Think of your family as a circus troupe with its own mini structure. There is division of labour, responsibilities, and roles that are assigned to each member which determine the success of the overall machine. Like that travelling show, the ease of functioning, success, and longevity of the production depends on a number of factors, including: each member’s expectations, how they all communicate, how conflict is managed, and how all the members interact with the outside world.
Spending extended time on the road, performing and interacting with the public together will shape the personality and behaviour of each member. And likewise, any change in part of the troupe will affect the rest of the show. For example, if the ringmaster is very rigid and controlling, the rest of the members will respond by becoming less responsible to avoid conflict.
Now, consider the ringmaster has an active struggle with addiction. He starts to behave irresponsibly; breaks the promise he made to the acrobats to repair the trapeze because he used that money to support his habit, disappears for periods of time without telling the circus manager when he can anticipate his return, and tells the clowns they are fat and worthless. The whole troupe is affected by his choices and need to adjust themselves accordingly. Because of the nature of addiction, these changes usually happen slowly while the system makes small unconscious adjustments that add up over a long period of time.
Unfortunately, the effects of the addiction likely do not stop there. Overworked and stressed at not having a front man for the night’s performance, the circus manager takes out his anger on his wife and kids who in turn take out their feelings on others. The clowns, suffering from low self-esteem slowly develop their own chemical dependency issues. Lastly, one of the acrobats develops stress-induced insomnia and eventually injures himself on the job. I’ve seen addiction compared more than once to dropping a pebble in a still pond, perhaps you can see why?
Theories on the interaction of social experiences with the psyche form the foundation of psychology as we know it today. Although psychologists are still arguing about the exact way these experiences influence us it is clear that the family system has a profound impact on the subconscious (or the part of the mind which is just out of awareness but drives a person’s actions and feelings).
Living with addiction is living with chaos. It is nonsensical, ruthless, and unpredictable. It is not unusual for people who live with another person’s addiction to develop their own mental, physical or emotional chronic and long-term health problems. I’m no exception – for most of my life I’ve struggled with a cocktail of painful emotions, not limited to: guilt, shame, anger, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and fear. I’ve also suffered from several chronic health issues with no clear origin. Connecting with others impacted by family addiction has shown me that I come by this honestly; it is startling how many similar stories and challenges I’ve heard.
It has shown me that anyone from any socio-economic, cultural, or spiritual background can be impacted by addiction or by someone else’s addiction.
Like many people who have lived with addiction I didn’t understand why I would need to work on myself. After all, they have the problem, amiright?! I focused on fixing my loved ones because I thought that if they got over it my life would be f-i-n-e.
The truth about addiction is this: you didn’t cause their addiction, you can’t control it, but you can unknowingly contribute to it and further suffering. We do this mostly by not having appropriate boundaries and knowledge. The most common example of this is “enabling” which is defined as doing anything for the addict they could be doing for themselves if they were sober. The reason this is bad is that it could prolong the addiction by protecting the addict from the consequences of their actions and thus their incentive to consider a different path. Enabling also inadvertently sends the message that whatever behaviour it is acting on is acceptable. In our circus example, enabling would be making excuses for the ringmaster’s poor behaviour versus a healthy behaviour like supporting him in his recovery effort by helping him look up local support group meetings.
Recovery for the family of an addict is focusing on awareness and emphasizing the things you can control: your own thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s using those things to develop a life that is whole, healthy, and fulfilling. It is finding ways to enjoy the life you have that doesn’t depend on validation from the system you have no control over. It’s learning that sometimes you need to go through a certain degree of discomfort and pain to grow. It’s understanding that the best way to break the cycle of addiction is to learn how to prioritize yourself and allow others to make choices and feel their consequences. It’s embracing the importance of healthy connections and what they look like. It’s accepting that the best way to help someone is to support them in taking care of themselves.