By Marissa Katrin Maldonado, Founder, The Treatment Specialist
Members of a family operate like the cogs in a wheel. Each member has its own role and contribution to a smooth ride through daily life. Family systems achieve equilibrium in functioning as a whole, even when one of the cogs is wobbly, by one family member compensating for another during times of distress or affliction. However, when that affliction involves addiction, all bets are off. The profound impact of the disease of alcohol or drug addiction on families can be immeasurable.
When a family member, or multiple family members, struggles with addiction, the usual methods of functioning—dynamics such as communication, conflict resolution, and management of emotions—are disrupted. Addiction becomes the central focus of that family member’s world. When life revolves around obtaining, using, and recovering from substance abuse, this egocentric focus has significant repercussions. No longer can the family function in cohesive solidarity when addiction enters the picture.
Learning ways to respond to the dysfunction surrounding the addict—the financial impact, the hurt feelings, broken trust, and disappointments—does not always come naturally. But aside from the obvious need to convince the addicted family member of their need for professional addiction treatment, there are some useful steps that help reduce the impact of enabling behaviors and codependency, as well as defining healthy boundaries and realistic expectations.
How Addiction Destabilizes the Family
Before it becomes known that a family member or members might be struggling with addiction there are usually signs. The precursors to addiction might at first be very subtle, not easily picked up. Maybe the individual has recently become more irresponsible in fulfilling his or her obligations. Maybe they are exhibiting secretive behaviors or hanging out with a different crowd. These changes may annoy the other family members, but would likely be considered just temporary in nature.
When the warning signs of addiction become more prominent it usually coincides with more disruptive or disturbing behaviors that begin to penetrate the family dynamic. These signs might include:
- Lack of concern about personal appearance or hygiene
- Change in eating or sleeping habits
- Physical signs of addiction, such as hand tremors, constricted pupils, chronic constipation, bloating, weight loss
- Secretive behavior
- Theft of medications from medicine cabinet or alcohol from liquor cabinet
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Declining academic performance or work-related problems
- Legal problems, such as a DUI, theft
- Doesn’t fulfill responsibilities or financial obligations
- Confrontational and angry towards family members
- Mental Health conditions such as depressionand anxiety
Addiction causes self-centered behavior, leading other family members to take up the slack to compensate for the addict’s shortcomings. Hurt feelings result when the addicted family member continually deceives, lies, and breaks trust bonds. This can all lead to intense resentment and hostility within the family, not only toward the addict, but even impacting the relationships between the family members. Blame, guilt, and fear are powerful emotions that become part and parcel of the family of an addict.
Avoid Falling Into the Enabling Trap
Love is a powerful emotion. Family members feel a strong bond with each other and care deeply when one person is in trouble. Unfortunately, this tendency toward wanting to make things all better for the addict can wind up hurting them instead. Parents, in particular, may truly want to help their child as they witness the suffering and consequences caused by the addiction. They may attempt to stomp out the “fires” erupting in the child’s life in an effort to save their child from further consequences.
Enabling behaviors include those that on the surface appear to be genuine attempts to help the person struggling with addiction. Instead, many of these actions only deepen the addict’s drug or alcohol abuse by alleviating certain stressors that could act as a motivation to get clean and sober. Enabling behaviors, such as paying their bills or calling in sick for them or lying to cover up the addiction, only result in making the addict more comfortable in his or her addiction. Instead, it is imperative that the family members allow the addict to stumble and suffer, as difficult as that is to witness.
A similar dysfunction within families where addiction is present involves codependency. Being codependent may at first glance appear to be nothing more than being compassionate. No one wants to stand by and witness a loved one sinking into the pit of addiction. However, some family members may become so enmeshed in helping the addict that their own life, health, and sanity becomes jeopardized.
Codependency can wind up ensnaring the healthy family members, sucking them into the whirlwind that surrounds the addicted loved one. To avoid codependency, a slogan from Al-anon, “Detach with love,” is helpful. It reminds the other family members that the addict must own their addiction as well as their recovery, and no amount of worrying or taking on their problems will change the outcome. Only the addict can effect real change.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
Addiction leads to selfishness, and with selfishness comes encroaching on the family member’s boundaries. This happens when the addict does not respect the health and wellbeing of family members by constantly asking for money or for emotional support while in active addiction. But it is imperative that firm boundaries are in place, both during active addiction and in recovery. The family members love the addict, but they must protect themselves from the impact of addiction.
When the addict is in recovery, healthy boundaries provide a healthy setting for mutual respect. The family must allow the recovering addict to own their recovery while expecting them to recognize clearly delineated boundaries. Establish boundaries, communicate them clearly, and then consistently adhered to. Setting healthy family boundaries allows all family members to live peacefully together with a joint understanding of expectations.
To successfully set up and maintain boundaries that will serve as a protective factor for both the recovering addict and the family, consider having weekly family meetings, be supportive but not enabling or codependent, seek out a support group such as Al-anon, and avoid any attempts at manipulation by the recovering family member.
While addiction is highly toxic to the family dynamic, in recovery there is ample opportunity to repair the damage done and recovery the integrity of the family bond.
About the Author
Marissa Katrin Maldonado has been working in the behavioral healthcare industry for over 12 years. She is the founder of The Treatment Specialist, a national online resource and helpline for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions. Offering information on rehab for depression, anxiety, PTSD, trauma, dual diagnosis, and most other mental health conditions. Dedicated to guiding individuals to the help they seek, Marissa believes that with the right support and guidance, those struggling will have the opportunity to turn their lives around and enjoy a healthy and happy life. She is a proud mother and wife and enjoys long distance running, traveling, and music.