Calling All Family Members

By C.W. Stratton

“Alcoholism and other addictions aren’t a spectator sport. Eventually, the whole family gets to play.” ~ Joyce Rebeta Burditt

Addiction affects the addicted individual and impacts the family and those who care about them as well. As many of us know, addiction has an insidious way of restructuring the family and family systems. Family roles become confusing, and the members seem to stumble over one another, figuring out how to fix the problem. Making attempts at fixing the problem creates even more dysfunction within the family dynamic. Families respond to addiction in numerous ways. However, typical responses are listed below:

  • Ignoring the Problem
  • Taking a Harsh Approach
  • Accommodate The Individual
  • Enabling
  • Giving Up
  • Try To Live “Around” The Situation
  • Denial
  • Lack of Trust 

Many families, particularly parents, have a habit of blaming themselves for the individual’s addiction, and blaming statements hinder families in becoming well-informed and aware of the aspects of addiction. Families subconsciously take ownership of the behaviors that the addicted individual displays.   

Some Blaming Statements

Parents blame themselves in various ways. Here are some typical statements made: 

  • I didn’t provide the love they needed
  • Maybe I gave them too much
  • I should have been more attentive
  • Maybe those kids weren’t so bad and I should have let them hang out with…
  • I’m a terrible parent/spouse
  • It’s my fault; I moved us to this neighborhood

 There Must Be Something I Can Do!

There are those families that take a “power and control over the addict” approach. Although they may believe they are in control of the situation, in all reality, they are as out of control as the addict, but for different reasons.  

Parents will attempt to restrict the individual’s movements, withhold financial help, spy on the individual’s every move from cell phone calls to social media activity. The family spends a considerable amount of time spying and watching the individual’s movements, and in the process, they become just as ill as the individual.   

Those families become accustomed to this way of living and never realize that the addicted person still controls their activities, behaviors, and feelings. 

Some Protective Behaviors and Statements of Families

Other families become so fearful of what the individual may do that they transition their thinking and behaviors into protecting the addicted person from harm, without realizing that they may prolong the addiction and increase the risk of overdose and death. Some common behaviors and statements include:

  • I give them money so they don’t commit a crime.
  • I’d rather they use here; at least, I know where they are or what they’re doing.
  • I have to bail them out of jail because that’s not a good place.
  • I can’t tell the rest of the family what has been going on.
  • I’ll take you to get your alcohol/drugs because I don’t want you using the car.
  • Just don’t bring the stuff around here.
  • Call me if you’re too high to get home, I’ll pick you up.
  • One parent lets the individual come home only when the other parent isn’t present.
  • Don’t tell your father/mother I gave you the money.

With these behaviors and statements, families feel that they have control of the situation. However, knowing what the individual is doing and protecting them from harm doesn’t provide an avenue for the individual and family to get better. It enables the addicted person to continue the behavior and not have an opportunity of seeing the dangers and damage they’ve created. 

Their Fixes Aren’t Working on Me!

The addicted individual will guilt loved ones into accepting their actions or even threaten self-harm to get what they want, often to continue using. There still exists the illusion of control for the parents or spouse despite the evident chaos. Families adapt to the addicted individual, which makes it comfortable for that person to continue using. Even though enabling isn’t the family intent, this is often the outcome. 

When the Addict Wants to Fix Themselves

There does come a time when the addicted individual experiences a crisis or a consequence that begins to put things in perspective that may result in the person contemplating the need to make changes in their lives. Some life-altering experiences include: 

  • Loss of family relations 
  • Homelessness 
  • Loss of employment 
  • Health concerns 
  • Criminal justice involvement

Sometimes the individual becomes “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” When the addict decides to make changes, the family systems experience another adjustment. 

While the individual may no longer be using, some family responses during active addiction remain during the recovery process, and families often have a hard time understanding their new role.  

They no longer feel in control; they no longer feel needed. When these feeling bubble up, the parents can then feel jealous of new recovery options like meetings and sponsors, or they are unwilling to establish trust again. 

Family Statements and Behaviors During Recovery Process

Not every family responds the same when the addicted individual enters the recovery process, but reactions occur. However, almost all family members are unsure of their role. 

They often feel lost, confused, or become so overbearing toward the individual that it strains the relationships even further. When the family does not know what new actions and responses to use or hasn’t gotten help for themselves, they tend to maintain some of their past thoughts.

  • Are they clean?
  • They look high, but I’m not sure.
  • When can we trust them? 
  • Where are they going with those new friends? 
  • The family searches the rooms when the addict is gone. 
  • The family still hides valuables.
  • They haven’t asked me to take them anywhere; what are they up to? 
  • How do we interact and relate to this new person? 
  • They haven’t asked to borrow money. Is that a good thing? 
  • Is there someone looking for them because they haven’t left the house all day?
  • Who are these new people they are hanging around? They look shady.

The now recovering person experiences difficulties initially due to the ongoing mistrust and lack of confidence that the family has regarding the individual making changes in their lives. We know that families want the best for the individual but are unaware of how to support and encourage the person and their changes. 

Fixing the Whole Family

Addiction is a family disease in which all members need to find ways to heal. Only identifying the addicted individual as the issue within the household isolates the person and doesn’t provide an opportunity to expose the exact nature of when, why, and how things occurred. 

For families to reunite or become a unit again, all parties should take the time to look at themselves and ask the question; am I helping fix the situation or contributing to the problem?

This question may be challenging to answer. If you are a family member in this situation, look at what’s going on and think about how important the addicted individual is to you.  

Addiction must be exposed; hiding it only prolongs the use and the possibility of more destruction. We are battling a severe epidemic in our communities and the rest of the world. It’s time to fight for ourselves and our loved ones.  

It is a matter of life or death. Addiction is a family disease. Let’s heal together.

Know Your Family Resources 

There are self-help groups and additional counseling for family members of the addicted person, which can help on so many different levels. Family Resources: 

Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders | SAMHSA

Addiction Resources and Help for Families | Hazelden Betty Ford

Support Groups for Families of Drug Addicted & Alcoholic Persons (americanaddictionfoundation.com)

Author: cwstratton

Addictions Counselor, Life Coach, and Professor

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