Alcoholism is considered to be a disease because it has a cause, a predictable and progressive list of health-related symptoms and problems, and the final outcome, without intervention, is usually death.
According to the National Institute of Health, one in 12 people in the U.S. is an alcoholic or is alcohol-dependent. Loved ones, family, friends, relationships, and co-workers respond in predictable patterns to the expected behaviors of the alcoholic. Without a “supporting cast,” alcoholics cannot continue the chronic, downward spiral that often lands them in jail, rehab, an emergency room, or the morgue.
This article will focus on the “supporting cast.” Although people might bandy about words like “co-dependency,” “enablers,” and “dysfunctional family systems,” without actually knowing what the terms mean, labels help to identify known family patterns for those who need to diagnose and treat the alcoholic (or drug addict) and the people who interact with the main actor.
No matter what causes lie behind the alcoholism (or addiction), the behavior pattern is predictable and family members are sucked into a drama, however unwittingly, in which they participate in personal-survival mode.
Labels can be helpful, because, once recognized, the enabler can stop his/her own behaviors that feed into the dynamics and thus, by re-scripting, force the group situation to change. It becomes like a play wherein one or two of the actors walk off-stage and leave the others to alter the script.
This scenario will assume the central actor is an adult alcoholic, and the children are forced to take on roles to cover their guilt, shame, and/or fear that the out-of-control alcoholic has wrought. The “partner,” usually the spouse or significant other (or the parents in case of a child alcoholic), often plays the part of “Enabler.”
The Enabler (“Caretaker”) tries to maintain control, when the alcoholic is out-of-control, and wants to keep the family together. The patterns of behavior are so predictable that the symptoms are easily recognized by professionals, although they are not listed in the present DSM-IV manual of diagnostic disorders.
With a combination of love-hate, caring, and frustration-ignorance, the enabler helps to cover up the alcoholic’s unacceptable or illegal behaviors – calling in sick to work, binge-drinking all night and breaking promises to family members, driving while drinking, being unable to function normally – so they create a trail of lies and excuses, etc.
The children are then forced into other supportive roles to allow the shameful, socially- unacceptable behaviors to continue.
The oldest child, the “model child,” is often an overachiever who is quite dependable and the ultimate perfectionist. His “normal,” responsible behavior belies the family’s inadequacies while he provides self-worth for the family. But his own hurt, anger, guilt, and loneliness are often hidden. He ignores his own needs and fears rejection. He is the family “Hero.”
Another child will often act out and bring negative attention to himself. He wants to distract from the reality of the family’s situation and may himself turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. He can be a risk-taker and pleasure-seeker. Besides his anger and loneliness, and being unable to disclose the family’s secret, he hides his fear and develops low self-esteem. The “Scapegoat” is often in trouble at school or gets in trouble with the law.
Someone must play the comic relief for the family – to relieve tension. In addition to feeling fear, confusion, and unworthiness while denying his feelings, by acting clownish or using humor to attract attention and defuse ugly situations, this child becomes the family “Mascot.”
The most sensitive, the most fearful child may use escape and withdrawal as self-defense mechanisms for survival. (S)he may love animals, books, or become absorbed by a hobby that allows avoidance and retreat from the drama. She is not demanding of others, denies her own feelings, and is unable to develop close relationships with others. This is the “Lost Child.”
Roles may change, but as they become more ingrained, the whole family has truly become dysfunctional and unable to develop in a healthy way. The inappropriate behaviors become entrenched and may carry on into other relationships – at work, in dating, friendships, and marriage.
If co-dependent people cannot gain insight into the dysfunctional behaviors that allow the alcoholic pattern to continue, they themselves develop personality disorders that are life-long unless the pattern is interrupted.
If any of the “actors” in the play alter their expected roles, the others must also change and adapt. If a counselor, therapist, doctor, social worker, law enforcement officer, emergency room personnel, or other health care workers suggest that this is taking place, take note. They do not haphazardly diagnose someone unthinkingly, and they can often identify the roles from presented behaviors and maladaptive interactions.
Stop the secretiveness and cover-ups; stop the role playing; and re-script the old, familiar play.
Get help for yourself (alcoholic, addict, enabler, role-player) and any family members that will participate. There are hundreds of therapy groups and 12-step programs that can help. Ask your doctor, therapist or counselor for a referral and check out what is available in your community.
Look for a therapist with specific training in co-dependency. Twelve-step groups include Al-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous, and Families Anonymous.
No matter what level of dependency the main actor is playing, you can save yourself and children, and maybe even the hub of the problem – the alcoholic or addict – with recognition, intervention, insight, and the commitment and willingness to change.
Vicki Lavick. “Co-Dependency.” Http://addictionrecov.org/paradigm/P_PR_SP98/Lavick.html. Retrieved 5-5-10.
“Behavioral Roles of Children of Alcoholics.” Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse and Joseph Cruse, M.D., Understanding Co-Dependency, 1990. Online list at Http://www.hsc.wvu.edu. Retrieved 5-5-10.
Sheelagh Garvey, B.Sc. in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Http://www.cousellinggalway.ie/alcohol-family-abuse.php “Alcohol/Family Issues.” Retrieved 4-30-10.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/FAQS. Retrieved 4-26-10.