Help for Families of Addicts
Information About Enabling, Codependency, and Addiction in Family Relationships
Discover how and why to get help. For families of addicts, support is available and often easy to find. You can take steps to deal with your loved one's addiction and remedy your codependent relationship.
You don't have to deal with a family member's substance abuse, alcoholism, or compulsive behavior alone. Even if you're finding it difficult to stop enabling, addiction doesn't have to prevent you from finding peace or achieving your own goals. You deserve a better path forward, one that can benefit you as well as your loved one.
That's why it's worth informing yourself and looking into nearby counseling options or other possibilities for help. Support groups and other resources are available for loved ones of addicts. You can learn how to stop being an enabler so that your addicted family member can begin taking responsibility.
Or, if you're ready to look at treatment options for your loved one or yourself, then start seeking help right now.
Addiction and Family Dynamics
Having an addicted friend or family member is one of the most painful situations any of us can experience. It dramatically changes the course of our lives, and it's never forgotten. More of us are in this situation than you may think. For example, about 46 percent of American adults have had a close friend or family member with an addiction to drugs (Gramlich, 2017). And alcoholism and behavioral addictions negatively impact countless families. Children of alcoholics number in the tens of millions. That leaves an overwhelming number of family members who have been impacted by someone else's substance abuse or compulsive behavior. Consequently, just as addicts can reach out, find treatment, and discover a community of people who have "been there," so can their loved ones. Treatment and support groups for families of addicts offer the reassurance of not being alone in the struggle.
A great many issues arise when you must deal with an addicted loved one. They're a function of the relationship, deep connection, and love—all of which are powerful and positive forces. They not only contribute to our joy, but also, in certain circumstances, to our despair. But having relationships is in our nature as human beings. We need each other. Relationships give meaning to our lives, sustain us, and sometimes break our hearts. It is all part of life, family, and love (Melody, 2009). We cannot help but be seriously impacted by a loved one's addiction. That's why it's vital to find good help for families of addicts.
The Needs of Those Who Love and Care for Addicts
The families of drug addicts, alcoholics, and those suffering from compulsive behavior have their own needs and concerns. Even after an addict is safely in recovery, many friends and family members continue to have significant distress. Some have been traumatized by the addict's behavior or by the consequences that have resulted from it. Most have had a prolonged period of high stress, often fearing for the safety of the addict and—during the worst times—expecting news of his or her death at any moment. Here are some of the issues that loved ones typically encounter:
- Stress-related physical issues
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Anger and resentment
- Financial problems
- Conflict in the family
- A need to process what has happened and is still happening
- A need for reassurance that they have taken the appropriate actions
- Fear of the addict's relapse
- How to help an addict without enabling him or her
- How to set and maintain healthier boundaries
- How to move on despite the addict's condition and behavior
What Does "Codependent" Mean? Is It the Same as Being an Enabler?
The personal concerns and issues of loved ones are typically second to their focus on the addict's condition and needs. There is often an obsessive focus on the addict, causing a loved one to neglect a focus on his or her own personal needs for an extended period of time. This is a function of love, anxiety, fear, personality traits, and distorted notions about one's self. When a loved one has been in crisis—and, perhaps, in danger—it is natural to focus on what can be done to help.
As in all crises, we do the best we can with the information and resources we have available to us. But friends and families of addicts often don't have everything they need in order to help effectively. When this is the case, enabling or codependency can occur (as opposed to effective helping). Enabling is another word for codependency. The root word dependency is the key to understanding these concepts.
When loving and helping go wrong, we can prolong the problems of loved ones by mistake (Miller, 1988/2008). They become dependent upon us for the wrong things. For example, enabling (or codependency) involves doing for others what would be helpful and appropriate for them to do themselves. It also involves accepting the unacceptable from an addict. Enabling behavior includes things like looking the other way, ignoring problems, "walking on eggshells," trying not to "rock the boat," and ignoring "the elephant in the room."
Also, the enabler (or codependent) is dependent upon the addict. Personal needs are satisfied by taking care of a compromised person. An enabler feels needed, important, competent, and more secure when in a relationship with someone in need. A fear of abandonment and loneliness is soothed for the enabler when caring for the addict.
All of this is done with good intentions and is meant to make the problem of addiction more manageable. However, enablers take responsibility for the addict, which disempowers him or her. An addict needs to take responsibility for getting better or else problems continue and worsen. Also, it is important to talk openly about the addict's behavior and condition rather than trying to avoid upset. Without speaking the truth of what is happening, we join in the denial of addiction, which prolongs it. Consequently, loved ones of addicts often have to correct their approaches in order to fully learn how to help. It can be a difficult process. So much of enabling and codependent behavior comes from unconscious issues and motivations (Curry, 2011).
Family Roles in Addiction
A great deal of work in addiction treatment has been dedicated to the families of addicts—how to help them and how to assist them in helping their struggling loved ones. As a result, many roles have been identified that help people cope with and adapt to addiction in the family.
Identifying a person's family role is helpful when it comes to assessing the impact of a loved one's addiction. It helps family members understand how to modify their own behavior in order to recover and have successful lives themselves. It also helps them learn how to appropriately support the addict's recovery.
Loved ones who are on the road to healing their own pain can begin by identifying how they have positioned themselves in relation to the addicts they care about. Invariably, they tend to adopt roles in one of four categories. They include:
- The Responsible One—This person is the "hero"—the hard worker. He or she will work hard to save the family through high achievement, taking care of things, and having no needs or demands placed upon the rest of the family. People in this role try to assume responsibility for others and their problems while putting themselves second.
- The Adjuster—This person shifts and changes to adapt to any situation but has no real connection to the family problems or to his or her own wants or needs. This is done to "fade into the woodwork" and to not be a focus of attention or any trouble. His or her needs are suppressed, resulting in few personal goals and little independent life direction.
- The Placater—This family member tries to please others, to distract them, and to make people happy. He or she may act as the clown, the peacemaker, or the "smoke screen" when people get too involved in the problems of an addicted loved one.
- The Acting Out Person—This person is the rebel, the troublemaker, the bully, or the scapegoat. He or she attempts to draw negative attention and expresses the chaos, anger, or sorrow of the situation. This is an attempt to "wake up" everyone else to how bad things are. (Black, 2001; Reiter, 2014)
Codependency Symptoms Within the Families of Addicts
Recovering from enabling and codependency requires time, effort, and an exploration of your own issues in your relationship with the addict. Here are some symptoms that many family members of addicts often display. These are chronic and often become exaggerated and problematic, leading to significant distress:
- Attempting to be in control
- Difficulty trusting others or one's own instincts and perceptions
- Difficulty speaking and acting upon one's feelings, thoughts, and perceptions
- Fear of abandonment
- Low self-esteem
- Dependence upon others
- High tolerance for inappropriate behavior
- Over-responsibility for others
- Neglecting one's own needs
- Sacrificing one's own happiness
- Reacting to others rather than independently choosing a course of action
- Having ungrieved losses
- Difficulty handling feelings
- Difficulty resolving conflict, giving love, and receiving love (Adapted from Black,1999; Melody, 2009 and Whitfield, 2007)
Drug-Addicted Parents and the Effects on Their Children, Plus Other Causes of Codependency
Many family members of addicts ask, "How did I become an enabler?" Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. But there are likely suspects. One of the most helpful places to start getting information is from the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) movement and related literature (Whitfield, 1987/2006).
The concept of "adult children" began in alcoholism recovery programs geared toward family members. The term refers to adults who grew up as children of alcoholic parents and, as adults, are still significantly affected by that experience (Woititz, 1983). "Adult Child...means that when confronted, we regress to a stage in our childhood" (ACA WSO, 2012). This concept has been expanded over the years. And it's been adapted by people who had different, but similar, experiences. For example, you might hear people describe themselves as:
- An adult child of an alcoholic/addict—This refers to a person who grew up around a parent who was an alcohol, crack, cocaine, meth, or heroin addict or abused other substances such as benzos or prescription painkillers. It can also refer to having been a kid with a parent who was addicted to gambling, sex, or porn or had other behavioral addictions.
- An adult child of a dysfunctional family—This refers to a person who grew up in a family in which the needs of its members were not met appropriately. For example, a person might have grown up around specific problems in the family such as incarceration, mental illness, or some other impairment that significantly impacted the home.
The adult child concept is helpful to most people. In fact, as many as 70 to 80 percent of Americans may come from dysfunctional families. A dysfunctional family is one that doesn't provide what its members need for their well-being, emotional growth, and development. In contrast, a functional family "teaches children how to think clearly and act responsibly, to understand their feelings, and relate to others in a healthy way" (Gorski, 1993).
Certain mental characteristics are common to almost all people who come from a dysfunctional family system, and each person will have a certain mix of them. Some characteristics involve thoughts and beliefs about self, others, and the world that are unhelpful and that negatively affect the quality of one's relationships and life in general. Such thinking distortions create a great deal of difficulty. Examples of common thinking distortions in dysfunctional families are:
- Mind reading—Assuming you know what others think and feel even when they haven't expressed themselves, and expecting others to know what you think and feel without telling them.
- Catastrophizing or "awfulizing"—Expecting the worst in any situation, predicting awful events in the future without evidence, "waiting for the other shoe to drop," being pessimistic about the future, "making a mountain out of a mole hill," and over-reacting.
- Black-and-white thinking—Being unable to see the middle ground or "shades of gray," feeling and acting "all or nothing," thinking "you're with me or against me," feeling that things are either terrible or wonderful, and other types of beliefs based on extremes and opposites with nothing else in between.
- Jumping to conclusions—Making quick judgments and assumptions without full information or communication. (Adapted from Cameron, 2013; O'Doherty, 2009).
Children develop those kinds of thinking distortions as coping mechanisms when experiencing chaotic, painful situations. After all, they usually have an immature understanding of those circumstances. The result in adulthood is that these thinking patterns continue to operate automatically. Below are examples that demonstrate how thinking distortions can affect one's entire experience, including how you relate to yourself, others, and the world at large:
Thoughts about self—Involves having a tendency to "beat yourself up," be your own worst enemy or critic, feel low self-esteem or a sense of worthlessness, and think of yourself as unlovable or less than others.
In adulthood—People with such thoughts and beliefs will typically have "one way street" relationships in which the other person receives more and gives less. They will accept poor treatment from others because they think they do not deserve more, that no one else will love them, or that all relationships are this way (Minty, 2013).
Thoughts about others—Entails thinking that others cannot be trusted, so it's not safe to be close to them. These thoughts usually involve fears of abandonment, abuse, rejection, and humiliation. Also, previous experiences with such painful situations have usually led to these beliefs.
In adulthood—These beliefs lead to loneliness, emptiness, isolation, depression, and despair. The thoughts suppress natural feelings and desires, and needs are not communicated. One feels trapped—wanting closeness and safety in good relationships, but afraid and confused about closeness. One is prone to having relationships with people who meet the negative expectations of being untrustworthy, abandoning, unreliable, demeaning, abusive, and rejecting.
Thoughts about the world—These thoughts add to the challenge of trusting or having satisfying and meaningful relationships with others. Dysfunctional family members learn not to trust closeness because they believe they'll feel disappointment or something worse—rejection or abuse. A sense of helplessness is conveyed, along with a sense that life is a struggle—often a fruitless one in which a person cannot expect happiness, security, and comfort.
In adulthood—Thoughts like "it's a dog-eat-dog world," "people are only out for themselves," "life is hard," "no matter how hard you work you'll never get ahead," and "the world is a dangerous place" are common. These thoughts negatively affect one's life goals and direction. For example, pursuing a desired career or education, leaving a bad situation, or confronting someone's addiction might seem useless. Many are afraid to risk change since they feel helpless and incapable, believing that the world will defeat them or that improvement is only a dream, not a reality.
Common Emotional Issues for People Who've Had an Addict in the Family
On the one hand, the emotions of people who grew up in dysfunctional families are intense and sometimes out of control. On the other hand, their emotions can become frozen or suppressed. Two of the chief emotional experiences are fear and anxiety. Adult children typically have a great deal of both every day. There are many specific types of fears, but some of them include fears about speaking in front of others, taking tests or doing job assignments, and being alone or going into new situations. Many use avoidant behavior to protect themselves from uncomfortable feelings. For example, they may complain of not feeling well or report other emergencies to avoid certain situations.
Fear and anxiety are natural feelings, but when they interfere with the life you want to have, that is a problem. For example, some people avoid taking appropriate risks like pursuing happiness, expressing themselves, and getting close to others. They suppress feelings and become rigid in their avoidant behavior. Similarly, problems are created at the other end of the spectrum. Some people become over-involved with others, do not control their emotional expressions, and have poor interpersonal boundaries, quick involvements, and conflict.
People who display behaviors of enabling and codependency often seek some type of control over others and situations so that their own uncomfortable feelings can be managed. Their actions may include compulsive behaviors like cleaning, shopping, substance use, and gambling. Or they may include submissive and people-pleasing behavior, overly responsible caretaking behavior, or dominating behavior.
Finding Peace: How to Stop Being an Enabler
Families and friends of addicts have a great deal to cope with. For example, they may have to accept that a loved one who is ill will not get better, which is difficult. However, many people are in this position. A lot of addicts relapse or won't sober up at all. When you're married to a drug addict (or any other kind of addict)—or when you're the child, parent, sibling, or other kind of family member of an addict—you wonder how long to hang in there and what to do. Sadly, many people find themselves working far harder to save their addicted family members than those whom they're trying to help ever will. Ultimately, no one can "fix" another person. And it's important to take care of yourself. Choosing when to stop helping your loved one will have to be your own decision. Here are some questions to help you sort out the personal costs:
- Is this consuming me?
- Is this causing damage to my marriage, career, children, household, finances, or mental or physical health?
- Am I able to live as I want to live—in accordance with my own goals, plans, standards, and values—and continue as I have been?
- Within reason, are my needs and desires being met?
Recovering from the impact of another's addiction involves acceptance of how your life is being affected and acting upon that. The focus has to shift from how to help an addict to how to help yourself, which is perfectly appropriate. Rather than living as a reactor to what the addict does, you can choose what your actions are according to your hopes, dreams, values, goals, and plans. This requires "detaching in love" and creates an atmosphere that's more conducive to healing than one of turmoil, anxiety, high emotion, and enabling (Melody, 2009).
Detaching in love and re-focusing on your own life is beneficial even when the addict is recovering. It helps establish healthy boundaries and a balance in your life as well as in your relationship (Katherine, 1993/2000). Having better boundaries intact will support the addict's recovery process and your own (Katherine, 2000).
Here is how to stop enabling an addict and start your own recovery:
- Educate yourself about addiction, enabling, and codependency.
- Communicate and express unconditional love and regard for the addict while maintaining firm limits.
- Refuse to give money, pay the addict's bills, or provide other resources such as housing and food.
- Be honest.
- Hold the addict accountable. Don't make excuses or justify or rationalize the addict's behavior. Address it directly.
- Follow through with the plan you've made and with anything that you've told the addict you will do related to limits and boundaries.
- Encourage treatment and express hope for recovery efforts.
- Be prepared to follow the steps of your own plan. (Adapted from Curry, 2011)
Treatment and Support Groups for Families of Drugs Addicts or Loved Ones With Other Types of Dependencies
There are many resources online for the spouses, partners, children, and parents of addicts. Some are listed here:
- Anonymous codependency support
- Codependency quiz to find out if you are codependent
- General information on codependency—also here
- Signs of a codependent relationship
- Codependency Anonymous 12 Step program
- Codependency Anonymous online 12 Step program
- Adult children of alcoholics screening quiz
- Adult Children 12 Step program
Treatment centers for addiction and professionals in outpatient settings can make recommendations about counseling. Most communities also have self-help groups for loved ones of addicts.
ACA WSO. (2012). Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families (Kindle version). ACA WSO Inc.
Black, C. (1999). Changing Course: Healing From Loss, Abandonment and Fear. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Black, C. (2001). It Will Never Happen to Me: Growing Up with Addiction As Youngsters, Adolescents, Adults. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Cameron, L. (2013). "Stinking Thinking": Think well to live well. Taking on Maladaptive Cognitions and dealing with Cognitive Distortions. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Curry, D. (2011). First Aid for Enablers. The Rescue Mission.
Gorski, T. (1993). Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy (A Fireside/Parkside Recovery Book). NY, NY: Fireside.
Katherine, A. (1993/2000). Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin—How to Recognize and Set Healthy Boundaries. NY, NY: Fireside.
Katherine, A. (2000). Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day. New York: Fireside.
Melody, P. (2009). The New Codependency: Help and Guidance for Today's Generation. NY, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Miller, A. (1988/2008). The Enabler: When Helping Hurts the Ones You Love. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark.
Minty, J. (2013). The Ultimate Codependency Guide: How to Be Codependent No More and Have Healthy Relationships for Life (Kindle version). Joy Publishing and Marketing Corporation.
Gramlich, J. (2017). Nearly half of Americans have a family member or close friend who’s been addicted to drugs. Retrieved 2019 June 11 from Pew Research Center.
O'Doherty, K. (2009). The Little Book of Thinking Errors: A Self Help Guide to Changing Unhelpful Thoughts [Kindle Edition]. Cognitive Therapy Books.
Reiter, M. (2014). Substance Abuse and the Family. NY, NY: Routledge.
Whitfield, C. (1987/2006). Healing The Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
Whitfield, C. (2007, November 29). Core Issues in ACA Recovery. Retrieved from 21st Annual ACA Convention in Lake San Marcos, Ca.
Woititz, J. (1983). Adult Children of Alcoholics. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.