By Jennifer Kelly and Bev Mueller
Are you a family member of an addict or alcoholic? Have you been watching your loved one continue to use or abuse alcohol/drugs well past the point of being able to make excuses for them, let alone make sense out of it? If so, you are already well aware of the toll addiction is taking on your family and nearly everyone else with whom this loved one is associated.. The real question is: What can you do about it? By now, you have likely tried everything you know to do in order to get through to your addict – but to no avail. Unfortunately, addiction cannot be understood intuitively – otherwise you wouldn’t feel so confused, powerless, or hopeless. So what are the answers? And where and to whom should you turn? Because family and friends tend to be exhaustively involved in the lives of “their addict,” it is imperative that each of these concerned members also recognize and participate in their own part of the recovery process. This process starts with becoming educated to, and understanding addiction and the recovery process.
What is happening?
This loved one that you’ve known to be open, giving, and affectionate is no longer that person. Now they’ve become secretive, defensive, and distant. Addiction is a mental, physical, and spiritual affliction. It is a disorder that takes over every area of the addict’s life – and everyone in their life is affected. According to Beverlee Mueller, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Master Certified Addiction Professional, “By the time you get to that point, the addiction has taken over and you are then living with a foreign entity, and they will say/do ANYTHING to keep the addiction going.
It is important to note that the drug/alcohol may seem like the problem (and if the person would just quit, everyone will be happier!), but it is not the entire problem. This is a misconception that most friends and family have about addiction. In reality, the drug has become an immediate solution for a bigger, much deeper problem. For the addict – who is experiencing emotional pain in the form of depression, anxiety, trauma, rejection, etc. – it has become their way of coping. When an addict uses their drug of choice (DOC) it feels as though their problems no longer exist, or that they have now gained the ability to handle anything. Also, there is a sense of overwhelming gratification and pleasure. “What’s the problem?” he might say. “Everything is just fine… I’ve got this handled… don’t worry about a thing…”
Unfortunately, worry now becomes your preoccupation. The addiction has taken control over the addict, and you never know what response or which mood you will get. In one moment they might deliver a sincere apology or an emotional plea for patience and understanding. In the next moment, there may be a full blown angry outburst that leaves you feeling responsible for starting the argument. Inevitably, though, the cycle repeats itself time and time again, with shorter intervals.
Roles that family members can play
When a family is dealing with addiction, it is important to understand that everyone within the family is afflicted and all others within the family circle is affected including friends, employers, colleagues – anyone with whom the addict associates.
The entire family rallies around the addict trying to help in any way they can. Nothing seems to work, but it doesn’t keep people from trying. At the same time, there is a growing sense of fear, hostility, depression and despair. The family system becomes dysfunctional. If we look more closely at the family, we find that each member, including the addict, take on certain identifiable roles. The common names of these roles are; 1) Enabler– role in the family is to protect the family by soothing things over and denying there is a problem. Usually this is the spouse but not always; 2) Hero– tries through their own efforts to bring the family together and create a sense of normalcy; 3) Scapegoat– the one who gets blamed when things go wrong, and oddly enough it is not the addict. They take the blame by voicing the family’s anger and shielding the enabler from a lot of the shame and resentment; 4) Mascot– uses their skills to distract from the problem, usually with humor; 5) Lost child– does their best to stay out of the problem. They try not to rock the boat and are agreeable when called upon; 6) Addict– lives in constant state of chaos and will stop at nothing to supply their “need.”
This is when family members may feel the most upset – when they hear they are actually part of the problem. The addict has accused them of being His/Her problem all along – and the members have denied it all along, just as the addict has denied that he is the one with the problem, denial is actually the defining symptom of the disease.
According to Ms. Mueller, getting help for family members is the surest and fastest way to begin a clear recovery motion. Codependencyis what can happen when family members and friends who care about someone else stop caring for themselves. They become fearful that something awful will happen if they don’t try to stop or intervene with the addict. They no longer check in with themselves to see how they feel or what they want to do; instead they first check in on the addict. If the addict is drinking, family members may get angry and try to stop them. If the addict is in bed instead of heading to work, they will likely become afraid that they will lose their job, and resort to calling the boss or something else to ensure they will keep their job. Self-care becomes out of the question.
The problem is the more someone else takes responsibility for the addict, the more they will avoid their own responsibly. As long as the codependent is throwing their personal power to the wind in favor of taking responsibility for their addict, there can be no recovery. The codependent must turn away from the addict and find their way back to themselves and taking back their personal power which lies within. Neither the addict nor the codependent will be able to carry out this process alone.
Help for family members
Once the family comes to the realization that they have been part of the problem and begin their own recovery process, they actually are better equipped to help and support the addict through the recovery process. . Family members can get started with being involved in their own therapy in order to understand the disease of addiction and its impact, and how to begin to restore healthy functioning to the family. Therapy involves learning what boundaries are and how to set appropriate limits with others including their addict.
There are support groups for friends and family members of addicts, and they can be an intricate part of recovery and support. Al-Anon (al-anon.org) and Nar-Anon (nar-anon.org) are support groups that connect family members with others who are going through similar experiences and can offer advice and encouragement. Finding others who share a common experience can help family members deal with the anger, shame, and fear that comes from having a loved one who is addicted.
If you or someone you know is dealing with addiction, please feel free to contact us at Family and Child Development. FCD has Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) and Mental Health Counselors. Bev Mueller is dual licensed as both a Marriage & Family Therapist and Mental Health Counselor, and also holds certification as an Addiction Professional (MCAP). She has extensive experience working with families and addicts dealing with all aspects of addictive behavior.