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How Abuse and Dependence Affects Family Relationships

Abuse and dependence are family system problems. That is, the problem affects the entire family; what happens to one family member happens to all.   

People living in such families “live in a whirlwind” of stress and crisis. 

Their lives focus on the abuser’s substance-related behavior, whether it is coming home drunk or stoned, throwing up or hitting them, losing jobs and money, failing to carry through with any range of responsibilities, breaking promises or embarrassing them in front of friends and neighbors.  

You are not alone, I am there myself.  My spouse is a long-term addict who is in forced VA treatment and has been barred from my home. I have experienced all of the following themes characterizing families of substance abusers.  

There are at least eight themes that characterize the families of people who are substance dependent: 
1.      First, the abuser’s use of his or her substance of choice becomes the “most important thing in the family’s life.” Because the abuser’s top goal is getting enough of the substance, other family members must structure their own behavior around this.

2.      Second, family members strive to keep the family together even when conditions are deteriorating due to the abuser’s behavior.  The unknown is scary. At least they know what the current conditions are, regarding the bad.

3.      Third, family members often act as enablers for the abuser’s substance use.  Enablers assume increasing responsibility for maintaining family functioning and making excuses on the abuser’s behalf (e.g., calling in sick for the abuser at work when the real problem is a hangover or coming down). In essence, this role enables the dependent person to continue consuming the substance, yet assume less and less responsibility for the consequences of that behavior.

4.      Fourth, “family members often feel tremendous guilt.”  They think that they are at fault.  The addicted person keeps denying responsibility and someone must be held accountable, so family members often take the blame.

5.      Fifth, family members often “do not know what they want.” Their lives are centered on the addicted individual.  They only know what the addict wants.  That is the focus of attention.  Most family members are trying to hold onto their sanity and to keep themselves and the family from going under.

6.      Sixth, “family members feel worthless.” They feel as though no one cares for how they feel or for what they want.  They feel profoundly inadequate and unlovable…and somehow they feel as though…it is all their fault anyway.  This would not be happening to them if they were better persons. This is all they deserve.  This is the best they can get.

7.      Seventh, family members do not trust others.  They have been disappointed so many times by the dependent person’s behavior that they cannot afford to dream about things getting better. They avoid discussing the problems with others inside or outside the family. They do not want to rock the boat.

8.      Eighth, family members “have poor communication skills.” They learned a long time ago the credo of the addict the credo of the addicted family: “Don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.” These individuals do not talk to their friends or other family members.  They are cut off from everyone.  They feel afraid of open communications.  If they talked openly, then the truth may come out and the family would be destroyed.  

There are no easy solutions for either the addict or the family.  ONLY the addict or alcoholic is responsible for his or her actions, not you.  You can only control how much you will accept of their behaviors and actions before you have to save your own sanity or life. 

Unless your addict is a child, stop mothering grown men and women.  Make them responsible for their own addictions or make them seek treatment even if you have to force the issue as I did.

The addict has an illness, not a disease; - it is curable with total abstinence.  An addict on relapses when he or she decides to put the substance in their bodies – garbage in and garbage out. I am not saying that is an easy process because that would be an illusion. 

What I am saying is that the addict needs a total wake-up call – let them know exactly what their lives will be like without your family. Most addicts have lived on the street, homeless, eating out of garbage cans, sleeping under bridges, living in abandoned houses and standing in line at the local food kitchen at some time in their addiction.  The all-consuming need for the next fix or drink.

You cannot force the addict to stop using or into treatment but you can save yourself. Call any domestic violence shelter or hotline, seek therapy for you and your children, remove the addict from your lives, and make sure they have a year clean before you even talk about reconciliation. 

You are the master and commander of your own ship and those of your children – make the addict walk the plank and be responsible for him or herself.  Remember, you are not alone.  
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