What Happens When There’s an Addict in the Family?

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Addiction tears families apart. If you have someone in your family with addiction, then everyone can react differently – some want to save the addict from themselves, some want to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away; sometimes anger spills over and family members start blaming one another for their actions or simply their frustration at the situation. Only one thing remains true: it’s never, ever easy. Considering that recent figures by the NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) put the number of adults with a substance use disorder (SUD) at around 20.2 million, that means there are many families dealing with this issue in homes across America daily.

When there’s an addict in the family, their condition can become the centre of attention, and bring a negative feeling to all family proceedings. It’s vital that each member of the family looks after themselves and each other during this time, and be aware of the issues that can arise from having an addict in the family and how it can have a lasting impact, down through the generations.

Patterns of Behaviour

Different patterns of behavior emerge in families of addicts and it can be seen for years afterwards in the skewed approach to trust and role modelling that can happen as a result of living with an addict. Some of the following are common characteristics of families with an addict; regardless of whether that is parent or child, brother or sister, and even sometimes the extended family or close friends. These are:

1. The family structure is inconsistent: Children become confused because rules aren’t set out clearly or enforced at all times. They can act out trying to get their parents to set boundaries – when the parents are distracted by the behaviour of the other spouse or one of the other children, their attention is drawn because of the addict. This leads to much confusion, and other children may step in trying to “parent” their brothers and sisters.

2. Anger is repressed or miscarried: When parents or children feel neglected, they may bring their anger out in other ways, as they are scared to at home. This can lead to problems at school or work, or can lead into other substance abuse problems to escape it.

3. Negativity: The overall mood of a household becomes bleak and melancholy. Communication between family members takes the form of criticism and complaints. Positive behavior is lost in the gloom and the only way to get attention is to create upset or conflict.

4. Denial: This can be from a parent or even sibling – denying that there are problems at home, refusal to believe that the child/parent really has a problem, even when there are obvious indicators.

5. Self-medication: Sadly, other family members can turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the difficulties and emotions or to overcome their own anxiety, sadness and depression.

Family Roles

In a healthy family system, people communicate openly with each other, expressing their feelings clearly without blame. Everyone has high self-worth and respect one another. There is a lot of support for each other’s goals and intentions and joy expressed regularly. There are rules but they are flexible and can be changed with mutual agreement. Unfortunately, in the family of an addict, everything is different. The dependents use of a substance determines how family life operates; yet the family can be in denial about this – which is the big problem. Lying becomes standard, blame is thrown around regularly, feelings are repressed and nothing is discussed outside the family. People stop saying how they feel and adjusting their behaviour.

Here are the roles that various family members can inhabit:

1. The addict – always at the center, the addict is the reason these roles exist. Though that doesn’t mean that they are the most important member, the “world” of the family does revolve around this person.

2. The hero – A perfectionist and often the eldest person in the family. This person acts like everything is ok, and makes the family look good. They work hard for approval and act responsibly – giving the family some success. However, beneath all this they feel incompetent and insecure, afraid of what might go wrong and sometimes angry.

3. The mascot – they bring humor to the situation, and are often seen as the clown of the family. Charming and quick to make light of things with a joke although they hurt easily and feel quite fragile. They are good at covering things up, but feel lonely and scared.

4. The scapegoat – this person diverts attention from the addict, letting everyone focus on his or her faults. They are often rebellious, troublesome and act like a tough cookie, when the reality is they are full of fear and rejection, and angry that they are always blamed when things go wrong. This person could also be at risk of substance abuse themself.

5. The lost child – often the quietest and most reserved of the family, they can appear the dreamer of the family. They will never be confrontational and can seem disconnected from the trouble at home, but they are hurt, angry and both guilty and neglected underneath.

6. The caretaker – this person is the enabler and they make all other roles possible. They try to keep everyone happy and deny that there is a problem. They will never talk about addiction or recovery, as they feel helpless and inadequate.

If you recognise these roles at play in your family, then the best thing to do is go and get yourself right. Speak to a close friend or ideally a therapist about your needs, as hard as that may be.

Support for Families of Addiction

Although the focus may be on the addict at home, there are support groups available for families of addiction – Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are the biggest, with groups worldwide, but you may be able to access some community services also. Remember that in keeping yourself healthy and open to communication, you are also helping the addict, as they will see there is no shame in seeking help. You can also attend family therapy with the addict – studies have shown that this is a very cost-effective approach in recovery that has a number of positive outcomes for the addict. It’s evident that there are higher success rates and less chance of relapse when families attend group therapy.

Sometimes it may feel like there is no end to the suffering within the family and things can feel very bleak, but remember that if you can all work together then there is more possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel and a better life for all involved.

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