Drug and alcohol addiction can be a debilitating, devastating condition, not just for the addict, but also for the spouses and families of the addict. Dealing with the addiction can put family members under extreme stress, and living in the intense emotional environment addiction causes can be quite traumatic.
While families have a remarkable ability to maintain homeostasis, the introduction of a drug or alcohol addiction into the family system can wreak havoc on its normal functioning. Often, communication breaks down and defense mechanisms, such as suppressing of feelings, rationalizing, intellectualizing, withdrawing, acting-out, self-medicating, and over-controlling, are used in response to the confusion and chaos caused by the addiction.
The progressive nature of addiction can lead to the development of enduring patterns that only perpetuate the addiction and enable the addict. Many families attempt to manage the addiction by avoiding conflicts and confrontation. Instead, they either ignore the issue or try to solve the problem for the addict, ultimately shielding the addict from the actual consequences of his or her actions. As the “elephant in the room” continues to grow, families become hyper-vigilant, imbalanced, and full of guilt and shame. Enabling and codependent behaviors become the norm, and the family falls into dysfunction.
These destructive coping mechanisms can eventually lead to serious problems both in the present and in later life. Children from the families of addicts, who often find themselves neglected, vying for attention, or forced into the role of a parent, enter adulthood carrying huge burdens and patterning their own family lives after their dysfunctional childhood families. Sadly, many end up stuck in a cycle of abuse and addiction.
Fortunately, many programs and self-help groups, including Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, exist for families of addicts, and most drug and alcohol treatment facilities offer programs geared toward families. With the right expertise and sincere commitment, it is possible to break the cycle of addiction and restore a healthy balance and order to family life.