Why is Addiction a Family Disease?
Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease” because, like cancer, it spreads to others and can permeate the entire family. Parents, spouses and children all develop coping mechanisms to help, “fix” or protect the addict and to cope emotionally. These coping mechanisms are often unhealthy and can take on various forms including, but not limited to: lack of trust that prompts spying on or invading the privacy of the addict, denying that the addict has a problem by hiding the addiction from others or even oneself, feelings of shame and guilt, believing the addiction is their fault, putting the addict’s needs over their own, obsessing over the addict by incessant worry and concern.
When an addict seeks addiction treatment, it is also important for the family members impacted by the disease to seek help. Individual family members need to work on their own coping mechanisms, often discarding them and replacing them with new, healthier mechanisms. Common coping mechanisms that family members work on are enabling and rescuing.
Enabling is when a family member directly or indirectly supports the addict while they are in active addiction. This can take on the form of giving the addict money, advice, transportation and consolation. The enabler believes that helping the addict, through providing food or shelter for example, will keep the addict safe, alive and off the streets. The monetary and social support is a sign of acceptance to the addict and they continue using because they can. Many addicts actually need to “hit bottom,” such as losing family support, to be in a place of desperation and willingness to do anything to get better, including admission into addiction treatment.
Rescuing is a form of enabling but it also plays into the identity of the family member. The rescuer gains a strong sense of identity as the one who helps the addict. The rescuer can lose their own identity as they put the addict’s needs over their own. The social and personal activities that were previously important to the rescuer often become secondary because they are solely focused on the addict’s problems. When a family member has become very embedded in this role, addiction treatment for the addict may even threaten their identity. They realize that if the addict gets better, they may not need them or their help anymore.
Both rescuing and enabling are related to control – as the family member believes that they have the power to help the addict or change them in some way. Treatment plays an important role in helping the enabler and rescuer regain their identities and put themselves and their needs first again. They begin to realize that they cannot control the behaviors or actions of others, which becomes a very freeing experience.
Working on these three behaviors in the family system can start to significantly alleviate the damage caused by the disease of addiction. The Family Program at Synergy Group Services works on these and other behaviors that can be the first step toward overcoming the family disease of addiction. Synergy’s family program is imbued with extensive professional experience, training and personal experience in all areas of how the family is affected by the disease of addiction. The Family Program offers weekly individual therapy appointments, educational seminars on the disease of addiction and family group therapy sessions where members can overcome past issues and design strategies and action plans with each other. Through these offerings, families are able to identify old problems and practice new skills, allowing all participants to gain sound coping mechanisms to deal with the family disease of addiction.