The dynamic around a loved one with addiction is sadly consistent from family to family, across cultural and socioeconomic groups. I have not seen a family with a loved one suffering from addiction that did not fall into the dynamic described below. Understanding how these key interactions work – or don’t – and seeing how it does not benefit you or help the addict get well, is a vital step on the road to change.
Think of your addict as being stuck in a ditch.
The addict is stuck in it and they cannot get out. They are suffering a whole range of consequences of their actions – financial issues, emotional issues, mental health issues, employment issues, relationship issues and the list goes on… – and, despite their best efforts, they simply can’t find the way out. From time to time, it may seem like they got out of the ditch, or they are making progress towards getting out, but this is only ever temporary: they always end up back in that miserable ditch.
The family crowd around the top of the ditch, because they love their addict and they want to see the loved one get out and prosper. Each family member’s approach to the addict will tend to fall into one of two categories or behavioural roles.
The First Is The Persecutor
My grandfather was a classic Persecutor. Because he loved me, he would come to the edge of the ditch I was in and try to motivate me to get out. He would look down into the ditch and tell me that I was a disgrace. How could I do this? After all the opportunities I’d had in life – the private schools, the overseas trips, the military experience – I should have my act together. He would tell me to pull my socks up.
I would tell my grandfather to fuck off, and tell everyone else that he was a dickhead and didn’t understand. How could he talk to me like that? I reflected his behaviour by being critical and hostile too. The result was that I stayed in that miserable ditch.
The Second Is The Enabler
My mother was a classic Enabler. She would look down into the ditch and say, ‘Poor boy! You were the middle child and I think you’ve always had some sort of mental problem. How are we going to help you? How are we going to get you out of this ditch? This is not your fault.’
She would throw anything down that ditch that she thought could help, money, houses, all she think of went down into it. She would find houses for me to live in, and decorate them. She would marry me off. She would generally try to make my life easier, in the hope that, if I found life more comfortable, I would no longer need or choose to use drugs.
I would reflect that behaviour too. I would play the victim, and say, ‘Yes, my life’s very hard, I’ve had some real big problems over the years and it’s not really my fault.’ Then wait for the money, cars, houses, wives or whatever else she was throwing, to land in my ditch. My ditch became quite comfortable. I never had to face the material consequences of my addiction. I was always housed and had cars. Externally, I appeared to be doing OK. But, while the ditch was comfortable, the thought of climbing out of it, or that I had a drug problem, never crossed my mind.
What my family did not realise, despite the fact they loved me and they were doing the best they could to try and help me, was that persecution and enabling contributed nothing that helped me get well. It was just background noise. I did reflect on their behaviour, but I stayed in the ditch.
Enabling and persecuting fuel the addict’s delusion and disease and help keep them in the ditch. In the addict’s mind, being persecuted allows them to continue to feel resentful and sorry for themselves and to blame others for their situation: ‘He’s such an asshole, no wonder I use.’ It adds to all the other excuses they use to justify their drug use. Being enabled shields them from facing the true consequences of their using by keeping them too comfortable to feel the need to change: ‘I’m not really that bad, I’ve still got a place to live.’
Some families live in fear of the addict’s reaction when they finally decide to take away the cushions. They say, ‘He’s not going to like that. We’re scared of what he’s going to do. He can get abusive. He may get violent. He may threaten to kill himself, or disappear and never come back.’ This is nothing more than an addict’s ultra-selfish manipulation at work, created by the disease of addiction. All of us try to set up an unspoken understanding that the family had better give us what we want because the family does not want to face the consequences of us unhappy. Some addicts will say ‘I can make your life miserable’ overtly. Others expend much time setting up a dynamic where this may not be said out loud, but everybody around us understands the potential. We, effectively, hold our own family to ransom.
This family dynamic and these sorts of situations can stay in place for decades. Without drastic change by all parties, family and addict, this dynamic will turn once happy, healthy, prosperous families into miserable, worried sick, fractured wrecks.