Q&A Part 4: From the Outside Looking In

Editor’s Note: Welcome to part four of our series, Questions & Answers. This series will attempt to cover topics and/or questions which have been raised by readers. Feel free to submit your own questions, and we’ll see what we can do about addressing them.

When is the appropriate time to seek healing in dealing with the recovery of a loved one? What can I do to help my loved one or friend as he/she goes through the pain associated with addiction and recovery?

Let’s start with the easy question here: When should I seek help? When should I seek healing? When is it appropriate to take care of myself?

The answer is simple, and it’s always the same: right now. There’s no better time than right now to experience the first day of the rest of your life. There’s no better time than right now to take care of yourself. There’s no better time than right now to realize and understand how impossible it is to be present for someone else if we don’t first figure out what our needs are and work diligently to meet them.

Addictions and compulsive behaviors do negatively affect the friends and family members of those whose lives are consumed by them. As a direct result thereof, loved ones often find themselves facing real loss and real pain. It’s not unusual for those close to addicts to experience financial, physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual setbacks as a result of simply being in relationship with someone whose life is consumed by something outside of their control.

That’s why it’s important to seek help and healing even when the addict in your life is unwilling to do so. Twelve step groups, therapists, religious organisations, and other engaging environments are all means of receiving help and working toward a healthier life. It’s never too early to begin the process of claiming your life and escaping the grasp of chaos and rot that come with the entangled nature of an addictive life.

As for the extremely more difficult question, there is no simple answer. What can I do to help my loved one or friend as he/she goes through the pain associated with addiction and recovery? 

To begin with, recognize that recovery is both a journey and a process. It’s going to take time. We’re not talking about an overnight transportation. Think about how much time over how many years were dedicated to living into active addiction. There is no elixir or overnight remedy that’s going to make all of that go away such that everything is all better now. The addict in your life is going to have to invest a lot of time and energy into working on his/her sobriety. Let them do so. Give them time. Give them space (if they need it, or if you need it). And work on yourself.

Remember this: You didn’t get them drunk, and you can’t get them sober.

What you can do is learn to recognize what role you might be playing in their life. This is not a blame game; it’s merely an awareness that how we act and react to others in our life takes its toll. None of us exist in silos.

Here are just a few models for understanding the roles we might play in the life of an addict:

Al-anon talks about a Merry Go Round Named Denial which identifies four major (types of) players in every alcoholic relationship: the alcoholic, the enabler, the victim, and the provoker. “One person drinks too much and gets drunk and others react to her drinking and its consequences. The drinker responds to this reaction and drinks again. This sets up a Merry-Go-Round of blame and denial, a downward-spiral which characterizes alcoholism.”

“The Enabler is a person who feels he must not let the alcoholic suffer the consequences of her drinking when he can so easily prevent this by a simple rescue operation.” This person may have a savior complex and definitely qualifies as being classically codependent. Professional helpers, those driven by anxiety and guilt, and those in it to meet their own needs often find themselves in this role.

“The Victim is the person who is responsible for getting the work done, if the alcoholic is absent due to a hangover.” These individuals feel that they are helping by covering the ass of their friend time and time again. They are not. Facing real consequences can be a driving force to push people toward recovery.

The Provoker tends to be “the person with whom the alcoholic lives…Hurt and
upset by repeated drinking episodes, [sic] he holds the family together despite all the trouble caused by drinking…Also [sic] called the Adjuster; he is constantly adjusting to the crises and trouble caused by drinking.” This role might best be described as the scapegoat because all of the addict’s bad behaviors find their blame laid here. This person will attempt “to be nurse, doctor, and counselor” but will ultimately fail because doing so does little more than add undo stress to an already stressful situation.

Family systems theory is another model which helps us understand how we relate to the addict in our life. In addition to the addict, this model has five other major player labels within the family: the caretaker (chief enabler), the hero, the scapegoat, the lost child, and the mascot.

The Chief Enabler reduces tension in the family by smoothing things over and believes that he/she is simply being helpful and acting to hold the family together.

The Hero (aka the parental child, superstar or goody two shoes) is the source of family pride and often excels in academic or athletic pursuits, but their successes are driven by perfectionist tendencies rooted in an underlying need to make the family look good.

The Scapegoat tends toward rebellion and anti-social behavior to the point of mimicking the behaviors they identify with in the addict/alcoholic because of a perceived emotional bond with that individual. Often the object of misdirected frustration and rage, this is the person who both holds and voices anger and frustration on behalf of the family at large.

The Lost Child, seeking to avoid conflict, tends to come across as forgettable and shy. A follower not a leader, this person has few (if any) friends outside the family system and has a high likelihood of developing mental health issues.

The Mascot is likable and fun to be around. think of this person as the family clown and the one member of the family nobody has any real complaints about.

For more information on this system and the general qualities of codependency, check out this pdf for the signs, symptoms, and general characteristics of codependency. This document does a good job of helping people identify whether or not they might be codependent as well as speak to what codependency looks like as it progresses.

So, what you can do is recognize what roll you play in the life of your addict or simply in the live’s of the ones you love. Codependency is not limited to those tied to addicts or alcoholics. Codependency can exist all on its own. Let’s remember that the goal of recovery is holistic health for all parties involved, but the only person I can work on is me.

Do what you can, but understand that a lot of what we might be inclined to do is going to do more to keep someone sick than it is to urge them on toward health and healing. Sometimes the best thing that we can do for someone is nothing.

Life hurts.

God heals.

[God] said, “If you will obey me completely by doing what I consider right and by keeping my commands, I will not punish you with any of the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians. I am the Lord, the one who heals you.”

Exodus 15:26

– Alex Walker

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