Addiction is a complex and progressive disease that slowly robs an addict of their physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Prolonged abuse of alcohol and/or drugs will deteriorate a person’s physical health, impair their mental functioning and damage their spirit.
The impact of addiction is overwhelmingly negative, with few exceptions. Each alcoholic/addict’s situation is unique and therefore each family’s situation is unique. Because of this, it is impossible to assign a universal causal relationship between substance abuse and family functioning. Several studies have found that a sizable percentage of child abuse and domestic abuse cases involve the use of drugs and/or alcohol.
The actions and behaviours of a family member addicted to drugs and/or alcohol has a significant impact on their family that cause dysfunctions in the ways they cope with the alcoholic/addict and how family members interact with one another. These actions and inactions of the alcoholic/addict affect all members of their family, and perhaps at times their extended family. Addiction affects the family’s physical health and psychological wellbeing, and may seriously impact on the family’s finances. Resentments among family members may be prominent when attention is focused on the addict, especially by younger siblings who may feel jealous that the alcoholic/addict is getting the spotlight.
Children of the alcoholic/addict grow up in a highly unstable home and can be highly confused and hurt when on a moment to moment basis they are unable to determine which parent they will get, the intoxicated or sober one. As a result, they often must fend for themselves at these times when adult supervision is vital. The economic loss to the family resulting from addiction can lead to a child being malnourished and undereducated. Essentials, such as attending school and having three meals a day is not as important as an alcoholic/addict’s next drink/score. A child growing up in a home with an alcoholic/addict is frequently robbed of important aspects of their childhood. Because domestic and sexual abuse are linked to substance abuse, children who grow up in a home with substance abusing parents are more likely to experience some sort of domestic or sexual abuse leading to trauma. This will make these children more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol themselves and if they have children, the cycle has a strong chance of continuing.
Families coping with a loved one who is struggling with addiction will experience a strong internal tug-of-war that can strain the strongest bonds. While the family understands their loved one is not intentionally trying to hurt them and they want to provide the alcoholic/addict with love, encouragement and support, the addict’s manipulation, abuse and lies causes them enormous pain. This pain is then directed towards the alcoholic/addict, and each other. While the family wrestles with these opposing emotions, the suffering they experience causes emotional damage that most likely will not heal without the help of a counsellor or therapist.
There are six roles describing how the family functions around the addict. These roles are, the enabler, the mascot, the hero, the scapegoat, the lost child and the alcoholic/addict.
The enabler is usually the closest to the addicted person and their aim is to help the alcoholic/addict. Although this person means well, they protect the alcoholic/addict from the consequences of their behaviour by taking care of the things that the alcoholic/addict has left undone. This includes taking care of their finances, work around their house, getting their car serviced, ensuring their children get to school and making justifications for their addiction in social and business situations. The enabler does all of this because it is painful for them to confront the reality of their predicament and they are desperate to protect themselves and their family. The message the alcoholic/addict receives is that they don’t have to confront their addiction because someone will always be there to save them.
This role is generally assumed by an older child in the family who overachieves and appears confident and serious. The hero is a family member who attempts to draw attention away from the alcoholic/addict by excelling, performing well and generally being too good to be true. This child may take on the responsibilities of the alcoholic/addict father and become the family breadwinner at an early age and may become the surrogate husband, giving his mother the emotional support she should be getting from her spouse. The hero has a hope that somehow his or her behaviour will help the alcoholic/addict to stop using. The hero is obsessed with perfection, which makes the role increasingly difficult to maintain as addiction progresses and responsibilities continue to mount.
The Scapegoat is a family member who creates other problems and concerns to deflect attention away from the real issue; the troublesome child. This can be through misbehaviour, bad grades or their own substance use. The scapegoat brings the family together in a perverse way, and can make them feel good about themselves by comparison. They are very successful at distracting the family and others away from the alcoholic/addict. In a breaking point situation of stress caused by the alcoholic/addict’s behaviour, the scapegoat becomes a means of releasing anger and frustration. The scapegoats often get into trouble in school, and at home and as they move toward adulthood many of them get into trouble with the police. Their behaviours are reflective of the poisonous and chaotic atmosphere in the house.
By the time this child comes along, the family dynamic has deteriorated to a serious state of dysfunction. In an uncomfortable home environment, they assume the role of the mascot, using humour as their coping mechanism. While the mascot can certainly help lighten up a desperate situation, their true intent is to keep the peace, ease tension and serve as a distraction. They are a source of amusement for the rest of the family. The older siblings are well practised in their variety of compensatory survival roles, and their tendency is to protect the youngest member. The mascot understands their humour may be bringing a momentary sense of relief to their family and they will continue to maintain this role to achieve balance and comfort in the home. Yet despite all the efforts to protect this child from the truth, he cannot help but discover over time that something is drastically wrong with his family dynamic.
The Lost Child
To survive in the home of an addict, alcoholic, the lost child decides that for them to survive, it is best to isolate themselves within this family. They keep a low profile appearing to ignore the problem completely and as a result have problems developing relationships with other family members. This child is often the one who has not received as much love and care as his/her siblings and can go unnoticed for hours. This results in difficulties in social situations and can result in the lost child engaging in fantasy play to distract themselves both emotionally and physically from their negative environment. Believing that if they are out of sight, they are also out of mind, this child will learn not to ask questions that might upset other members of the family. In doing so, they keep a low profile and usually feel unimportant.
The alcoholic/addict can feel great shame, remorse and guilt about the distress and pain they have/are causing to their families. However, there are also many addicts who do not want to cease their substance abuse, causing great anger and resentment throughout their family. The alcoholic/addict has clear patterns of denial and ineffective coping and successful recovery invariably begins with a crisis that forces a change in their mindset. If the alcoholic/addict believes that recovery is not possible, it is highly unlikely they will put forth any effort to quit.
The roll of the therapist is to help the alcoholic/addict to reduce their drinking, or stop drinking completely. This depends on the client’s objective in therapy. In this safe confidential one-to-one setting, the client can discuss their relationship with their addiction problem, their behaviour and the impact it is having on their own life and the lives of others.