By guest blogger Mel Dyson
Brief Bio: It’s been a long journey for Mel Dyson. As a youngster, she witnessed her own father battle with alcoholism, before herself becoming a drug addict in her early twenties, after an accident left her dependent on painkillers. Mel is now clean – and a mother herself. She spends the majority of her time bringing up her two daughters and writes and edits for a living.
When we think about the effects of addiction on families, we tend to think more about the addict themselves than about their partner or spouse, and their children, but the fact is, substance abuse has profound and far-reaching consequences on every member of the family. One in eight adult alcohol drinkers develop a drinking problem at some point in their lives, which means there’s a lot of families out there who are suffering right along with their addicted parents, partners, children, or siblings.
When a family member becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs, the entire family dynamic changes, because just as the addict’s behavior changes as a result of the addiction, so do does the behavior of every other family member change in response. These behavioral changes are called coping mechanisms, and they’re a way for each family member to protect themselves from being hurt by the addict’s behavior, and to ensure that family balance can be maintained. Often, these coping mechanisms are dysfunctional, and can lead to further problems in the family, and for the children of the family as they grow up.
Within the family of an addict, at least one member will take on a role known as enabling. When it’s a partner or spouse who is an addict, the enabler role is usually fulfilled by the other partner; sometimes, the role might be fulfilled by one of the addict’s children. The enabler is someone who does everything they can to keep the family functioning as normally as possible. They make sure the bills get paid, they make excuses for the addict’s behavior, and above all, they deny what’s really going on, in an effort to make sure that the family continues to seem normal from the outside.
Children tend to take on various different roles; for example, an older child will often assume a caretaker role which might involve them taking care of younger siblings, and even providing emotional support or acting as a go-between for their parents. Some children act out by getting into trouble at school, and some cope by withdrawing and isolating themselves from the family.
How do family members begin to heal from the damage that addiction causes? For partners and spouses of addicts, there’s a strong need to work on repairing and restoring trust, in order to heal from the hurt that results from the addiction, and to begin rebuilding the relationship. For children of addicts, it’s often necessary to look at the coping mechanisms they’ve developed to discover how they’ve been affected by the addict’s behavior, and to learn how they can start to heal. This is particularly important for children, to ensure that they can learn healthier ways of coping with problems, and that they can develop healthy relationships as adults.
To learn more about the problems that families face when one member of the family is suffering from an addiction, read this article at Rehabs.com, which explores how family members cope with the altered family dynamics that result.