The longer alcohol and drug abusers use their drugs of choice, the worse their lives become. Until they are firmly in recovery, this continues in a downward spiral until they end up in jail, insane, or dead. “Firmly” in recovery means working a program or attending counseling consistently with a lot of commitment. People who just show up at meetings, counseling, or groups are not necessarily committed to recovery. This is just as true for family members.
Family members are affected by the increased problems that addiction causes. The drugs and alcohol used by the substance abuser are “intoxicants.” This means that they use substances knowing that they will become intoxicated – high or drunk.
Over a period of time, many family members begin to experience emotions that leave them “intoxicated” as well. These emotions are called “Intoxicant Emotions.” They include shame, guilt, resentment, self-pity, worry, and anger. These emotions “intoxicate” a person in that they change the way someone feels when he or she indulges in them. An “intoxicant emotion” (IE) (CompCare Publishers) such as shame often causes a person to hide, be secretive, feel depressed, or unable to sleep.
This is similar to the way an alcoholic or addict may feel when using or coming off his/her drug of choice. Intoxicant emotions may energize a person or slow him down so that he or she can’t function well. Sometimes these emotional states are as unpredictable as those that affect the alcoholic when he/she picks up a drink or drug.
Family members follow the same downward spiral as an alcoholic or addict. There are 4 stages of family illness before the family either “bottoms out” or enters recovery. The first stage is the Concern Stage. This is the stage where family members are acting out of a genuine concern. They are only beginning to experience the effects of alcohol and drug abuse by a loved one. Family members at this stage have no idea what they are up against.
The second phase is the Defense Stage. This happens after the “first blockout” where the family members have blocked out the reality of the situation and are going in and out of denial. Addicts and alcoholics often experience “blackouts”, a period of time when they have no memory of events, usually while seriously impaired or during a period of coming off heavy alcohol or drug use.
During this stage, families are preoccupied with the addict’s or alcoholic’s behavior. They protect the addict by lying to other family members, employers, or to others about his behavior. While tolerating the addict’s behavior, they feel increasingly responsible for the family problems. The result is the “blockouts” increase, too. They can’t remember all the negative behavior of the addict and tend to minimize the consequences.
After repeated “blockouts” comes the Adaptation Phase. During this phase, family members try to change their own behavior to adapt to the chemically dependent person’s behavior. This is a critical phase that may cause family members to either become obsessed with the addict, or they may begin to drink or use drugs themselves.
Family members may attempt to become “the perfect person” hoping that will make the addict/alcoholic happy and change his/her ways. It is at this time that family members may begin to feel they are “losing their minds,” become absent minded, feel like failures, and need medical or mental health care. They often give so much to others that they have nothing left to take care of themselves.
Next comes the Exhaustion Phase, when family members defend their use of intoxicant emotions, just like the addict defends his use of drugs or alcohol. They lose their self-worth and experience severe anxiety or depression. All excuses fail and fear rules their lives. They have reached their “bottom.”
Just as when addicts reach their bottom, family members must choose to admit the problem and recover, face insanity or death. They absolutely cannot go on the way things are. When they reach this point, family members must admit their problems and accept help in dealing with them.
(Portions of this article are adapted from the poster “Affected Family Syndrome” by CompCare Publishers, 1990)