Addiction is one of the most common diseases in the United States, as it directly impacts more than 21 million people. But those 21 million or so people are not the only ones who become affected by the disease of addiction. It is almost unheard of that a family with an active addict or an alcoholic comes out unscathed. That is because addiction is a family disease.
A Family Disease
So, what does that mean — a family disease? You can look at it two ways:
- The disease of addiction can be genetic, meaning that it can be passed down through generations and;
- Family members can develop poor physical, mental, and emotional problems as a result of their loved one’s addiction
There is no doubt that addiction itself is a disease. A disease is defined as something that causes structural or functional changes within the mind or body. When addiction is occurring, not only can the addict or alcoholic experience these physical and psychological alterations, but so can other members of the family as a result of trauma, abuse, anxiety, and more.
How is Addiction Genetic?
When we think of addiction as a family disease, we might immediately start thinking about the impacts active addiction has on a family and how it creates a disease-like atmosphere among members. All of that is true, but addiction is also considered a family disease because of its strong genetic components.
Studies show that addiction is caused by 50% genetics and 50% environmental factors. There is no specific gene that causes addiction, rather there are changes and alterations that can occur within genes that make a person more likely to become addicted to mind-altering substances in the future. And, since genes are passed down from one generation to the next, it is common to see the disease of addiction continue in newer members of the family.
On the other hand, however, addiction can remain in family systems because of environmental factors. For example, say the father figure in the family unit is an alcoholic. His poor coping skills and shortcomings as a result of his disease become learned behaviors to his children. Those children grow up and are predisposed to developing addiction as a result. If those children then become addicts or alcoholics, their children can do the same and so on. These patterns repeat themselves until someone in the family stops the continuation through going to therapy, abstaining from drinking and using drugs, and so on.
Genes and environment certainly influence the presence of addiction in the family. And when addiction is occurring, the family unit can quickly become dysfunctional to the point where everyone is acting and reacting toxically.
How Does Addiction Affect the Family?
It can be easy to point the finger at the addict and blame them for everything that goes wrong within a family unit. The truth of the matter is, however, no one is to blame. Addiction is a pervasive, destructive disease that holds no prisoners. Even the kindest, most compassionate families can fall into a cycle of dysfunction that brings their family right to the edge.
The addict or alcoholic in the family unit is going to be the one who creates the baseline for chaos and disruption simply because they are not of the right mind. The more they use, the more likely they are to spark arguments, fuel frustrations, challenge boundaries, and so on. Unless the family unit is skilled in combating the negative impacts of addiction, chances are they will quickly fall into some of the most common roles taken on by members of a family where addiction is present.
Family Roles in Addiction
The addict or alcoholic is the family member who is actively abusing drugs or alcohol. Their erratic, unpredictable behaviors create an environment of uncertainty and anxiety for the rest of the family unit, typically causing family members to begin a pattern of dysfunction with the following roles:
- The enabler — The enabler in the family is the individual whose behaviors allow for the continuation of the addict or alcoholic’s use. They may do things such as cover up for them when their use gets them in trouble, make excuses for their use, or give them money to purchase drugs or alcohol.
- The hero — The hero of the family is fueled by trying to give off the appearance that everything is fine, when in actuality, it is not. They may become overachievers and/or attempt to fix everyone’s problems so that the situation does not grow any worse.
- The scapegoat — The scapegoat is the member of the family who is always blamed for everything that goes wrong. They are constantly looked at like the “problem” of the family, which causes them to become withdrawn, resentful, and likely to become violent in the future.
- The mascot — The mascot is the class clown of the family. They are always trying to make light of the situation or make people laugh. This is a defense mechanism to distract from the pain that they are experiencing. Unfortunately, the mascot of the family is more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol in the future, as well.
- The lost child — The lost child is the child of the family who gets lost in the mix. The chaos of the family disease causes parents and other family members to lose track of the lost child. As a result, the lost child becomes significantly withdrawn, quiet, and antisocial. Similar to the mascot, the lost child of the family is at high risk for abusing drugs and alcohol as they grow older to cope with the pain they experienced in childhood.
The family unit can remain in this toxic cycle of dysfunction for as long as the addiction lasts — and sometimes even longer. The only way to truly break free from the disease of addiction is for the family to seek professional treatment or therapy that can provide them with the appropriate coping skills to move forward.
Family Recovery in Orange County, CA
If addiction is destroying your life, call ARI Recovery right now. We understand the challenges that everyone in the family can experience when a loved one is addicted. You do not need to continue on living a life where frustration, sadness, and anger prevail. Call us today to learn more about how we can help you and your loved ones overcome the disease of addiction.