If you love someone struggling with an addiction, you know exactly how harrowing this disease is. The truth is, addiction doesn’t only affect the addict; it impacts everyone that loves them because it is a family disease.
In part one of the addiction series, we laid out the fundamentals of addiction. If you have yet to read part one, I encourage you to check it out before continuing on with this post.
Now that we have a basic understanding of addiction, let’s dive into family rolls, the impact addiction has on relationships, and tips & tools to begin the healing process.
Addiction and Family Roles
Addiction impacts every member of the family, and like most difficult life circumstances, everyone develops a coping strategy to deal with the pain and stress. Some of these can have long-lasting negative effects. This can cause the family dynamics to persist even if the addict gets sober, leaves, or passes away, and is generally passed down generationally.
The purpose of this information is to help family members understand these rolls and the emotions behind them, in turn, guiding them in a direction towards healing and recovery.
The Victim (aka the addict)
Their life revolves around drugs and/or alcohol. They blame others for their problems, can be hostile, angry, unpredictable, and unconcerned with how their actions will affect others. Will often use self pity or charm as a manipulation tactic. They use to cope with their problems and uncomfortable feelings.
The Enabler (aka the caretaker)
Enablers try to prevent the addict from experiencing the damaging consequences of their addiction. They often lie and make excuses to others about the addicts behavior, put the addicts needs before their own, support the addict financially, fulfilling the addicts commitments, bailing them out of jail, etc…
The Straight Arrow (aka the hero)
This role is normally assumed by a child. They are often overachievers, incredibly responsible, rule-followers, serious, hard workers. They put a lot of pressure on themselves and seek external validation to build their self esteem. From the outside, they look like they have it all together.
This role tends to take an aggressive or confrontational approach to help the addict either start, or progress in their recovery. Their interactions with the addict are often hostile and disapproving.
This person is in complete denial of the addicts problem. They turn a blind eye or remain skeptical about the severity of the addiction.
The Fall Guy (aka the scapegoat)
The fall guy is normally the “problem child” of the family. They are often blamed for all of the family’s problems, therefore rejected by the rest of the family and feel like they don’t fit in. They tend to act out, break rules and get in trouble as a way to cope.
The Forgotten (aka the lost child)
The person in this role is isolated from the family and may have trouble developing relationships as a result. They are the quiet ones of the family and find difficulty being in social situations. They often distract themselves from their negative home environment by engaging in fantasy play.
The jester uses humor as a coping mechanism. They will use humor and silliness to bring a sense of relief to the family and will continue to maintain this role to try to achieve balance and comfort in the home.
It’s important to understand that most people don’t fit neatly into one category. Often, family members will have played one or more roles at different points in their life. The take away I hope to convey through this is that everyone in an addicted family is impacted. Regardless of the role you’ve played, it is possible to overcome the effects caused from the family dysfunction and to learn healthier coping strategies.
The effects of addiction in relationships
Each addict’s situation is different, which means each family’s situation is unique. The family structure, severity of addiction, and type of substance all play a factor into the overall impact of addiction in relationships. Though most family situations might differ, the overwhelmingly negative impact to the family is the same.
Children might suffer the most detrimental effects of this disease. Children living with an addicted parent can suffer from issues felt long after childhood and well into adulthood. The issues range from poor self-image, loneliness, guilt, anxiety, hopelessness, fear of abandonment and chronic depression. They are also more likely to begin misusing drugs and alcohol themselves, and/or marrying an addicted or abusive spouse later in life; therefore, leading to multi-generational cycles of addiction.
Substance abuse generally effects the parents or caregivers ability to prioritize their child’s basic physical & emotional needs, and a safe, nurturing environment. This is why children of addicts are three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused and four times more likely to be neglected than their peers, according to this study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The children who have suffered that kind of physical or emotional harm, commonly experience developmental and educational delays, along with mental and behavioral health problems later in life.
The late development of an addiction when adult children are present, can blur the line between parent/child relationships and parent/friend relationships, making the relationship unhealthy and difficult to remedy.
Marriages and long-term relationships where only one partner has a substance abuse problem suffer from a myriad of problems. One partner’s addiction often leads to the other partner having to shoulder the majority, if not all, of the household responsibilities. A relationship with two addicts allows each partner to feed off of the other one. Both addicts will focus solely on feeding their addictions rather than fostering their relationship or taking care of their responsibilities, creating an incredibly toxic household environment.
Significant others of addicts usually become codependent and enable their partners use. Codependency is broadly defined as an individual who is overly involved with another person to the point of dysfunction. Codependency and enabling have a large and detrimental place in the cycle of addiction. We will break out further into this topic in part three of the addiction series.
Much like the children of addicts, parents often blame themselves for the development of their child’s addiction. They continuously question their parental abilities or decisions they’ve made throughout their child’s life.
Parents of teens and adolescents have some level of power in getting them the treatment they need and ceasing substance abuse. This is a critical age for addiction to be caught before it’s grip gets too strong.
Parents of adult addicts sometimes suffer similarly to that of the significant other. When the addict has young children, the grandparents are often the ones who take on the parental duties. Parents are also susceptible to enabling and becoming codependent.
Friends and Co-workers
Friendships where one person is an addict and the other is not generally don’t survive the strain addiction puts on the relationship. While a friend might care very deeply for the addict, it is easier for a friend to dissociate themselves than a family member.
Friendships where both people are addicts are often toxic and allows each person to feed off the other. These friendships are usually built around substance use, distribution, manufacturing or cultivation of illicit substances.
A family disease
Nearly every person in contact with an addict is impacted in one way or another.This is why recovery is most successful when the friends and family members closest to the addict are involved in the process. It makes since that since addiction is a family disease, the entire family needs to heal.
The mental and emotional damage caused by an unhealthy relationship with an addict can last even years after the relationship ended. Even if a person is no longer connected to someone with an active addiction, recovery and emotional healing is still an important process. Imagine, a thorn stuck in someone’s eye: once the thorn is removed, it’s critical to address the wound, otherwise serious complications could arise. It’s the same way with addiction. Once the addiction or addict is no longer present, the internal wounds need to be addressed. Otherwise, if they are suppressed, it is highly likely for them to resurface later in life and create problems with self-image, in new relationships, when dealing with adversity, mental state, etc…
No matter where you are at in this journey, there are a lot of resources out there to help. I’ve listed just a few below in case you, or someone you know, is suffering through this right now.
Resources for healing
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a searchable directory of 12,000 treatment facilities in the United States. Click here to visit their directory.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
- Monitoring the Future
- Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance
- National Survey on Drug Use and Health
- Children and Family Futures
- National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children
- National Association for Children of Alcoholics