As an addict’s use spins out of control, what happens to the rest of the family? In families where one or both parents develop an addiction, certain “rules” about how to behave and how to survive develop alongside the addiction. In addition to these rules, family members take on roles that shore up the rules and help keep the dysfunctional system in place. While all families develop rules and roles, the difference in families that are impacted by substance abuse has to do with the rigidity with which the rules and roles are enforced. Stepping out of line, so to speak, is very threatening for families dealing with addiction: truth and openness threaten the disease of denial and secrecy.
The Rules of the Road
Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse have written extensively on family rules and roles in families affected by addictions. Leaders in the field of co-dependency and Adult Children Of Alcoholics (ACOA) issues, they have published numerous books exploring how addiction impacts each member of the family. They speculate that three overarching rules guide the emotional climate in a family dealing with addiction. These rules are unspoken but strictly enforced, and serve to maintain the addict’s ability to use:
- Don’t talk. Whether it was “don’t air your dirty laundry in public” or some other version of that expression, the rule amounts to the same thing: don’t talk about what goes on in our house. Don’t talk about what you see or hear at home. What happens in this house is private and private equals secret. The magical belief for children growing up in homes where drinking (and all the unpleasant fallout that can occur in homes where a parent is drinking) is happening is that if I don’t talk about it, it won’t happen again. In addition, when it comes to talking about the problem (the drinking or drug use) it is always a bad time: either the parent is under the influence or when he or she is not, no one wants to “spoil” the good moment by bringing up the “bad” times.
- Don’t feel. The focus on the substance and using trumps all else in a family dealing with addiction. Again, this is never discussed or agreed to, it just is. This means that everything else—all the mini-dramas of childhood—take a backseat to the grown up world and its needs. This leads to a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of missed ball games or dance recitals, or an embarrassing drunk parent at open house. Children learn to stuff those feelings because it isn’t emotionally safe (or sometimes physically safe) to express them.
- Don’t trust. The cycle of drinking and hangovers and sober periods of time leads to a number of different moods and behaviors by parents—different attitudes or behaviors about the very same issues or concerns, perhaps, could be shown depending upon the parent’s mood or level of intoxication. Bad report card? It might be a problem, but it might be just fine. And it might swing like a pendulum from one to the other over the course of an evening. Whether struggling with addiction or not, parents love their children and want to be good parents, so during times of clarity and optimism they often make promises: from the grand, “I’ll stop drinking” to the more mundane, “I’ll make it to your class play.” Children learn via broken promises and repeated disappointments that parents can’t be trusted. From this fundamental issue with trust that starts in the immediate family circle, broader issues with trust develop.
Where to Turn for Help?
Growing up under these three basic rules can wreak havoc with a person’s ability to form good relationships in adulthood. The foundation of a loving marriage, for example, would involve good communication and mutual trust. The “glue” that helps couples stay together involves the enjoyment of intimacy. These rules sit squarely in the path of achieving any of that. Having trouble feeling your feelings or trusting people around you can also interfere with career development and basic happiness and satisfaction with life. Anxiety is a natural result of feeling uncertain about trust and depression makes sense as a result of being unable to feel. The fallout from a childhood limited by these rules can invade many areas of life. The ACOA literature, ACOA or AlAnon meetings (if your community offers them) and psychotherapy all may offer some help. Search for ACOA links and websites, or codependency online. Melody Beattie’s books are popular workbooks for working through some of these issues. Many adults struggling with these issues turn to drinking or other substances to cope. The anger and frustration of becoming just like the parent who used can compound the problem. Eating disorders or sexual issues are also common, as the struggle to feel like you’re in control can be overwhelming. Many excellent resources exist, both online and in brick and mortar clinics, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. Help is available and therapy can be very effective with these issues.