Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease” because it does not exist in a vacuum, impacting only the addict. It permeates the entire family and impacts each person individually.
In order to protect, help or “fix” an addict, family members often develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. In response to a loved one’s unhealthy addiction, family members start to adopt their own unhealthy habits. These habits can take on various forms including, but not limited to: trust issues that lead to snooping, denial of the addiction, lying to oneself and others, protecting by hiding the addiction, feelings of shame and embarrassment, internalizing the addiction as one’s fault, working overtime to help the addict, losing oneself through constant focus on the addict, experiencing obsessive worry and thoughts about the addict.
When an addict gets the help they need, family members impacted by the disease must also seek help. The entire family unit can get better by each person working individually at the same time. Three of the main coping mechanisms that need to be discarded once the addict is in treatment are enabling, controlling and rescuing.
A family member enables by continuing to protect the addict or support them while they are in active addiction. By accepting the bad behavior through monetary or social support, the addict continues in using because they are enabled to do so. Many addicts need to “hit bottom” in order to be susceptible to addiction treatment. Ending the enablement of their disease allows them to hit bottom and thus seek help faster.
Rescuing is when a family member gains a sense of identity and heroism through saving the addict. Over time the rescuer loses part of themselves and adopts a mono-identity of being the one who saves the addict from his/her own troubles. Social or personal activities that were once important to the rescuer take the backseat while they focus on the addict’s problems. When an addict doesn’t need to be rescued anymore because they have sought drug treatment, the rescuer feels a sense of emptiness and loss of identity that they need to build back up by focusing on themselves.
Controlling is when a family member believes they have power over the thoughts, actions or experiences of another person. Thoughts such as “its my fault he/she drinks” or “if only I could make him/her happy she wouldn’t use drugs” can become very destructive to one’s self-esteem. Realizing and accepting that individuals cannot control the behaviors or actions of others becomes a very freeing experience for the controller.
Working on these three behaviors in the family system can start to significantly alleviate the damage caused by the disease of addiction. Drug and alcohol treatment centers have family programs that work on these and other behaviors that can be the first step toward overcoming the family disease of addiction.