Guest post by a contributor:
The disease of addiction is so incredibly harmful because it extends beyond the realm of the afflicted person’s body and can alter the fabric of relationships, families, and even communities. Addiction is often called a family disease because those closest to the person with addiction tend to suffer deeply. Children, spouses, and other relatives that live in households with them may suffer from anxiety, depression, and addiction as a result of their tainted relationship with the addicted person and the unhealthy family dynamics they experience. The most common symptom of this disease that affects family members is codependency.
What is Codependency?
“Codependency” is one of the most common conditions to arise in families of addicted people. Codependency is a learned behavior that occurs in dysfunctional relationships, among family members or between spouses. It involves one person learning to repress emotions and disregard their own needs to satisfy another person’s requirements– typically the person with substance addiction. Codependent people find a sense of purpose in ensuring other people’s health, welfare, and safety before their own, subordinating their individual needs, desires, and knowledge of self-worth to the person with addiction’s well-being.
Codependent relationships arise when people are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that a problem exists. They don’t talk about or confront the issue, and as a result, learn to repress their emotions and disregard their own needs. This could manifest itself in a spouse putting up with the occasional violent outburst, to a child believing good grades is the only way to make their addicted parent happy. However the codependency arises, it usually creates an identifiable set of traits and characteristics in those afflicted.
People with codependency typically have low self-esteem and look for external ways to make themselves feel better. They receive a sense of satisfaction and external appreciation when they cater to the wishes of others, such as the addicted person, or when they achieve some form of recognition. Codependent people often develop chronic addictions themselves, whether it be as alcoholics, workaholics, or sexaholics. Some common signs include an exaggerated sense of responsibility for others, an extreme need for approval and recognition, a lack of trust in others, difficulty with intimacy, poor communication skills, and difficult decision making.
How Addiction Affects Children
Children of addicted people suffer from a range of emotional and behavioral problems that can last a lifetime and manifest in their children. Studies show that children of people with addiction are more prone to low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Infants children are also known to exhibit symptoms such as nightmares, bedwetting, and uncontrolled crying. Growing up, these children may find difficulty forming friendships or exhibit traits such as perfectionism, isolationism, and debilitating shyness.
In school, children from families afflicted by addiction may have problems with either working too hard or performing poorly. If the child of an addicted person has trouble finding peace in their household, they may have difficulty completing coursework and retaining knowledge. Conversely, they may treat school as an outlet to distract them from problems at home. This could manifest itself in a perfectionist approach to school that has them placing undue stress and importance on their grades or reputation at school.
Children of addicted people are more likely to grow up and become addicts themselves if they are unable to identify and solve these behavioral problems. Because of their difficulty in trusting those closest to them, they often have trouble forming healthy relationships. They learned growing up that if they love someone, that person will hurt them as their parents did. Frequently, the children of people with addiction will grow up to choose addicted people as mates, continuing the cycle.
How Addiction Affects Spouses
Codependent partners will often find themselves under tremendous stress and anxiety, leading to feelings of self-hatred and self-pity. In the case of an addicted person who cannot take care of themselves or their family, responsibility will fall to the codependent partner who is likely unable to handle the immense pressure. Partners of addicted people may have difficulty leaving or setting boundaries because they do not wish to be rejected or hated by their partner. They may even fear physical violence.
Addiction can cause a relationship to strain from the financial and emotional pressure of putting up with an addiction. Unsurprisingly, addiction often ends in divorce. However, some families will put off divorce or allow an addicted person to continue feeding their addiction because they believe it is the best way to keep the family together.
Treatment for a Family Disease
Fortunately, just like there are programs to help addicts recover from their addiction, there are also programs to help family members of addicts recover. Nar–anon, Al–Anon, and Families Anonymous are all well-known groups that hold meetings around the U.S. to specifically deal with the issues faced by family members of addicts. Based on psychological research in the 1950s into the extent of addiction effects on family dynamics, these support groups exist to help through guidance and shared coping mechanisms.
(See the RecoverySI “Family 12-Step” series of articles for more help on this topic!)
Matthew Boyle is Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery drug and alcohol recovery center and has been working in the healthcare space for 7 years now with a new emphasis on recovery. After graduating from Duke University in 2011 Matthew went on to work for Boston Consulting Group before he realized where his true passion lies within Recovery. His vision is to save a million lives in 100 years with a unique approach to recovery that creates a supportive environment through trust, treatment and intervention