelong problems if these aren’t addressed. A parent provides a foundation for the development of one’s sense of self, worth, security and identity. When the parent is impaired, these self-issues are also impaired to some degree. Alongside those, a series of abandonment and neglect experiences can occur when an addicted parent fails to provide support and nurturance in ordinary events of a child’s life. And, unfortunately, many children in this situation will be mistreated and have early learning that one is less than others and deserving of abuse and humiliation.

Other relationships to the addicted family member carry their own difficult results. If the addicted loved one is a sibling, for example, one is often a ‘lost child’ with attention diverted away to the impaired sibling. And, if the addicted family member is a child–even an adult child–there can be profound guilt. Finally, if the addicted loved one is a spouse, the full responsibility of parenting and running the household falls upon him or her by default.

The emotional fallout from chronically living with such conditions amounts to a complicated grief experience in many ways. One has lost a great many things: happiness, security, support, guidance, help… And, the emotions are often intense as in any grief reaction: anger, sorrow, despair, fear, anxiety…

Stepping of Out the Family to Heal

Some family members decide that the only way to heal and to claim their own lives despite their dysfunctional family is to make a clean break. This is probably the most extreme attempt to recover, but for many, it is an effective one, and possibly the only one available to them. As all addictive illnesses have various degrees of severity, so does the dysfunction in families who are living with addiction. One person’s experience may be profoundly more chaotic and debilitating than another’s. Each individual in a family with addiction will have to make very individualized and personal choices about how to recover. Even members of the same family will have different needs in this regard.

There are other ways to heal from family dysfunction centered around addiction, but all involve separation and distance of some sort. With complete breaking away as the most distancing, there are lesser degrees of separation that are healing for some. For example, reducing contact is often helpful, giving the needed space for calming and focusing on other things. This can be done by living independently from the family, having fewer calls, texts and the like, and having fewer visits. Greater separation can also be gained by changing behaviors and what one is willing to discuss or otherwise participate in.

Internally, healing for family members will also always involve an attitude and perspective of detachment. This is an emotional and mental distance that ‘loves from a distance’. Detachment can bring serenity, peace and the opportunity to focus one’s energies on building one’s own life. Some find it possible to adopt detachment while remaining involved in the family, and others find their detachment requires less involvement or none. Detachment serves the healing of loved ones by ‘unhooking’ them from being pulled into the disorganizing and chaotic dynamics of the family living with active addiction. Many find counseling and 12 Step work in groups like Ala-Non or Codependents Anonymous very beneficial.

No One is Exempt from the Impact of Addiction in the Family

We like to think that the youngest family members are oblivious to the family’s distress, but we know that this is not true, even for infants. Babies feel the distress of the people they are bonded with and young children often surprise family members with the depth of information they have about family dynamics and events. It is important to include all family members in some recovery efforts and to remember that within a group of children, each child will have had different experiences. For example, the oldest child may remember an addicted parent prior to the addiction, but younger children will not. Consequently, their feelings toward the parent and their needs for recovery can be very different.

Other family members outside the household may also be profoundly affected by an addicted loved one living elsewhere. News can travel fast in an extended family. Also, there are often significant and even daily relationships in person or by phone, for instance, with extended family members. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and the like may share the burdens, offer comfort and guidance, and become involved as actively as those living in the same home as the addicted family member.  As a result, they often suffer the same types of stress that family members in the home of an addicted loved one do. Including these extended family members in the family’s healing efforts can be very helpful to everyone involved.