Addiction and alcoholism are chronic, progressive diseases of the brain characterised by warped thinking and outrageous obsession and compulsion that result in insanity, incarceration and ultimately death. Now obviously, as with any life threatening illness, this has consequences for the wives, husbands, children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers of the addict because nothing happens in a vacuous bubble. The spectral fingers of this affliction wraps it strangulating hold around the family dynamic impacting the stability of the home, the family’s unity and frequently the mental, physical and financial health of everyone concerned.
Is it all about the addict?
‘I’m fine, they’re the one with the problem!’ is often the reasonably legitimate reaction of many relatives as they fail to see how they have become used to living with the ‘elephant in the room ‘ -that special brand of bedlam cultivated by the using addict or alcoholic. This could be as vivid as watching as the person repeatedly pass out with their head in their Sunday lunch or even, far more imperceptibly, when the addict is in residence somewhere else…..every time the phone rings….there is terror, dread and racing minds….What now…..What’s happened……Overdose….. Arrest… Death?
The valid and authentic fear, pain and anger that relatives suffer frequently appears to pale into insignificance when caught in the blinding glare of the theatrical spotlight shining forth from their loved ones whirlpool of problems. Essentially as the disease progresses, another formidable relationship gradually becomes part of the family dynamic, that of the addict and their drugs or alcohol. This monstrous and powerful union gradually evolves into the domineering force within family. And the thing is, even with the best will in the world, this affects the thinking and behaviour of the non-using members of the family in some hugely insidious ways.
Laws of the Wild
A family often functions within a set of largely unspoken conventions and when a member becomes addicted their erratic and unreliable behaviour impacts on the way other people react to them and ultimately changes the goal posts of what is acceptable and what is not. Often these things are not really talked about and happen largely without people even realising. The safety and security of the domestic garden turns into a reckless jungle of hidden agendas, deceit and fear where safety and security are words from a long forgotten tongue.
The civilians in the situation develop a series of coping strategies to deal with this fast-changing and unpredictable terrain because that is what people do. The human race are resilient and adaptable which, under these circumstances, is not always a good thing. Techniques of dealing with the unfolding situation can take shape in a number of different ways which include: feeding into the addict’s denial of their problem (family members don’t want to see what is happening either or be confronted by the shame) or consistently ignoring their own needs and putting those of the addict first or clearing up consequences financial or otherwise and having no time or emotional space left for the other members of their tribe.
This type of dysfunctional pattern of relating to people is known as co-dependence which in the broadest sense, is defined as an unhealthy cycle of behaviour that leaves people unable to think or act for themselves resulting in their whole lives revolving entirely around their addict in one way or another. So really, it is all about the addict but not quite in the way initially people think, the problem ripples out in ever-increasing circles to all areas of the family.
Co-dependent behaviour supports and enables another person’s drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling, poor mental health, immaturity, underachievement or irresponsibility. It is, in fact a sort of addiction to the abnormal and destructive goings-on of the family member with the issue and is just as subtle and stealthy as the disease itself. This is a beast that takes many different forms and misguided love and a sense of responsibility can force even the sanest relative to get stuck in the tailwind of their addict’s chaos.
This could be an almost entirely separate blog as the way that children, raised within families with either one or more addict parents, are affected is extremely wide ranging. They have the potential to suffer a whole spectrum of emotional and social problems from an inability to form intimate relationships to developing attention seeking behaviours or feeling like they are never good enough. In the extreme this can result in violence, chronically low self-esteem, crippling depression and an inability to cope in the world, even ending up as addicts themselves or choosing partners with the disease. It is also important to acknowledge that the more that research into addiction progresses the more evidence is being accumulated that this is a genetic condition.
In direct contradiction to this list of problems many children become chronic over-achievers seeking the control and comfort of excelling at school, finding careers and creating a world that is the flawless opposite to the chaos that they were brought up in. On the surface this appears like they have overcome impossible but often fear, control and perfectionism pervade their lives as a way of coping with the latent damage of their early years.
Often at a deep, thoroughly, irrational level children feel that they should be able to save their parents from the claws of addiction and feel guilty and helpless that they fail at this gargantuan and impossible task.
This sounds like an unbearably dismal state of affairs and for many who are stuck in the eye of the storm there is no perceivable way out of the madness. Trying to solve the problem of addiction is an impossible, thankless and counterproductive occupation for family members and must be accepted as such before they can work towards a solution. They are never going to be as big as the disease of addiction – which can be likened to a T-Rex on steroids and they must learn to face their powerlessness over the addict and their actions.
Having a relative who is addicted to alcohol or drugs can be an isolating and exhausting experience filled with a broad spectrum of unmanageable emotions. There are many support groups to help relatives to work through these issues and learn about how to deal with them in a way that preserves the health of the non-using family members. These include 12 step groups like Al Anon, AlaTeen, CoDA, Narcon and Families Anonymous as well as non 12 step options including individual or family counselling. The trick is not to become isolated with the problem.
If the addict or alcoholic agrees to go to a drug and alcohol treatment centre, it is imperative to ensure that the rehab or program they are going to attend includes some sort of comprehensive provision for family support. This way the whole tribe can heal together and learn a whole new set of tools for dealing with the complexities of life, this complex disease and the ripples that spread out from its core.
If you or somebody you know has a problem with alcohol or drugs and wants to stop using and drinking give one of our experts at the Hader Clinic a call today to find out how we can help.