Addiction is much more than a personal ailment; it is an illness that affects the entire family. Although the individual in active addiction faces personal impairment and the physical and psychological consequences of the disease, the addict’s family also undergoes significant dysfunction and impairment as a result of the addict’s behavior. Families cope with addiction in a number of different ways and are unique in their struggles. Many family members may urge their affected loved ones to seek help and may set healthy and appropriate boundaries in the home; however, in many cases, families find themselves wrapped up in codependent behaviors, unconsciously enabling the drug and alcohol use despite dire consequences within the home.
What is Codependency?
Codependency is a widely discussed and debated concept within the fields of psychology and mental health counseling. Although the term maintains its roots in addiction treatment, describing the enabling behaviors of family members, it has, in recent years, shifted beyond this limited scope to describe a wider array of emotional and behavioral consequences that result from one-sided, non-mutually satisfying, relationships and dependence on others for self-esteem and approval.
In regards to the addicted family system, codependency results from family members becoming overly enmeshed and disproportionately focused on the needs and behaviors of the addict, therefore neglecting personal needs and the overall health and wellbeing of the entire family unit. In this case, the family will often shut down and suppress feelings of anger, fear, or shame, resulting in a collective “survivor” mentality and a stalemate in healthy communication, boundary setting, and flexibility. Also, the codependent family dynamic often develops into an agonizing reinforcement loop where the addict’s needs are constantly maintained and enabled by the family unit and addictive behaviors are repeated in a seemingly endless cycle of dysfunction.
Breaking Free from Codependency
Stepping out of codependency requires courage and support. It is terrifying to watch loved ones face the destructive and potentially fatal consequences of addiction. Breaking free from the enabling family dynamic often times means that we must confront the fear of losing our spouse, our parent, our child, or loved one to the grips of addiction. We used to think that by tending to the erratic and destructive behavior of our addicted family member, we could at least keep an eye on him or her, making sure they were relatively safe in our care. We later realized, however, that the addiction itself was destroying both our loved ones and our family.
By gathering the support of others, via programs like Al-anon and Nar-anon, we come to develop a new hope for the future. We begin to learn how to balance the fine line between acceptance of addiction and the need for change in how we interact with it. If appropriate, we can continue to encourage our loved ones to seek treatment. Once in treatment, we can often find our own support through family counseling services or family programs provided through the facility. As we continue to develop ongoing support, we learn to set healthy boundaries and limits in our relationships and begin to find a new sense of flexibility and freedom in our lives.