from addict 2 advocate

Family Responses to Addiction: Can Anyone Fix the Problem?




By: C. W. Stratton, MS, CASAC
“Alcoholism isn’t a spectator sport. Eventually the whole family gets to play”– Joyce Rebeta-Burditt, author of The Cracker Factory (1977)

Who is Fixing the Problem?

Addiction not only affects the addicted individual but it impacts the family and those who care about them as well.  As many of us are aware, addiction has an insidious way of restructuring the family and family systems.  Family roles become confusing, and the members seem to stumble over one another trying to figure out how to fix the problem. Making attempts at fixing the problem creates even more dysfunction within the family dynamic. Families respond to addiction in numerous ways.  However, typical responses are listed below:
  • Ignoring the Problem
  • Taking a Harsh Approach
  • Accommodate The Individual
  • Enabling
  • Giving Up
  • Try To Live “Around” The Situation
  • Denial
  • Lack of Trust
Many families, particularly parents, have a habit of blaming themselves for the individual’s addiction.  Blaming statements hinder families in becoming well-informed and aware of the aspects of addiction.  Families subconsciously take ownership for the behaviors that the addicted individual displays.   

Some Blaming Statements

  • I didn’t provide the love they needed
  • I gave them too much
  • I should have been more attentive
  • I shouldn’t have let him/her hang out with…
  • I’m a bad parent/spouse
  • It’s my fault; I moved us to this neighborhood

I’ll Straighten You Out

There are those families that take a “power and control over the addict” approach. Although they may believe they are in control of the situation, in all reality, they become out of control as much as the situation and the individual. 
There are attempts made to restrict the individual’s movements, withhold financial help, spy on the individual’s every movement from cell phone calls to social media activity.  The family spends a considerable amount of time spying and watching the individual’s movements and in the process; they become just as ill as the individual.  
There are those families that become accustomed to this way of living and never realize that the addicted person is now in control of how the family operates.  

Some Protective Behaviors and Statements of Families

Other families become so fearful of what the individual may do that they transition their thinking and behaviors into protecting the addicted person from harm, without realizing that they may be prolonging the addiction and increasing the risk of overdose and death. Some common behaviors and statement include:
  • I give him/her money, so they don’t commit a crime.
  • I’d rather they use here, at least, I know where they are or what they’re doing.
  • I have to bail them out of jail because that’s not a good place.
  • I can’t tell the rest of the family what has been going on.
  • I’ll take you to get your alcohol/drugs because I don’t want you using the car.
  • Just don’t bring the stuff around here.
  • Call me if you’re too high to get home, I’ll pick you up.
  • One parent lets the individual come home only when the other parent isn’t present.
  • Don’t tell your father/mother I gave you the money.
With these behaviors and statements, families feel that they have control of the situation.  However, knowing what the individual is doing and protecting them from harm doesn’t provide an avenue for the individual and family to get better.  It enables the addicted person to continue the behavior and not have an opportunity of seeing the dangers and damage they’ve created. 

Their Fixes Aren’t Working on Me!

The addicted individual will guilt loved ones into accepting their actions or even threaten self-harm to get what they want, which is often just to continue using. There still exists the illusion of control on the part of the parents or spouse despite the chaos that’s evident.  Families adapt to the addicted individual which makes it comfortable for that person to continue using.  Even though enabling isn’t the family intent, this is often the outcome. 

When the Addict Wants to Fix Themselves

There does come a time when the addicted individual experiences a crisis or form of consequence that begins to put things in perspective that may result in the person contemplating the need to make changes in their lives.  Some life-altering experiences include: 
  • Loss of family relations 
  • Homelessness 
  • Loss of employment 
  • Health concerns 
  • Criminal justice involvement
Sometimes the individual just becomes “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” When the addict decides to make changes, the family systems experience another adjustment.  It may appear that the individual making a decision to seek help and enter the recovery process will reduce the stress and chaos that was present during active use.  Some family responses during active addiction remain in place during the recovery process.  During the recovery process, the family has a hard time understanding their role. They no longer feel in control; they no longer feel they are needed; they can be jealous of new recovery options like meetings and sponsors, or they are unwilling to establish trust again. 

Family Statements and Behaviors During Recovery Process

Not every family responds the same when the addicted individual enters the recovery process, but reactions occur.  However, almost all family members are unsure of their role and many times they feel lost, confused or they become so overbearing toward the individual that it strains the relationships even further.  When the family does not know what to do, they tend to maintain some of the thoughts they held in the past.

  • Is he/she clean?
  • He/she looks high, but I’m not sure.
  • When can we trust him/her?
  • Where is he/she going with those new friends?
  • Family searches the rooms when the addict is gone.
  • Family still hides valuables.
  • He/she hasn’t asked me to take them anywhere, what are they up to?
  • How do we interact and relate to this new person?
  • They haven’t asked to borrow money. Is that a good thing?
  • Is there someone looking for them because they haven’t left the house all day.
  • Who are these new people he/she is hanging around, they looks shady.
The now recovering person experiences difficulties initially due to the ongoing mistrust and lack of confidence that the family has regarding the individual making changes in their lives.  We know that families want the best for the individual but are unaware of how to be supportive and encouraging of the person and the changes they are making.

Fixing the Whole Family

Addiction is a family disease in which all members need to find ways to heal. Only identifying the addicted individual as the issue within the household, isolates the person, and doesn’t provide an opportunity to expose the exact nature of when, why, and how things occurred.  For families to reunite or become a unit again, all parties should take the time to look at themselves and ask the question; am I helping fix the situation or contributing to the problem?
This question may be difficult to answer.  If you are a family member in this type of situation, look at what’s going on and think about how important the addicted individual is to you. 
Addiction must be exposed, hiding it only prolongs the use and the possibility of more destruction. We are battling serious epidemic in our communities and the rest of the world.  It’s time to fight for ourselves and our loved ones.  
It is a matter of life or death. 

There are self-help groups and additional counseling for family members of the addicted person which can help on so many different levels.
Addiction is a family disease. Let’s heal together.


Writing, and recovery heals the heart


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