RECOVERY: A FAMILY AFFAIR
April 9, 2009 by Emily Battaglia
As part of Alcohol Awareness Month in April, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is promoting the message that recovery is a family affair. According to SAMHSA, over half of all adults in the United States have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking. SAMHSA is striving to inform all Americans that alcoholism is a preventable and treatable disease, and that individuals in a family where alcoholism exists need to receive help, too.
Family dynamics often play a role in the development and facilitation of addictive behaviors. In order for an addict to recover, those closest to him must also re-examine family interactions, habits, and roles to discover destructive, detrimental, or self-defeating behaviors. Although all families have unique dynamics, and it is normal for family members to take on certain roles, addiction heightens the intensity of dysfunction in a family and tends to bring out certain types of roles and interactions within a family.
The addict: Addiction is a complex phenomenon, but usually indicates a fundamental inability to cope. As addiction grows, the addict unbalances the family by becoming the center of the family’s energy and attention. Other family members shift roles to compensate for the imbalance. Although recovery for the addict is the focus, recovery for other family members is no less important to the healthy functioning of the family.
The hero:Usually one person in the family will begin to focus on appearances as a way to cope. He will ignore obvious signs of addiction and strive to make the family and family members look good in spite of one member’s problem. He ignores the dysfunctional interactions of family members and insists that things are fine. This person is dealing with underlying feelings of fear, guilt, and shame.
The mascot: This person is the family jester and copes with the situation by refusing to take it seriously. She will use humor to distract herself and others, and to avoid confronting the reality of addiction. This person’s role can hinder other family members’ attempts to recover. This person feels embarrassment, shame, and anger.
The lost child: The lost child withdraws from the family and surrenders personal needs in favor of avoiding any discussion of addiction or recovery. This person is lonely, angry, guilty, and neglected.
The scapegoat: This person tends to act out, rebel, and work to draw attention away from the addicted individual and any efforts at recovery. The scapegoat prefers distraction. This person often feels empty, shameful, and guilty.
The caretaker: The counterbalance to the addict is almost always a caretaker. This person facilitates the addict’s destructive behaviors, often out of misguided attempts to love or care for him. This person also facilitates the dysfunctional behaviors of other family members. She strives to keep everyone “happy” and make excuses for all behaviors. This person often feels inadequate, fearful, and helpless.
For the family to recover, each member must reclaim healthy roles and priorities. In the dysfunctional family, the addiction of one member takes precedence over all other matters, members refuse to recognize the addiction as a source of problems, blame is used to deflect responsibility, and communication is either nonexistent or detrimental.
In a healthy family system, self-worth is high for all members; communication is direct, clear, and honest and allows the expression of feelings; family rules are appropriate and flexible; and each person has separate goals and plans but is supported by the family in achieving them.