The members of a family are interdependent on each other. Therefore, when there is stress, the whole family readjusts itself to bring stability and balance into their lives.
With an addict in the family, the rest of the family members begin to react in predictable ways.
When one member of the family suffers from addiction, there are multiple victims. Primarily, they are the wife, parents, and children. They are victims of addiction, without using chemicals themselves! These people suffer silently in the background, struggling to solve their problems, numbing their feelings. Such persons are referred to as co-dependents while addicts are called dependents (on a substance such as alcohol)
Co-dependents usually react rather than act to problems and pain. The need is to learn to act, rather than react.
As the problems increase, they suffer from isolation, depression, emotional/ physical illness and sometimes suicidal tendencies. Family members go through an emotional roller coaster ride that never seems to end.
Guilt is a common and overwhelming feeling. Culturally, the wife or parents are usually blamed squarely for the addict’s problems. This leads to a lot of self-blame and consequently to deep shame.
Grief is felt when the family loses the pleasures of life. In case of addiction, there is a chronic and extended loss with no visible end- loss of prestige, of family ties, of personal dignity, of feelings of love, of friends, of finances… the list goes on.
When there is no sharing and caring, it creates lots of Anger. The family’s helplessness makes them angrier with just about everything- family, friends, and the world at large. The addict gets angry and shouts throughout the night. The wife starts shouting the next morning. In either case, the other person is not listening. Continued anger becomes deep-rooted resentment.
There is also lot of humiliation. The drunken behavior of the addict in front of relatives and friends causes embarrassment leading to feelings of low self-worth and deep shame.
Living in such a constantly stressful state produces a lot of Fear- fear of future, of family life, of financial matters, of relationships, of arguments, of the addict’s health etc.
These stressful situations lead to communication breakdowns in the family. There is no love, caring and sharing. Instead, in an attempt to hide the emotions, the family experiences terrible loneliness.
These negative emotions lead to a predictable behavioural response called denial.
As fear increases, the family denies having any problem. They justify and rationalize the situation by attributing all this to ‘too much pressure” or some such external factor. Denial is not lying. It is used unconsciously to control fear and anxiety.
The spouse of the addict usually becomes a good ‘enabler’ with good intentions. In order to show care and concern, and to protect her dignity; she covers up the consequences of the addict’s behavior. She perpetually keeps bailing him out of situations to avoid an awkward situation, instead of allowing him to face the consequences of his actions. She becomes an ideal, competent and protective wife, thereby enabling the addict to continue his addiction without taking responsibility.
As a family member, one must realize that addiction is a disease- not a moral weakness, nor a lack of willpower. The addict is truly powerless over his addiction.
The family member needs to accept this truth. This will help in changing the attitude and approach towards the addict and his addiction. Just as addiction has taken years to develop, recovery cannot happen overnight. Addiction is a progressive disease, requiring professional help.
Don’t justify the addict’s chemical abuse.
Don’t hide liquor /drugs. The addict will anyway know how to acquire more and you will end up frustrated.
Don’t argue with the person when under the influence of chemicals.
Don’t attempt to punish or bribe.
Don’t feel guilty for the addict’s behavior.
Don’t treat the addict as a child.
Don’t try to control the addict and his addiction. Seek professional help.
Chemical dependency is family problem, a family disease. Whatever time it takes, recovery is worth all this effort – that of the addict and the family.