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Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at
(847) 498-5611.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.

Why Chemical Dependency is a Family Disease That Affects Each Family Member

ear Dr. Steve:

This is a terrible thing for a mother to say but it’s come to the point where I don’t know what else to do. I have agonized over this decision for the last three weeks but the time has come, either my son gets help or out he goes. The details aren’t important but his drug use is tearing our family apart. My marriage has been irreparably damaged. When this all started, my husband and I were there for each other. But in the last year, it’s all we can do to find a kind word to say to each other. He’s angry at me because he feels like what is going on is all my fault.

As for me personally, my emotional and physical health has deteriorated after doing everything I can think of to keep this family from falling apart. I’m on both anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. I’ve been in and out of the hospital 4 times in the last two years with a bleeding ulcer and resultant complications. The days that I’m not running around like a bat out of hell trying to do for everybody else, I feel so depressed I can barely get out of bed in the morning. I have become so obsessed with my son, that I’ve let the rest of my life fall apart. I stopped seeing my friends. I stopped taking classes. I don’t know how it happened, but I wound up all alone.

My husband and I have put so much time and energy into my son and all of his problems that we have nothing left to give to our two daughters and other son. As they have sensed our lack of attention, one daughter has responded by acting out. She’s hanging out with a new crowd of kids—a group I might add that neither my husband nor I approve of. Her performance in school has fallen off sharply. Truancy, which was never a problem in the past, has gotten totally out of control.   Although I suppose it was only a matter of time, a couple of months ago she actually ran away from home for two weeks.

My other daughter has responded by withdrawing from us. She spends more time than ever by herself in her room. She has become absolutely uncommunicative. A long conversation with her entails three grunts, a roll of her eyes, and a groan. As for her friends, she won’t go out with them anymore—doesn’t call them and won’t return their calls.

On the other hand my other son has been a lifesaver. He works so hard at school. His teachers can’t say enough good things about him. He’s never a problem around the house. The days that I’m struggling most, he steps right in and takes over. He helps me with the shopping, the cooking—he even does the laundry all by himself sometimes.

But back to my other son, I do love him. I know I’ve made my share of mistakes with him. But the rest of my family is going down the toilet. We just can’t go on like this anymore. What can I do?

Your letter bears testimony to the fact that chemical dependency, whether we’re talking about alcoholism and/or drug addiction, is a family disease. What this means in practical terms is that nobody is immune, nobody is unaffected by family alcoholism and drug addiction—NOBODY!

Just as abusing alcohol and other drugs erodes the physical, behavioral, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of the user, alcohol and other drugs abuse is also toxic to the physical, behavioral, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of each family member. Why? Being raised in an environment dominated by the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction places an enormous burden on each family member to adapt physically, behaviorally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually to the stress, chaos, and insanity caused by the disease of alcoholism. The adaptations that each family member must make may enable each family member to survive emotionally and psychologically, yet, at the same time, these adaptations may lead to other forms of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual dis-ease.

For instance, one way for a family member to cope with the stress and chaos created by family alcoholism is to deny that alcoholism exists in their family and, therefore, deny that this family member has been affected by another family member’s use of drugs and alcohol. There’s a reason that this happens. Instead of being aware of and grounded in the reality of alcoholism and the havoc that it wreaks, a family member may become vulnerable to having their reality misshaped and distorted by the denial system of the alcoholic and/or the enabler. The more a family member’s perceptions are distorted by the denial system of the alcoholic and/or the enabler, the less able that family member is to:
1.) Accurately judge what normal is
2.) Accurately assess what is happening in a given situation
3.) Trust with any strength of conviction their perception of a given situation
4.) Assertively claim their viewpoint of a given situation

The less confident and reliant a family member is on their perceptions, the more dependent that family member becomes on another person’s explanation for what is happening. The more the family member’s perceptions are shaped and distorted by denial, rationalization, blame, minimization, and deceit, the more that family member comes to doubt themselves—what they see, think, and/or feel. The more a family member surrenders their viewpoint of a given situation the less they come to trust their perceptions and emotions. Because of their ever increasing distrust of what they think, feel, and say, the family member becomes more dependent on other people’s version of what they should think, do, say, and feel. As a result, the family member who uses denial as a survival mechanism is 1.) Vulnerable to being manipulated by others, 2.) Less able to assert themselves with other people, 3.) Unclear about who they are, 4.) Unsure of what they think and feel.

Another way for a family member to cope with the emotional turmoil caused by alcoholism and drug addiction is to emotionally shut down or numb out. Spared from experiencing feelings such as hopelessness, fear, shame, and despair, this family member may be emotionally insulated from their pain but at the same time cut-off from experiencing any of their other feelings. The more emotionally constricted one is, the less they are able to access their whole range of feelings. This may spare the family member from being overwhelmed by emotional pain, but, at the same time, they’re less able to feel joy, happiness, or love. Also, without having access to their emotions, the family member is less able to understand their choices as well as the impact that other people’s behavior has on them. As a result, the family member who numbs out or shuts down as a way of protecting themselves from the emotional devastation that alcoholism causes, denies themselves access to an important part of who they are as well as an important anchor to reality. And even more problematic is that without access to one’s feelings, a family member is unable to discharge the inevitable build-up of internalized feelings. This leaves the family member vulnerable to developing physical problems such as gastrointestinal distress, emotional problems such as anxiety and depression, and interpersonal problems such as loneliness, isolation, and fear of conflict, intimacy, and trust.

Still another way for a family member to cope with the insanity perpetuated by alcoholism and drug addiction is to behaviorally act out. This family member chooses acting out behaviorally because they need a way to release the internalized feelings that they are not permitted to express verbally. They are not permitted to express their feelings because talking about what is happening in the family of an alcoholic is strictly prohibited. As a result, the emotions that this family member is experiencing become internalized and bottled up. So this particular family member is faced with a dilemma. Since this family member chooses not to shut down or numb out emotionally but at the same time chooses to be loyal to the don’t talk, don’t feel rules of the alcoholic family by not talking about their feelings, how might this family member best release and express their pent up internalized feelings such as hurt, anger, confusion, betrayal, shame, hostility, and alienation? The family member solves this bind of not denying feelings on one hand but not talking about what they’re feeling on the other hand by expressing behaviorally what they are not empowered to express verbally. Unfortunately for this family member, the way they most often choose to express their feelings behaviorally is by acting out. Although expressing feelings behaviorally may be essential to this family member’s mental health, such a strategy for expressing emotions inevitably creates problems for the acting out family member. As their acting out behavior escalates, eventually they will be in trouble at school, home, work, and/or with the law.

Another way to cope with family alcoholism is to withdraw from the family. Hopelessness and helplessness make this family member feel impotent. They come to believe that there is nothing that they can do or say to improve the situation. Feeling duped, misled, and even betrayed by other’s broken promises and failed attempts to make a deteriorating situation better, this family member retreats into their own world. Buoyed by the refrain, what’s the use, this family member is convinced that there is nothing that can be done to improve their situation at home. Unwilling to any longer trust others, not willing to be set up for more hurt and disappointment, this family member feels safest by withdrawing from their immediate family and friends. Unwilling to open up to anybody about what they’re feeling, this family member may become more and more consumed by anger and even self-hate caused by their own sense of impotence. No matter how much this family member believes themselves to be better off by keeping to themselves, their emotional and spiritual deterioration will escalate as they remain silently enraged, hopelessly depressed, and forever angry at the fates that dropped this family member into this family and this situation.

Another way to cope with the emotional, psychological, and spiritual
dis-ease caused by alcoholism is to be overly responsible. Being overly responsible imbues the family member with a mythical sense of control over the alcoholic, the circumstances created by alcoholism, and the overall well-being of themselves and the other family members. Because alcoholism is a disease about loss of control, behaving in an overly responsible manner enables the family member to avoid feeling powerless and out of control. Even if the overly responsible family member avoids feeling powerless and out of control, that does not mean that their life is not engulfed by those feelings. If a family member copes with family alcoholism by being overly responsible, they do so based on the false belief that they can control the drinker and his drinking, the environment and its chaos, and themselves and their emotions. But in actuality, being overly responsible is a method of self-sabotage rather than an effective way to cope with the disease of alcoholism. 

Similar to being overly responsible, a family member may cope with the emotional and spiritual fall-out of family alcoholism by overachieving. Although this may seem on the surface to be a healthy adaptation to family alcoholism, it is not without its pitfalls. If a family member overachieves at school, at work, at home, or in sports as a way of masking core feelings of shame, inadequacy, powerlessness, and self-hate, and as a means of avoiding their essential humanness and all that means about having limits, then that family member has set themselves up to believe that they are only as good as their next achievement or accomplishment. This causes them to define themselves by what they accomplish rather than who they are. Once their identity and self-esteem is tethered to winning the next race, getting the next A in school, winning the next big account at work, writing the next best seller, and/or being the best of the best, they create an emotional roller coaster ride for themselves that leaves them imprisoned to an insatiable need for the approval and admiration of others. Afraid to slow down long enough to feel what their feeling, terrified of having to get to know themselves, unwilling to confront the limits of what it means to be ordinarily human, this family member creates for themselves a life of perpetual motion, always looking for the next mountain to climb so as to avoid having to confront their core feelings of shame, powerlessness, inadequacy, and self-hate. Vulnerable to the inevitable emotional lows that are experienced when the bubble of their grandiosity pops, they become a merciless perfectionist and an unyielding taskmaster of themselves and others in order to not have to descend into the emotional depths of shame and self-loathing.

As I said previously, on the surface, there’s nothing harmful about any of these strategies. Simply put, they are survival mechanisms and to the degree that they enable a person to not be harmed by a toxic environment, then they have served their purpose. However, as effective as these survival strategies may be to insure the survival of each family member, they can be very damaging to the overall physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being of each family member. For oftentimes, these survival mechanisms become inflexible and maladaptive. Instead of being mechanisms to survive the insanity of family alcoholism, family members may begin to (mis)apply these survival mechanisms to circumstances of their life that have nothing to do with family alcoholism. When these survival mechanisms are rigidly used, inflexibly applied, and (mis)applied to circumstances that require a wider range of coping mechanisms, the family member will begin to sabotage their emotional and spiritual well-being. That is because once these survival mechanisms become rigid and habitualized, they usurp the family member’s free will. This means that the family member has less and less choice about the use of coping mechanisms that are appropriate to the specific situation rather than their survival mechanisms. As a result of this, fear-based, habituated means of avoidance replaces thoughtful, flexible responses to life’s circumstances. Sadly, when these survival mechanisms are applied by a family to developmental milestones, personal obstacles, the development of friendships and emotionally intimate relationships, spiritual development, and educational, recreational, and occupational challenges these survival mechanisms become a means of self-sabotage rather than tools for emotional and spiritual well-being.

That explains how chemical dependency, whether it is alcoholism or drug addiction, is a family disease. When the disease of chemical dependency is active in a family, each family member must adapt to its presence. Most family members adapt to the presence of chemical dependency by developing survival mechanisms as a way of coping with the toxic fallout of chemical dependency. These survival mechanisms are wonderfully adaptive to the stressors created by the existence of chemical dependency, however the potential exists for these survival mechanisms to become maladaptive if they become rigid, constricted roles by which a family member chooses to live their life.

No matter how much pain your family is in, it takes a lot of courage to take the stand you are about to take with your son! You and your husband are to be congratulated for beginning to take some action that will protect the well-being of your whole family! Let me give you an idea of what to consider doing for you and your family.

You can contact Al-Anon at:

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.
1600 Corporate Landing Parkway
Virginia Beach, Va. 23454
Tel # 757-563-1600
Fax # 757-563-1655
1-888-425-2666 for meeting information
Monday-Friday, 8am to 6 pm ET except holidays

You can contact Alateen at Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.:

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.
1600 Corporate Landing Parkway
Virginia Beach, Va. 23454
Tel # 757-563-1600
Fax # 757-563-1655
1-888-425-2666 for meeting information
Monday-Friday, 8am to 6 pm ET except holidays

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series—From Insanity to Serenity.

Pathfinder’s Checklist

1.) Contact a qualified healthcare professional who can help you assess your situation and evaluate what treatment approaches are available for your whole family.
2.) Encourage your children to talk to you and your husband about their feelings.
3.) Attend Al-Anon and Alateen meetings.
4.) Learn more about alcoholism and drug addiction.
5.) Develop the skills necessary to cope with your son’s alcohol and drug use.
6.) Work with a qualified therapist to help you and your family better understand the personal issues that have arisen as a result of living in an environment affected by alcoholism and drug addiction.
7.) Slowly but surely repair your marriage.



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