Addiction is a family disease. We know that is a challenging statement for some to read. Allow us to explain how each person within the family system plays a role with addiction, and how this might look for the family system. We invite you consider how the family is like that of a mobile that hangs atop of a crib, when one piece is yanked down (E.g., the addict), the remaining pieces go up. Every system (including the family) wishes to return to or be at homeostasis – or stability. When a loved one is in addiction, this ramps up the behaviors of the rest of the family members. Allow us to elaborate.
The Addicted person is actively creating chaos and turmoil in the household. They may be isolated and afraid, or they might be trying to burn the building down with them in it. The addicted individual will perhaps blame everyone around them, be extremely unpredictable, and keep everyone in the family ‘on edge’. They may not take ownership or even worse, be in denial of the severity of not just their addiction, but their maladaptive behaviors and patterns.
The Enabler within the family is typically in denial as well. This denial allows the system to have a false portrayal of things being ‘just fine’. They will perhaps feel that giving their addicted love one money or a method to keep drinking or drugging will actually help the problem. They may even turn a blind eye to the problem. The enabler will co-sign a loved one’s behaviors and make excuses for their behaviors. Boundaries tend to be non-existent with the enabler. This is usually a parent or perhaps a significant other.
The Hero is the individual who makes the family look good on the outside and actively tries to bring the family together. They work hard, make money to provide for, and even excel at academics. Some clinicians endorse this is the oldest child of the family typically. The ‘hero’ has a tendency to wish to be perfect, to do everything right, and feels immense amount of pressure to perform. This stress creates strain on the family as well, and can lead to blow-outs, meltdowns, isolation, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health disorders.
The Scapegoat is blamed for problems that they more than likely did not create. This takes the focus off the addict but creates problems for them. The scapegoat may struggle in school academically, receive harsher punishments out of their siblings, ascribes to “negative attention is still attention”, and may be viewed as the weak link. The scapegoat takes the brunt of emotional turmoil and develops a very thick skin but represses their emotions as a result.
The Mascot is often funny, will do anything for a laugh, and is often immature. The humor is ‘masking’ the pain beneath the smile. One way to avoid the pain is through the comedy and humor they display while making others smile. They will also use their humor to hide or help other members in the family’s pain – especially during the chaos of addiction. They tend to be a follower and will do what other members in the family ask them to do.
The Lost Child has been forced to not speak, not feel, and not trust as a result of the family disease of addiction. They are avoidant and often feel misunderstood. They can suffer from depression, while isolating due to feeling like a burden on the family system. They more than likely do not discuss alcohol or drugs in the family for fear of repercussions. They tend to feel neglected and have deep-seeded anger with the family.
Written by Dina Sagarese-Coleman & Brandon Lutman
Brandon Lutman is a current Florida Atlantic University Graduate Student in the School of Social Work and is a Clinical Social Work Intern. Brandon works for multiple mental health agencies where he provides individual and group therapy. He holds a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a former adjunct professor in Criminology at Old Dominion University. He is currently working towards completion of his Certified Addiction Professional (CAP) certification and is undertaking the Certified Clinical Trauma Professional (CCTP) and Certified Complex Trauma Professional (CCTP-II) trainings.