Karen Corcoran-Walsh, CAP, ICADC, MFT, ASAM

Drug addiction

About this disease
The cunning, baffling disease of addiction is multifaceted, and continues to be a growing epidemic across the United States. Drug addiction carries an unending amount of dangers to an individual’s physical, mental, societal, and familial well-being. Effective treatments have proven to be successful in battling this disease, and layered prevention tactics are making addiction a preventable health condition; however, even though it is treatable and preventable, there are significant elements to pay attention to. This disease is deadly, and Straub (2012) notes the toxic reality of drug and alcohol addiction has produced more deaths, illnesses, and disabilities than any other unnecessary, preventable illness.

Addiction is monstrous and calculating, and it houses many victims. Unfortunately, an addict’s family remains in the crosshairs of this fatal disease. Imagine addiction as a glass of salt water. Now, pour the water into a healthy plant. Over time, you will watch the plant slouch, wither, shrivel up, and if you continue to use this same food source, the plant will eventually die. The effects the salt water had on this healthy plant mimic the effects of drug and alcohol addiction. This disease is not defined by the act of drinking or using drugs; there are many other layers including the impact on one’s physical and mental health, attitude and behaviors, inner spirit, and the mere destruction of relationships with family members. One family member suffering from addiction paves the route for their entire family to suffer, as well.

A Family Disease
Addiction is often referred to as a family disease. This simply means that while the person using and abusing drugs is suffering, his or her family suffers also. As it is important to recognize how each member is affected, it is just as significant that each family member receives treatment to heal their relationship and emotional wounds. Recovery is a process that requires every single person within an addict’s familial and societal circle to be unified. Though it may be difficult for some family members to hear and fully accept, their behaviors, emotions, and relationship with their addicted loved one directly and indirectly promote and support their addiction – this unhealthy interaction and family illness is called codependency.

The Roles
An addict’s family suffers the brunt of many layers of this disease. The immediate family, as well as those extended family members, is right in the path of their loved one’s addiction-driven chaos and mayhem. First, everyone’s feelings are exposed and vulnerable. The relationship that existed prior to addiction is completely overshadowed by someone the family no longer recognizes. An addict’s attitude, feelings, priorities, trust, behaviors, thoughts, and even their personality are gravely affected. The fact is that each person is impacted in a unique way, and how he/she is affected really depends on their previous relationship with the addict.

While some family members blame themselves for their loved one’s addiction, others in the family unit take on a sterner role, to the point of seeking out protective orders against the person abusing drugs. The most important familial strategy to begin fighting this treacherous battle is to identify who takes on which role. Each family member, by acknowledging, understanding, and taking accountability, can construct a therapeutic plan of action. Now, let’s understand how family roles hinder one’s addiction.

Just like a “non-addicted” functioning family, there are roles each person fills. When addiction enters the family unit, the roles shift, trying to maintain a balance in this new, unhealthy group. The major family roles include the addict (chemically dependent), the hero (the caretaker of the family), the enabler, the scapegoat, the lost child, and the mascot. While the addict lies within the center of everyone’s attention, the enabler essentially provides the addict with the financial, emotional, or even physical (driving them to pick up drugs) aspects to support their disease. Enabler’s feelings consist of helplessness and guilt, and often these codependent roles are filled by a parent, partner, or spouse. The lost child role is the one whose life is put on the back burner, as the addict’s role has taken precedent over everything else. Those who embrace this role are normally filled with resentment, anger, and loneliness, as their emotional and physical needs are not being met. Often, a sibling will take on the role of a scapegoat as a way to cope with their drug-addicted loved one. This person is known to act out and draw attention to themselves in an unhealthy, distracting manner, as they are weighed down with feelings of emptiness, shame, and guilt. Finally, the mascot diverts attention away from the underlying problem of addiction, using humor as a distraction while attempting to alleviate the constant stressors that accompany their loved one’s addiction.

The disease of addiction has the potential to tear a family apart from the inside out. The addict can be viewed as untrustworthy and undependable. At times, drug addiction can lead to the addict lying, cheating, and stealing from their own loved ones to support their habit. Stress builds and fights break out, and what once was a healthy, loving family unit is easily turned into a family just trying to emotionally and physically survive from day to day.

The Interpersonal Destructions of Addiction
A number of recent studies have revealed exactly how addiction can wreak havoc within a family. The National Institutes of Health (2016) noted that parents who are addicts severely impact their children by replacing their parental responsibilities with using drugs and maintaining their addiction. Not cooking meals, forgetting about meetings with teachers, ignoring homework, not monitoring their child’s social circle, and just being detached from their child’s life has a damaging consequence. It has a rippling effect, as the NIH (2016) explains children of addicted parents are extremely vulnerable to following the same unhealthy path of living unstable lives and falling into addiction themselves. They are susceptible to poverty, teen pregnancy, and unhealthy behaviors including drug use and addiction. A pregnant addict’s drug use impacts their unborn child’s weight, eating and sleeping habits, cognitive abilities, and developmental milestones. As the child grows, they are vulnerable to learning disabilities and social problems. As you can see, this cycle is vicious and reoccurring, and it can easily be passed on from one generation to the next.

There is Hope, There is Help
All families of addicts require professional, therapeutic assistance. First and foremost, they must all learn how to accept and embrace the fact that none of them caused their loved one’s addiction, none could control their loved one’s addiction, and none of them can cure this cunning disease. The light at the end of this addiction tunnel is treatment. While emotional, financial, physical, and psychological damages are left from the storm of one’s addiction, there is hope. Many studies and treatment models have revealed that family members must not only get treatment as a family unit, but must also receive therapeutical services on an individual basis. Addiction is a family disease, and even though a family’s turmoil may have begun with their loved one’s addiction, they all have a responsibility to themselves and to their loved ones to learn healthy thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to support a road to recovery and abstinence.

Recovery is a lifelong journey. It may have started as an individual problem, but it has the potential to evolve into a beautiful family passage.

Karen Corcoran-Walsh, CAP, ICADC, MFT, ASAM is nationally known as an expert in the treatment of mental health and drug or alcohol abuse and addiction, also known as Dual Diagnosis, with a specialty in working with teenagers. Renowned as an adolescent addiction treatment center professional, she has worked in the professions of education and drug treatment for approximately 20 years. Karen is the co-founder of Inspirations For Youth And Families, LLC an adolescent treatment program and The Cove Center For Recovery, LLC an adult addiction treatment center.