A Family Disease–Addiction and Its Ripple Effect

Addiction truly is a family disease.  When a loved one is addicted, the household loses its routine and sense of safety. The family lives with abnormal and prolonged, relentless stress. Unexpected, disruptive and even traumatic things happen, affecting everyone. Even when things are OK, there is the expectation of chaos or trauma, and no release of all the accumulated stress that has been carried forward by each family member. These families are in crisis and stay in crisis for long periods of time—some for years, and some without ever having respite.

Addiction pushes a family beyond its limits, becoming a family disease in pervasive ways, across the spectrum of life for all members. It disrupts the family’s stability, cohesiveness, communication, finances, and the health of all members–not only for those immediately involved but possibly for future generations, too. To make matters worse, an addiction progresses, worsening as time goes on, and so the family not only lives with an unrelenting strain if active addiction goes on but must somehow cope with worsening conditions that keep coming.

A Child’s Life in the Family Disease

Children living in a home with addiction are particularly vulnerable to what is known as chronic developmental trauma.  As children grow and develop they must master certain tasks and achieve milestones to be healthy and capable adults. Children who are exposed to addiction in their daily lives are not able to do that as naturally and steadily as children who are not.

Children need secure relationships and a stable environment to be physically and emotionally healthy. However, the family disease of addiction does not allow either. Consequently, children learn distorted lessons about what to expect from others, relationships and life in general. They also internalize distorted self-images.

Children in homes with addiction can feel unloved, abandoned and neglected. And, unfortunately, these are not always just feelings but can reflect the facts of their situations. Children in homes with addiction are also vulnerable to abuse by the addicted family member, as well as abuse by others outside the home because they do not always have adequate protection and supervision. Some children even begin life in utero affected by their mother’s substance use.

Adults Who Were Children in a Family with Addiction

The family disease of addiction commonly creates a cross-generational legacy of dysfunction. Children in homes with addiction grow up to be what is known as adult children of addicts, alcoholics, or more broadly, dysfunctional families. The terms adult children or adult child indicates that the childhood experiences continue to significantly and negatively affect people into their adult lives.

There are many common characteristics shared by adult children of addiction. Some of these are:

  • Feelings of helplessness and passivity
  • Rebelliousness and acting out
  • Depression, sadness, listlessness, hopelessness
  • Anxiety, agitation, phobias, hypervigilance
  • Guardedness, suspicion, distrust of others
  • Emotional constriction and restraint, emotional numbness, under-reactions
  • Separation anxiety, difficulty being alone, fear of abandonment, clinging, neediness
  • Self-control problems–mood swings, impulsive and compulsive behavior
  • Guilt, shame and over-responsibility related to the problems of others
  • Difficulty accepting true intimacy, feeling unworthy, damaged, exposed and vulnerable to humiliation when others are close
  • Unhealthy bonding and traumatic bonding–forming close relationships that are dysfunctional and self-sabotaging, even involving victimization; a tendency to be involved with emotionally absent people
  • Poor self-concept–feeling less than others, lacking confidence and self-esteem, feelings of incompetency and when skilled feeling like an impostor
  • Rigid coping mechanisms–difficulty being spontaneous and flexible
  • Self-medication with food, substances, sex, work
  • Lack of follow through with ambitions, goals, plans, and projects

The family disease of addiction can continue to ripple to future generations as adult children have their own families. It is common for people in therapy to heal their adult child issues to delve back into not only their parents’ lives but also their grandparents’. This enables them to see the legacy in the family that has affected their childhoods, and that continue to affect them in adulthood.

The Many Layers of Distress in the Family Disease of Addiction

It is impossible to fully discuss the many levels of distress of addiction upon a family here. However, there are common themes of the illness’s impact that occur in every such family. Among these are:

  • Dysfunctional roles within the family
  • Individualized distress
  • Loss and grief

Dysfunctional Roles Develop to Cope with the Family Disease

Everyone in a family with addiction must cope as best they can with a chronic set of stressful and abnormal circumstances. And, typically each, according to their age and personality, will take on a particularly identifiable role. Some will fulfill more than one role, but usually, there is a primary way of relating and participating in the family for each family member. Among these are:

  • Care-taker—the family member in this role tends to put aside their own needs and take care of others. It is common for this member to care for the addicted person, but also to take care of other family members, too.
  • Enabler—in this role, one smoothes things over for the addicted person, making sure the addicted loved one does not feel the full stress of the addiction.
  • Scapegoat—the person in this role is blamed for things that go wrong in the family. Consequently, the true nature of the family’s distress is not acknowledged.
  • Rebel—the rebellious family member acts out against the family’s distress, saying and doing things others do not.
  • Appeaser—an appeaser or placater attempts to decrease conflict and to make others happy.
  • Clown—this family member distracts the family from its pain and discomfort with antics.
  • Hero—the hero attempts to make the family proud through accomplishments and achievements.
  • Mascot—this role is usually fulfilled by a younger member of the family who attracts attention for his/her charm, innocence and playfulness.

While such roles can be useful in dealing with the immediacy of the family disease, in other realms of life they are dysfunctional. Many must unlearn these roles to function more optimally in other areas of their lives.

Individual Distress Is Highly Personalized

All members of a family with addiction must make sacrifices, and they are not necessarily voluntary. The circumstances they are forced to live with dictate them. For example, an addicted spouse leaves the partner to carry the lion’s share of responsibility for daily household management, decision-making, problem-solving, finances, and parenting. Along with these responsibilities come the emotional reactions and emotional toll of having an unavailable and unreliable partner.

Children with an addicted parent are left without the emotional support of that parent, and often must adjust their activities to keep peers out of the home. There can be a great deal of shame and many efforts to conceal the home situation from others. This dramatically limits a child’s everyday experience and can lead to feeling less than others because they are not free to live as other children might, not adjusting their lives around a parent’s dysfunction.

Loss and Grief are Chronic Experiences

Another common theme in families living with addiction is that everyone experiences a series of losses because of the addiction. As stated above, a spouse loses the support of an addicted partner, as well as emotional and often physical intimacy.  There can also be significant financial loses, loss of self-respect, and loss of reputation and social standing, just to name a few painful possibilities.  Children of addicted people lose many opportunities to learn and grow in developmentally appropriate and healthy ways. And, all members will in some way have lost hope for their own futures and the achievement of goals, ambitions, and dreams.

Living in a chronically stressful situation erodes hope and induces feelings of helplessness. Within those experiences is the sense of loss and deprivation—not having a good life, being entrapped in an unrelenting and painful situation, and not having the support and nurturance ones needs to launch a successful, healthy and happy personal life. These experiences become compounded over a prolonged period of time.

Family Recovery from a Family Disease

Of course, the solution for any addicted person is to seek treatment and recovery from his or her active addiction. However, whether an addicted family member does this or not, others can find help in therapy and support groups. They can reclaim their lives despite a loved one’s continuing illness. Such self-help groups as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Ala-Non and Codependents Anonymous are invaluable. Also, individual, group and family therapy are significantly beneficial for those who live or have lived with an addicted family member.

Some family members will find they can best recover by stepping away from the situation altogether, choosing to detach and to ‘love from a distance’. Others are able to find healing while remaining in the situation. All family members old enough to make such decisions will have to decide for themselves how best to heal. Consequently, it is common that family members may not be on the same page with you at all. Everyone has to find their own way.

If you are addicted and are ready to stop your personal suffering as well as the suffering your family endures, we can help you find the right treatment program. Treatment works, and recovery happens. Countless people are proof of that.

If you are ready, give us a call today. Our consultations are free, and we can match you with programs that meet your individual clinical needs, preferences and insurance coverage. We will help you clarify all of that and get you started on your road to recovery. Your family will thank you.