Drug and alcohol addiction affect the entire family, not just the person who is addicted.
In families where addiction is present
- The addiction becomes the primary focus
- Secrets are the rule; problems are not discussed openly; they are often minimized or denied
- Normal routines are often interrupted by frightening and unexpected events
- Children are often left to fend for themselves
- Promises are broken
- Guilt and shame prevent family members from seeking help
Family members may also experience physical symptoms:
- Tense shoulders and lower back pain (tensions from being constantly on alert)
- Stress-related disorders (panic attacks, colds, chronic fatigue)
- Gastrointestinal disorders (repressed emotions and excessive adrenaline and cortisol contributing to ulcers and intestinal problems)
- Sexual dysfunction (obsession or withdrawal from sexual activity; sexual abuse is not uncommon in families where addiction is present)
Common Myths in Families with Addiction:
- “All families are like ours; there’s nothing unusual going on here.”
- “If we talk about what is actually happening, it will just make things worse.”
- “We need to keep family secrets private; people outside the family won’t understand.”
- “If we ignore problems, someday, somehow, things will get better.”
Common Family Roles:
The family operates as a system, with each member of the family unconsciously assuming a role to keep the family “functioning” (more accurately, barely surviving) amidst spiraling chaos. If a parent is addicted to substances, the following roles are often assumed by other family members.
- Often one of the parents, the partner of the person that is addicted
- Covers for the substance abuser, picks up the pieces, protects the person who is addicted from experiencing negative consequences
- Takes on responsibilities that are being neglected by the person with the addiction
- Often hopes things will change or get better on their own
- Miniature enabler, taking cues from the Enabler
- Gets drinks or drugs for the parent (or family member) with the addiction, cleans up messes, and attempts to soothe the addicted parent
- Often seeks a partner who behaves like the addicted parent did
- Tries to make the family proud
- Very responsible, typically quite successful at school and work
- Appears self-confident but often feels inadequate; vulnerable to stress and anxiety
- Tries to divert attention away from the addict by acting out in anger and rebellion
- Accident prone and self-destructive; frequently hospitalized or injured; prone to risk-taking
- Likely to abuse substances
- Isolates and withdraws from family through TV, video games, reading, etc. to escape
- Requires little attention and appears quiet and content
- Loner, typically has few friends
- Brings comic relief by being cute and funny
- Unable to communicate honestly
Family Members are Wise to Remember the “3 C’s”:
- They did not CAUSE the addiction.
- They cannot CONTROL the addiction.
- They cannot CURE the addiction.
Drug and alcohol addictions are
- Chronic (long-lasting)
- Progressive (worsen over time)
- Fatal (if left untreated)
But they are also treatable
Therapy and/or self-help groups can be helpful for all members of the family.