Dr. D. John Dyben, DHSc, CAP, CMHP, Clinical Director, Hanley Center at Origins
Anyone who belongs to a family knows that when one member of the family is sick or in crisis, the entire family is affected. Most of the time, these illnesses or crises are short lived such as when mom gets a bad cold or dad gets in a minor car accident or when one of the kids gets injured playing sports. In these cases the family tends to adapt quickly in order to meet temporary needs and they soon return to their normal roles and activities when the crisis is over. Clinicians refer to this as the family being adaptive in a healthy way.
Sometimes, family members may develop a serious illness that lasts a long time and causes multiple crises to arise again and again. These chronic conditions, such as a parent developing cancer or an adolescent being diagnosed with diabetes, may also cause a family to have to adapt in ways that are more permanent but can still be healthy.
Very much in the same way as these other chronic illnesses, when an individual is afflicted with alcoholism or other addiction, the whole family is affected and is forced to adapt in many ways. In these cases, though, the adaptive behaviors are generally unhealthy, or maladaptive, in that they tend to be damaging to the entire family and they can actually make the addiction worse.
One example of a common maladaptive pattern of behavior is when family members begin to cover for the addicted person by calling in sick for them, bailing them out of legal problems related to addiction, making excuses with family and friends for the actions of the person under the influence, or generally “cleaning up” (be it figuratively or literally) for their addicted loved one. Another maladaptive pattern in families is the tendency of family members to live their life “walking on eggshells”. They become hyper aware of the status of the addicted person and always take great care not to upset that person.
Addiction is a disease of isolation that slowly cuts the afflicted off from the rest of the world until all that is left for that person is the bottle or the drugs. In families, the result of these slowly developing maladaptive patterns is the very same thing. Families tend to lose more and more of the richness of life as they focus on the addicted and the addiction. Family members tend to stop caring for themselves, cease to have appropriate boundaries, and develop an ongoing anxiety and what many call co-dependence. They develop a view of the world in which “the only way I can be okay is if you are okay”, rather than learning to develop as an independent person.
But there is hope. When an individual suffers from the disease of addiction, the family will have to adapt to it just as with any other disease. The good news, though, is that it is possible to deal with it in healthy ways. Doing so requires concerted effort and time but is worth it all. Here are two tips for individuals who are living with a loved one who struggles with addiction:
- Talk about it. The most important key to getting healthy is not to keep secrets. Secrets eat us up from the inside out and they keep the disease raging in the whole family. Talk with trusted friends who have experienced this before. Find a counselor or clergy who will listen. The idea is not that they will have answers because most people will not. The idea is that talking things through results in you having less eating you up inside and it also can help to give you perspective.
- Get educated. There are many support groups, family programs, books, websites, etc. that are available to help you learn about the disease of addiction and how to keep yourself healthy in the midst of it all. Learning about what is happening helps to relieve much of your own tension and it can help give you healthy, positive direction.
These two steps are only the beginning, but they are important starting points. Families do not cause addiction and so they cannot cure it. They can, however, grow as a collection of individuals who strive to make healthy choices and, in doing so, create an environment where the family is still a family and individuals in that family can grow to their own full potential. In this type of environment, recovery, and anything else one can dream of, is possible.