Addiction is an extremely painful disease to have. Those who struggle with it often face the internal battle of wanting to stop but being afraid to. From anxiety and stress to loneliness and anger, the emotions that come along with an addiction to drugs or alcohol can be crippling.
But the addict or alcoholic is not the only person who is affected by their substance abuse. Other members of the family also face several challenges that test their mental, emotional and even physical resiliency. This is why addiction is frequently referred to as a “family disease”, as it leaves its mark on everyone it touches.
If you are a member of a family where addiction is occurring, it is safe to say that you have gotten a crash course in what life with addiction is like (whether you are the one using or not). However, when living in a family affected by addiction, seeing things clearly can be near impossible. It is important to be able to identify everyone’s roles in the disease of addiction, as doing so can help you understand this crisis and move forward accordingly. The only way to be able to pinpoint which family members are falling into what roles is to learn the traditional roles of family in addiction.
What are the Family Roles in Addiction?
The addict is a family member who is actively addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. This family member may display behavioral symptoms that can include but are not limited to, the following:
- Inability to control how much they use
- Continuing to use despite suffering consequences of that use
- Continuing to use even though their use has caused harm to others
- Using in dangerous situations, such as while driving or in the company of strangers
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Withdrawing from family and other loved ones
- No longer participating in activities they once enjoyed
- Feeling like they cannot function without using
- Asking for money or stealing money in order to support their substance abuse
The addict may also exhibit withdrawal symptoms if they are unable to use, hide their use from the rest of the family, and regularly deny that they have a problem.
The enabler is a family member (often a parent or a spouse) who either willingly or unwillingly participates in behaviors that allow the addict to continue on with their substance abuse. The enabler has usually developed behaviors towards the addict that convince them that they are helping or protecting them. In many ways, this is a survival tactic, as coming to the realization that a close family member has an addiction can be tremendously painful. Some of the things that an enabler will do often include:
- Ignoring the addict’s negative and hazardous behaviors
- Covering for the addict when their substance abuse causes problems in their lives
- Providing the addict with money, shelter, food, clothing, etc. that they otherwise wouldn’t have due to their addiction
- Minimizing the addict’s condition to others
- Blaming other people for the addict’s behaviors
- Doing things for the addict out of fear that if they don’t, the addict will shut them out
The scapegoat is the person in the family that is always being blamed for everything. It is easy to think that the addict would also be the scapegoat, but it is typically a sibling or child instead. The scapegoat often makes attempts to protect other members of the family from getting hurt by the actions and behaviors of the addict. They carry the majority of the family’s anger and resentment and, if left unaddressed, tend to become violent in their adult years. The scapegoat is often defined by the following:
- Frequently ignored by other members of the family
- Talked about negatively by family members to others
- Receives little praise or reward
- Is linked to the problems of all other family members even if they have no role in the problems
The scapegoat can struggle with their self-esteem and self-worth both during the active addiction and long after. They usually require their own personal therapy in order to address these issues.
The hero of the family strives for perfection in everything that they do. Usually a title held by the oldest sibling, the hero uses perfectionism, achievements, and success to help bond the family together in the face of chaos. This is a natural instinct for many older siblings, as they typically feel the responsibility of ensuring everyone is okay. Taking on this role, however, is extremely stressful and can leave the individual feeling overwhelmed and drained.
The mascot is the funny one in the family who does things such as regularly crack jokes and try to get others to laugh. This role is common in the youngest of siblings, as they are seeking acceptance and validation from the members of their family. While to the outsider’s vantage point the mascot may seem like the only saving grace in the family, they are typically anything but. The mascot utilizes humor to camouflage their own pain and often becomes an addict or alcohol in the future.
The lost child
The lost child is the child who is withdrawn from other members in their family and who does not receive the appropriate amount of attention they need to thrive. The lost child tends to be the middle child who gets lost in the mix. It’s not that their family doesn’t love them, rather they turn inwards and the family becomes preoccupied with the addict, the mascot, and the hero who put themselves front and center.
Each and every family unit is different, meaning that there may not always be six different roles to fill. But it is important to understand that these roles can be taken on by anyone in any setting. The most critical thing that families can do when addiction is occurring is to seek professional help so they can end their dysfunction.