“What is your understanding of addiction?”

This is a question I often ask family members who have a loved one with an addiction problem. The answer I get back can vary but the essence of the response usually goes as follows:

“An alcoholic is usually homeless and hides the bottle of drink in a brown paper bag”

“An alcoholic drinks every day”
“A drug addict is someone who injects heroin”

When we have a family member who has an issue with alcohol, drugs, gambling etc. life can often be chaotic and uncertain. We’re often unsure of what is actually going on with the person but something doesn’t feel right, or it might be very clear to us due to our own family history. For someone who is addicted, their need of a drink, drug or bet is a matter of survival and the resulting behaviours are often unpredictable. So, for someone living with this unpredictable behaviour what is life like?

Typically, the problem is creating a lot of stress in the home. Maybe the person with the addiction problem isn’t doing their share of childcare or paying bills. Maybe they’ve lost income or are into serious debt because of the addiction. Maybe they have gotten into legal trouble or they’ve embarrassed you at a family occasion. Any or all of these things can be happening. In return each family member may adapt a different role to cope with what is going on in the home.

The peacemaker will try to resolve conflicts between other family members. The fixer might try to cover up for the problem drinker by phoning in sick for them or lying about the problem to employers and friends. A child may get into trouble or over-achieve, giving the family something else rather than the real problem to focus on. Other family members may withdraw into their own world to avoid what is going on in the home. While these are the usual ways a family will try to cope with what traditional treatment services call the ‘elephant in the room’ it often enables the addiction to continue. How, you might ask?

Well, until the person really feels or becomes aware of the consequences of their addiction they live in a bubble of denial. Family members can often, without realising or meaning to, behave in a way that enables this behaviour to continue. If someone gets sick after coming home from the pub and someone else cleans up for them, if someone is too sick to go to work and a spouse calls in sick for them, if a parent covers up for their child are typical examples of enabling behaviour. While these are typical reactions to living with addiction it takes ownership away from the person with the addiction.

In part 2 of this blog I will discuss my top tips for living with addiction …….

For information on my family support counselling service click here