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Addiction is not a one-person problem. It’s a family problem—and not just because its side effects cause trouble for everybody. Often, the addiction is only the most obvious of many issues rooted in unhealthy family relationships.
The Center for Excellence in Aging and Community Wellness, of the University at Albany, lists symptoms of an “unhealthy family” that can manifest as:
- Rigid expectations, strict rules and permeating perfectionism
- One person holding all the power, with no challenges tolerated
- Obsession with avoiding conflict
- Lack of any attempt at active empathy
A family situation where the above are major factors is more likely to be a route to relapse than a source of support, especially if someone else holds the power position and has no intention of giving it up. In such cases, the recovering addict may have little choice but to find an alternate living situation.
Family medical issues besides the addict’s can also affect success in recovery. If anyone has a physical or mental illness, that puts extra stress on the whole household—and may also require keeping medications that could prove tempting to the recovering addict. It’s also possible that another family member has untreated substance abuse issues (if anyone has been joining the addict in drug use to “keep him out of trouble,” look out), and may even assume the vacated “family role” of “addict.”
ALL THE HOUSEHOLD’S A STAGE
Whatever the dynamics, most households operate under a “role” system. Family members see themselves (and are seen by the others) as being there to “play” such parts as:
- Head of the household
- Baby of the family
- Daddy’s little girl
- Star student
- Good kid
- Shy one
- Family drunk
The more rigid and performance-based these roles, the likelier the family is to be emotionally unhealthy. And, the less willing the rest of the family proves in acknowledging and remedying their contributions to the problem, the more likely it is that the addict will be maneuvered back into the old habit—however much everyone may consciously despise the situation.
Truthfully, family roles can be addictive in themselves: if nothing else, they offer comfort zones with no unaccustomed effort required. Al-Anon notes that “We can become as addicted to the alcoholic, as the alcoholic is to alcohol.” If the alcoholic gives up drinking, every comfort zone is violated:
- The “family hero” no longer has major rescues to perform, and may have to admit that her “rescuing” was actually enabling the habit.
- The “good kid” has to give up a share of praise and attention, and perhaps get used to looking less “good” without the negative contrast.
- The “one in the background” suddenly finds the family has more time to pay attention to her—and that their newfound knowledge of addiction has them questioning whether she’s overdoing her favorite habits. (Many people in addiction-affected households develop non-chemical addictions—eating, shopping, social media—as compulsive distractors from the stress at home.)
- The “social drinker” has to adjust to the inconvenience of no alcohol being permitted in the home.
- Everyone faces the need to contribute special effort, attend family counseling, and otherwise learn that a lot more is involved than “detox him so everything can get back to normal.”
RECOVERY IS A LIFELONG JOB
In the course of an addict’s recovery, most families come to see that their “normal” was really a very toxic situation for everyone. Even when all direct substance-abuse influences come from outside, vulnerability is frequently abetted by the family’s stress-inducing expectations or lack of open communication. With counseling and determination, you can make the family healthier—but can you then rest complacently in your new life?
It’s well known that few drug addictions are “curable” in the sense of completely eliminating vulnerability to cravings. What’s less often considered is that the same principle applies to virtually every habit. One woman wept after her twenty-year marriage ended, “He couldn’t take my critical attitude any longer. Ten years ago I realized what I was doing and managed to change my daily talk from negative to positive. But after all seemed well, I let myself get overconfident that the problem was solved for good—and old habits slowly came back and took over.”
Don’t abandon your support group and regular self-examinations because “everything’s okay now.” Your recovering family member—and the rest of you—will benefit best from lasting practice of family wellness.