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How Addiction Transforms a Family - Helen Rayner

Substance abuse is a very, very damaging thing for a family. When a family member falls prey to addiction, it can completely take over their life. Someone who was once a loving, caring person who put the needs of their family first can swiftly become an apparently uncaring, unpredictable, and sometimes violent individual who prioritizes their substance over everything. However, many of us are emotionally and culturally primed to preserve the family unit, however volatile and emotionally damaging family life may have become. For this reason, we keep trying to make it work, until things get so bad that we simply cannot take it anymore. Our efforts to keep the family balance result in a number of transformations. Family members are commonly observed to take on a number of ‘roles’ in order to ‘balance out’ the disruption caused by the addict. Here are some of the most common ‘roles’ into which the family members of an addict may subconsciously step:

The Enabler - The Enabler is probably the well-recognized of the addict-relation profiles. Whether out of misguided love, a desire for a quiet life, or simple disinterest in what may or may not be good for their addicted loved one, the enabler will allow and perhaps even tacitly encourage the addict’s behaviour to flourish. Sometimes, the enabler will clear up the addict’s messes, thus ensuring that they never really feel the impact of their actions’ consequences. Sometimes, the enabler will provide them with the means to obtain their substance, or turn a blind eye while they’re using. Sometimes the enabler will ‘enable’ by ignoring the problem - continuing to gift an alcoholic alcohol at Christmas, taking them to bars etc. - an understandable but nonetheless damaging tactic.

The Overachiever - The Overachiever subconsciously seeks to ‘compensate’ for the behaviour of the addict by going above and beyond themselves. They may conscientiously undertake household chores, work as hard as they can at school, pursue career goals avidly, engage in charitable community works, and so on. Typically, the overachiever also takes on a ‘peacemaker’ role, working in harmony with the enabler to plaster over any conflict within the family which threatens to rise to the surface. Consciously, they may be trying to avoid succumbing to the same fate as the addict. Subconsciously, however, it is likely that they are trying to preserve the psychological balance of the family, and make the family appear ‘worthy’ to the outside world. Overachievers often experience a lot of stress, as they’re not really doing what they’re doing to satisfy themselves, but to replace something that they feel is missing within the family.

The Scapegoat - The Scapegoat has a very raw deal. The scapegoat member of the family serves as a ‘vent’ for suppressed anger and emotion which cannot be expressed at the addict without either causing a lot of trouble or admitting to the problem. So the scapegoat will find themselves the butt of all the family’s unexpressed anguish, receiving disproportionate opprobrium for very minor (or, even, imagined) wrongs. Scapegoats can get nothing right, and often react to the treatment they’re getting by acting out, becoming very unsure of themselves, and/or developing behavioural problems - which naturally makes things worse. They may also find themselves the target of domestic abuse. Typically, scapegoats are either spouses who are blamed directly by the addict for their problems, or children who are blamed by the rest of the family for the prevailing atmosphere within the home. Sometimes, it should be noted, the scapegoat becomes so inured to their role that they may deliberately act out when the addict begins to cause problems in order to distract from the developing situation, and to divert the family’s ire from the real source of their problems. By this point, the scapegoat feels that cohesion within this toxic family is more important than their own wellbeing.

The Loner - Usually a child, the Loner responds to the toxic family atmosphere by disappearing. They tend to withdraw into themselves, having no wish to interact with (and therefore potentially provoke) the volatile family dynamic. The loner takes the view that no attention within this household is good attention, and will therefore do their utmost to pretend that they don’t exist. Often, the loner retreats into a fantasy world, and May far prefer their imagination to the reality around them. If allowed to continue, children who practice this kind of survival strategy may end up wary of other people, and develop considerable social disabilities.

None of this need be permanent. If the family is willing to admit that there is a serious problem with addiction, and either leave the addict or seek help, then all of this can be reversed, and family members can go back to being their most authentic selves. It may take some healing and some hard work, but familial repair is possible. The family may find that they have to distance themselves from the addict in order to heal the damage. This is always sad, but a preferable outcome to long-lasting damage to every family member. Sometimes, the whole family can pull through and heal - but this requires everyone (not just the addict) fully accepting and coming to terms with the fact that there’s a problem, and then working together to pull through it. Challenging times, but not impossible to work through!