Understanding the Secondhand Drinking/Drugging – Codependency Connection
Posted May 20 2010 12:58pm
by Lisa Frederiksen
The following is an excerpt from my upcoming eighth book, Love One In Treatment? Now What!,available in bookstores and through online retailers in September 2010.
The term “codependent” was briefly introduced in the definitions in Chapter 1. In the world of treatment and recovery, it is used OFTEN and thus is important to understand.
“Codependent” is the label assigned to a person who has developed the fight-or-flight neural network kinds of coping patterns just described in the face of chronic secondhand drinking/drugging impacts.
The person, typically a family member or friend, is called a codependent because h/she is “co” “dependent” with the alcoholic/addict on his or her addiction. Just as the alcoholic/addict is focused (dependent) on their finding, seeking, using, recovering from their substance and grappling with the resulting changes in their neural networks, so too have friends and family members’ lives have been focused (dependent) on trying to get the alcoholic/addict to stop and grappling with the resulting changes in their neural networks. They have become co-dependent with the addict/alcoholic on his/her addiction, and in the process, the family member/friend (codependent) adapts to the unacceptable substance misuse behaviors in order to cope (and in some cases, survive). These coping behaviors – adaptations – are called “codependency.” (1)
All of this helps explain why addiction is often referred to as a ‘family disease.’
The original concept of codependency was developed to describe the responses and behaviors a person (spouse, parent or sibling) developed from living with an alcoholic or drug addict. Subsequent study found that people living with a chronically physically or mentally ill person also developed similar kinds of emotional responses and behaviors. Today, the term codependent has been broadened to describe a person who grew up and/or lives in a dysfunctional family. (2)
A dysfunctional family is defined as one where one or more of the following underlying problems existed (or exists)
- An addiction [or abusive/excessive use] by a family member to [of] drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex or gambling.
- The existence of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
- The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness. (3)
And what does all of this have to do with your loved one’s addiction and treatment and a family member/friend’s coping skills?
First of all, it is important to understand that the mere presence of one of these underlying problems is not what makes a family dysfunctional. What makes it dysfunctional is when a family member’s confusion, sadness, fear, anger, pain or shame for the underlying problem is ignored, ridiculed, minimized or denied. (4)
And secondly, this is an important distinction to understand. For when a family does not openly and honestly acknowledge a problem exists, they most certainly don’t talk about it or confront it. Sure, they may yell and scream and rant and rave but not ‘talk’ in a way that leads to change. This leaves each family member to
- interpret what they think is going on
- obey, at all costs, the family rules – especially the two primary rules
Rule #1 – “Dad’s (or Mom’s or your sibling’s) drinking (or fill in the blank with the name of the problem in your household ________________ ) is not the issue”
Rule #2 – “do not talk to anyone (not family, not friends) about Dad’s (or Mom’s or your sibling’s) drinking (or fill in the blank with the name of the issue in your household ________________), and above all, attack, minimize or discredit any family member who does”
- adopt coping skills to suppress their emotions so they don’t spill over and break one of the family rules (which in time multiply and are ever changing) or to unwittingly attempt to make the feeling caused by the emotion go away
- assume their needs and wants are not worthy of attention since everyone’s focus must be on the needs and demands of the family member who is ill or addicted or abusing drugs or alcohol and that to ask for or expect attention is selfish or petty.
The Consequences of Codependency
Because there is no open, honest recognition and/or statement of the problem, one
family member may try to reason with the alcoholic/addict, while another
may learn to “read” their behavior in order to assess what’s about to happen (how bad is it going to be?). That family member may then modify her own behavior or try to manipulate another’s behavior in order to pacify the alcoholic/addict or to defuse the situation. A third family member may take it upon him/herself to pick up the pieces and cover up after the alcoholic/addict’s binge, while another may try convince their loved one to stop entirely. One may plead, scream, yell, cry or perfect the silent treatment. Another may work as the peacekeeper between the alcoholic/ alcohol abuser and the other family members. And, still another may decide it’s all too crazy and leave altogether.
When a person places other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own in this manner, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires and sense of self. This also affects their ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship with family, friends, bosses, fellow-workers and significant others. In fact, codependents often marry alcoholics/addicts. Crazy as it may seem, it’s understandable given their inordinately high tolerance for the unacceptable. They may also suffer from chronic anxiety, depression and stress-related medical disorders such as lower back pain, ulcers, insomnia, high blood pressure, skin rashes and migraines. Some may even drink too much. Some may become alcoholic/addicts. You may have identified this connection in your loved one’s life when completing the risk factors assessment in Chapter 6.
And this is the crux of what happens to family members and friends who must repeatedly deal with a loved one’s unacknowledged, untreated, misunderstood disease – addiction – in order to cope as the dysfunction continues. These neural networks then embed and become the coping skills family members and friends use in their other relationships, as well – those with co-workers, fellow students, family, friends and the stranger on the street.