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Updated: Aug 15, 2023

If you were to look in the window of a home where addiction was a problem and observe the dynamics between the various members of the family you might, at first, find it hard to decide which family member was 'the problem'...they'd probably all look a bit crazy to you as the outside observer. Most people know how addiction affects the addict but not everyone recognises the effect that living with addiction has on family members (or friends, co-workers, employers etc). It's a bit like being caught in a hurricane; unless you have quick access to a safe shelter you are in danger of being injured by the debris that flies around during the storm. Living with it long-term, particularly growing up in an addicted home, can cause you to become as emotionally sick as the addict. Your behaviour can become a bit chaotic but you don't have the obvious excuse of addiction to a mood altering substance to excuse your actions.

Living with addiction whether it's an addiction to drugs, alcohol or compulsive behaviour such as gambling or internet porn, is a fairly chaotic life and it's not unusual for someone to try and impose some order on the chaos by trying to control the external environment. In the case of alcoholism this might be someone who obsessively searches for hidden bottles around the house and pours the alcohol away in order to stop the alcoholic drinking. This behaviour is ultimately futile as the alcoholic will just buy more drink and probably get more clever about hiding it. In time, the non-addicted person loses sight of themselves and their needs, and becomes enmeshed with their addicted loved one. An addict in recovery will talk about the over-whelming compulsion to use/act out their addiction. The codependent person also experiences compulsion but in their case it is the compulsion to control the addict. Their focus moves from their own life and their obsession becomes controlling the addiction and somehow curing it. In the words of the wife of a chronic alcoholic " he's addicted to drink but I seem to be addicted to him!" This compulsion to control is very strong but it is totally might as well try and control the waves...addiction is always going to be stronger than our best battle plans. Once the person has become codependent in this way, it can seep out into other relationships too. In the case of a spouse it's quite likely that they will also try and control their children in this way. This won't be too much of a problem while the children are still young, but once they reach puberty they are likely to resist this control and rebel against it setting in train the dysfunctional relationship dynamics of their adult lives. A child growing up in addiction will quickly learn the lessons of caretaking, perfectionism, control, people pleasing etc and while these are adaptive at the time they will likely become maladaptive as the child grows into adulthood. Low self-esteem and an inability to recognise their own needs, let alone ask for those needs to be met are common problems among adult children of addicts.

I paint a very bleak picture but there is always hope of recovery, both from addiction and from the damage it does to those around the addict. Hard as it can seem if you are caught up in an addictive relationship but you must begin to focus on yourself. While you are focussed/obsessed with the addict and his behaviour you are keeping yourself busy with things over which you have no control. Here's the thing: YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ADDICT OR FOR HIS BEHAVIOUR. (I'm using 'him' here but it could just as easily be 'her'). You are only responsible for yourself and for any minor children in your care. You are not responsible for any other adults. While you have been busy trying frantically to change the addict in your life your own life and your behaviour have been getting more and more out of control. The only way to reverse this is to stop and turn the focus back on yourself and find out what your responsibilities are. Think about it; if you always make sure your husband gets up for work then he never has to take responsibility for doing so. If he sleeps in one morning because he's hungover then it's your fault not his (in his mind anyway). So you make sure it doesn't happen again by staying awake yourself or by getting up in the middle of the night to collect him or driving him to work because he's still over the limit etc etc. This solves the immediate problem of getting him to work but it doesn't make him any more responsible, in fact it does the opposite because it teaches him to sit around passively and wait for you to sort out his problems and while you're busy sorting him out he has no need to try and sort himself out. This handout from Alanon family groups illustrates the madness and futility very clearly A merry-go-round named denial

What might happen if you stopped taking responsibility for him? One of two things will happen; either he will step up and start taking responsibility or he won't. What will happen if he won't step up? That's the bit that's unknown and that's why it's so scary for so many codependent people. But, if he is never left to face the consequences of his actions then he will never learn that his actions have consequences, not just for him but for the people around him. By shielding him you are preventing him from growing. The merry-go-round will keep turning and you will get sicker and more tired until one day you'll realise that you're sick and tired of being sick and tired.

In order for you to recover, you need to begin to look honestly at yourself. You can do this in one-to-one counselling or in group work, or in both simultaneously. What you will discover is that your own behaviour hasn't always been the best. It can be very hard to realise and accept that although the addiction is not your fault, some of your reactions and behaviours have actually enabled it to continue. The very actions that seemed most helpful and even necessary aren't always the best or most productive and can be hard to let go of but with support and honesty you can find the courage to begin to change. You come to realise that the only person you can change is yourself but that when you make healthy changes then other changes begin to ripple out within your family. When you no longer are willing to clean up the addict's messes ( emotional and physical) they are then left to clean them up themselves and to finally feel the impact of how they've been behaving. You learn not to prevent a crisis if it is the natural consequence of the addict's actions and you also learn not to cause a crisis. It can feel very strange when the drama and chaos begin to ease and many codependents find themselves feeling very uncomfortable in calmness. This might be why many adult children of alcoholics marry alcoholics, because they are sub-consciously attracted to the familiar. This is also why alcoholism is referred to as a family disease as the behaviours are familiar and are passed down from generation to generation becoming the 'normal' for that family.

Recovery in one person within a family system can cause a change throughout the wider family and recovery ripples outward. Sometimes this can lead to the addict getting recovery too but there is no guarantee, but if the family wait for the addict to get recovery then they remain trapped with him in the cycle of addiction and they remain powerless to change. Families of addicts deserve a better life, they deserve to be happy and with help they can find happiness and peace regardless of whether the addict is active or in recovery.

We all only get one life and the best time for change is now. If you, or someone you know is suffering through the addiction of a loved one there is help available, please reach out and ask for it. There are Alanon family group meetings in most towns in Ireland as well as Gamanon and Naranon meetings. These are 12 Step meetings for families and friends of addicts, compulsive gamblers and alcoholics. They usually meet weekly, are totally anonymous and are free to attend. The Rise Foundation also offers support to families caught up in addiction.

If you would like to talk through your problems in a confidential setting I am contactable on 0862525132 or by email

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