Ask a Family Therapist: If our family is not enabling, what are we doing?

Ask a Family Therapist: If our family is not enabling, what are we doing?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.

Q: I’ve been reading your column and I like many of the things you have been saying. However, I feel like your responses are a bit simplistic. It’s easy to talk about enabling as a major issue when someone is an alcoholic, but not everyone enables. My dad is an alcoholic and my mom is clearly the enabler, but my youngest sister won’t talk about my dad and his drinking, and my elder sister is trying to solve the problems by always being there for my mom. Neither of my sisters are enabling my dad but nothing is getting better. Why is this happening?
– Ted

A: Hello Ted, and thank you for writing in. Of course, you are absolutely correct that there is always more than just enabling going on in a family situation like yours. The reason we at Renascent treat addiction as a family disease is because we know that even though everyone is not always enabling, each family member tends to take on specific and often overlapping roles in order to keep the family system functioning.  These roles create emotional and psychological strain because they are not genuine to the people playing them. In fact, each role exists and functions with the singular aim of keeping the family together by any means necessary, rather than addressing the real issue at hand. I’m going to outline each role here and hopefully some of this makes sense to you. Remember that no one person owns any role at all times. People can often change roles as the circumstances dictate, and sometimes one person can take on a number of roles at the same time.

 

1. Chief Enabler  You have identified your mother as the chief enabler of your father’s addiction. She would be the person making excuses for him, and not setting acceptable boundaries for him to follow. She is hoping that by being good to him, he will see the error of his ways and stop drinking. Many of her needs remain unfulfilled and even though she is stressed and tired, her focus stays on picking up the pieces from the messes made by your father. She has not accepted the seriousness of your father’s disease, and his disease is dependant on her enabling to continue.
2. Family Hero/Perfect Child  From what you’ve described, this role seems to be occupied by your elder sister. The Family Hero is usually the person picking up the slack left by the chief enabler, who leaves their usual responsibilities behind to focus on the addict. If your father has been drinking for a long time, your sister has often been your substitute mother. The Family Hero is an overachiever at school and always get good grades. They also participate in after school activities and are a shining light in the family of all that is good. The Family Hero is in constant pursuit of perfection, almost as a defence mechanism to the chaos at home. They want to be good enough to inspire the addiction to go away. They feel that if they continue to be perfect everyone will eventually notice and go back to being good parents in charge of a good family. The reality is that the Family Hero eventually crumbles under the intense pressure to keep being perfect, especially when all of their efforts go unnoticed and unrewarded. Your elder sister sounds like she is the primary supporter of your mother. They depend on each other to continue acting out their unhealthy roles while the addiction remains unaddressed.
3. Family Scapegoat  This person is the opposite of the Family Hero. The Family Scapegoat usually acts out defiantly and performs poorly at school and/or work. The Scapegoat knows that they will not get much attention within the current family dynamic and is not willing to work as hard as the Family Hero to be noticed. They seem to be surrounded by problems and often become the focus of the family looking for excuses to not focus on the addiction. In fact, when the addict is not intoxicated, they often look to this person as the source of all the problems within the family. This opinion is supported by the Chief Enabler because they do not want to blame the addict for any issues for fear of relapse, and the Family Hero blames the Family Scapegoat because the Hero believes the Scapegoat should know better. The Hero is often resentful of the Scapegoat because while the Hero is high-achieving and under-appreciated, the Scapegoat is low-achieving and gets a great deal of attention, even if it is negative in nature.
4. The Lost Child  This is the person in the family who fades into the background and gets no attention. They are assumed to always be okay, but are in fact painfully alone. This person shuts down their emotions and pretends to not have any needs. They do well enough at school and/or work to not put any strain on the family that is barely staying afloat. The Lost Child believes that if they make any noise by having any needs or asking for anything, they might cause the addict to act out. They often disconnect from the family and seek to have their needs met through friends and associates.
5. The Family Mascot  As the name might suggest, this is the person in the family who is never able to treat any situation seriously. They do not deal with emotions well and will rely on comedy and laughter for relief. Beneath this laughter lies a great deal of insecurity and instability that is never addressed. The Mascot receives a great deal of attention due to their jovial mood and offers the family fun and humour in an otherwise dire situation.

 

Ted, these are the roles often adopted by various members of a family when addiction becomes a disturbing factor in the family. They function as a rather unhealthy system that is designed to prop up, enable, and manage the behaviour of the addict. However, each family member performing their role has essentially forgotten about themselves and their own true goals and desires. They are living their lives in reaction to the actions of the addict, rather than in response to their own personalities, strengths, hopes, and dreams. The system is built in such a way as to allow the addict to continue their substance use. Only when the system changes can the family regain themselves and no longer live in reaction to the addict. Family members need to begin living authentically, making the choices that are right for them and without giving any consideration to protecting the addict or anyone else in the family. I hope this explanation of common family roles has allowed you to see that beyond a single person being an enabler, there is often a complex system created out of survival, and it will hamper any possible improvement and healing for the family or the addict.

 

To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at sboodhai@renascent.ca or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

 

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

Ask a Family Therapist: how am I enabling my partner?

Ask a Family Therapist: how am I enabling my partner?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.

Q: My husband Albert is an alcoholic and has not sought treatment. My children tell me that I am enabling their father to continue drinking. I don’t give him alcohol and I tell him that I wish he would stop drinking every time he becomes intoxicated. I do not understand, how am I enabling him?
– Tammy

A: Hi Tammy. Thank you for your question. Enabling is a term that is used frequently when speaking about family members of people with addiction issues. Enabling is not any one behaviour, but a complex set of behaviours in relation to the addict and their drive to continuing using their substance. It’s not uncommon for people to enable an addict without realizing they are doing it.

Here are a few instances where people commonly enable their addicted loved ones without actually knowing they are doing so:

 

1. Keeping up appearances. In an earlier column I discussed “the elephant in the living room.” In these scenarios, everyone knows about the addiction but nobody says anything about it. When people are not willing to talk openly about the addiction, or avoid naming the addiction, that’s an example of enabling behaviour.
An extension of this is keeping secrets from each other when you know a problem exists. If your husband’s drinking is causing problems for him and you are not telling your adult children about it, you are enabling your husband. In protecting him from facing the consequences of his children knowing about the effects of his addiction, you are allowing the addiction to go on. His active addiction is relying on you to keep secrets. You think you are doing the right thing by protecting your children from worrying or becoming stressed as a result, but your good intentions are working against you, and you’re unknowingly enabling your husband’s addiction to continue.
Furthermore, if you have ever made an excuse for your husband, you are enabling him. This includes covering for him when he’s late for work or doesn’t show up to a family event. Once again, his addictive behaviours and his drive to continue using his substance are dependent on you to make excuses for the addiction to continue. And again, your intentions might be good: you are preventing him from losing his job, and not causing family members to worry or gossip about your family, but those intentions are working against you and your family in the long run. These are the more common ways of enabling; it can be even more complicated and subtle.

 

2. The Magic Cure. This is when your husband is sober and getting back to being his wonderful self. He begins to act like the man you married all those years ago. This is real and not an act, so during this time you begin to think that he has overcome his addiction. Somehow, something miraculous has happened to finally make him turn a corner and recognize the evil of his ways! And because his behaviour is so great, you also put the addiction out of your mind. You do this because you do not want to spoil the good mood he’s in — you do not want to talk about anything sensitive because you might cause him to become defensive or angry, and he might start drinking again.
The sad news is that there’s no magic cure for addiction, and chances are he will be drinking again in due time. Therefore, not addressing the addiction during those positive times is in fact enabling. It is by no means your sole responsibility to talk about the addiction, but you must become brave enough to talk about addiction with your husband while he is sober, rather than when he is drunk. You might even invite your children to join this conversation when their father is sober.

 

3. The Bargain. Recovery for you as the spouse of an alcoholic means taking an honest look at yourself and evaluating your shortcomings or weaknesses. Where are the points in your life where you find yourself completely dependent on your husband? If you find yourself bargaining with yourself because you fear that you may not be able to do something in your own and therefore you are constantly rescuing your husband from feeling the consequences of his addiction, you are enabling him.
The most common example of this is usually financial, and is wrapped up in the fear of upending a lifestyle to which you have become accustomed. To skirt around that possibility, you bargain with yourself about how much to “push this issue” because of what it might mean for your marriage and your home and your ability to maintain your lifestyle without your partner’s support. These worries keep you in a place of doubt and fear and prevent you from addressing your husband’s addiction.
My answer to this is to not worry too much about the future, but address the issue in front of you today. You cannot control the outcome, but you have to believe that no matter what changes you may have to make, you will survive this process.

 

Tammy, these are just some ways enabling happens beyond the ways we usually have in mind. I hope this has sparked some ideas for you to facilitate change in your behaviour. As I am in the habit of doing, I urge you to find the nearest Al-Anon meeting in your community and commit to attending regularly. It will help you to see your role in your husband’s addiction more clearly, and give you the strength to make some of the changes necessary to stop enabling your husband.

To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at sboodhai@renascent.ca or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

Ask a Family Therapist: did I cause my child’s alcoholism?

Ask a Family Therapist: did I cause my child’s alcoholism?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.

 

Q: My daughter is addicted to alcohol. She drinks every day and I don’t know what to do. She sometimes blames me for her drinking, saying that I stress her out with my nagging. I don’t know how this happened to her. She was an amazing child and teenager, but she changed drastically once she started university. What did I do wrong?
– Molly H.

 

A: Hi Molly. I’m glad you have written in and asked this important question. I hear this question a lot from parents and partners, and sometimes even from children of parents struggling with addiction.

What did you do wrong? In relation to your daughter’s addiction and current behaviour, I would argue that you did not do anything wrong. At Renascent we treat addiction as a disease and we believe there is both a genetic and an environmental component to developing this disease. The genetic component would be inborn and not something anyone could control. The environmental factor is the availability and use of alcohol or other substances. When these factors meet, addiction sometimes occurs and the addicted person’s life can spiral out of control before they recognize that there is a problem. Families are affected, leading the addicted people to feel guilt and shame. They lash out and blame loved ones for their situation when they cannot understand what has occurred in their own lives.

When treating family members, we often talk about the three Cs: You did not Cause it, you cannot Control it, and you cannot Cure it. It is our hope that recognizing these three C’s, you will come to an understanding of how to let go of trying to fight this disease for your daughter and redirect your focus onto your own well-being. (As for your daughter, she is going to have to take responsibility for her actions and face her alcoholism with the assistance of others who have faced the disease as well. She will have to submit to a treatment program like the one offered at Renascent, as well as continue to attend Alcoholics Anonymous as part of her ongoing daily recovery. This is her best chance for finding sobriety and staying sober.)

You did not Cause this disease and you do not cause your daughter to drink. This disease is like any other — think of it like diabetes, another chronic disease with no cure, but effective ways of treatment. There is nothing you can say to her that would cause her to drink; she drinks because her disease is dictating that she drink alcohol. She only feels normal when alcohol in in her system. She may tell you that this is your fault in order to manipulate your feelings so that you stop trying to discuss her alcoholism with her, but she is simply using your concern against you. Only speak to your daughter about her addiction when she is sober and set some clear boundaries for her regarding her consumption of alcohol. For example, you could set the boundary of not allowing drinking in your home, or refusing to spend time with her while she is drinking.

You cannot Control this disease. I have just recommended setting boundaries with your daughter regarding her drinking. That may sound like I am asking your to attempt to control her alcohol consumption, but that’s not the intention of setting boundaries. Boundaries are meant to protect you, not to control the alcoholic. There is nothing you can do to control the drinking. If left untreated, your daughter will drink when her cravings are too strong, no matter what the circumstances. Keep in mind that your daughter can’t even control her own drinking, so there’s no reason to believe you can control it for her. Your energy is better spent setting the boundaries necessary to protect yourself with the hope that your daughter will be motivated by the consequences of her actions to take the right steps to find recovery.

You cannot Cure addiction. Addiction is a treatable disease, but there is no cure. Any thought that something is going to happen that will cause your daughter to snap out of her alcoholic behaviour and quit drinking is unrealistic. This is going to be a difficult road for you and your daughter as you both seek the path to your own recovery. Waiting and hopping for a cure will leave you sad, disappointed, angry, and frustrated. Taking actions to protect your time, energy, and resources is the only thing that will keep you from being pulled under by your daughter’s addiction.

There is hope for both of you, and it begins with letting go of the idea that you caused your daughter’s addiction or that you can control or cure it for her. As you begin to take the actions to protect yourself, this may be the catalyst that encourages your daughter to take responsibility for herself and her disease. Either way, you are on your path to your own recovery.

Molly, I would urge you to get in contact with the family team at Renascent and register for one of their introductory Family Care Programs. I would also urge you to begin attending local Al-Anon meetings in your community. There you will find numerous people focused on taking care of themselves in the midst of dealing with addiction. I am sure this will be of great help to you.

 

To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at sboodhai@renascent.ca or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

Ask a Family Therapist: why is everyone pretending nothing’s wrong?

Ask a Family Therapist: why is everyone pretending nothing’s wrong?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.

 

Q: My brother and I both went to visit our parents during the December holidays. My brother has an obvious issue controlling his alcohol consumption but during the entire visit, while he was intoxicated and causing general chaos at dinner, nobody said anything. I felt uncomfortable, but everyone ignored the problem and pretended nothing was happening. Is this normal? Why is everyone reacting this way?

 

A: This is a great question because incidents like this happen more often than we realize. I think we’ve all been to a party or a wedding where there is that one person who is having trouble controlling their alcohol intake. There is a sense of awkwardness and some people may even laugh, but there is a real problem there that we aren’t considering. When it’s a direct family member, it becomes even harder to ignore, as you experienced during the holidays.

In family treatment at Renascent we call this “the elephant in the living room.”  In this situation, there is an obvious problem occurring, but everyone is prioritizing other people’s feelings over their own, so nobody says anything about it. So, for example, you knew there was a problem with your brother but you did not say anything because you were probably concerned about the feelings of your parents and everyone else in the room. You didn’t say anything because you didn’t want to “ruin” dinner and cause problems for any of your family members. The reality is that your brother was the one ruining dinner and causing problems, but your concern for other people’s feelings caused your to believe if you said anything, you would be the one ruining dinner. Also, everyone else around the table was aware of exactly what was going on but out of concern for everyone else, they didn’t say anything either. Everyone was taking care of everyone else and therefore nobody addressed “the elephant at the dining room table.”

The startling thing here is that elephant has another name, and that name is addiction. The only way to deal with the elephant is to name it, but naming it means so many things to people. For one thing, it’s the admission of a major mental health issue. In addition, family members worry that they did something to cause the addiction. At times they might do something to control it, like making sure there is no alcohol in the house. And finally, family members hope that the problem will just go away on its own. So nobody talks about it.

Addicts are not the only people to sometimes be in denial about their addiction — families suffer from levels of denial as well. The concern here is that addiction depends on not being named in order to continue. If nobody ever says anything to your brother about his addiction, then the hope for change and sobriety are slim. Maybe a holiday dinner isn’t the right place to start the conversation, but it has to get started one way or another. If this is a concern for you and you want the best for your brother, you have to be brave enough to name the addiction with the confidence of knowing you are doing the right thing for you and for everyone else concerned.

It’s not an easy position to be in, but you’re not alone. You can find support and learn how to deal with this situation by attending one of the Family Care Programs at Renascent and by finding the nearest Al-Anon meeting in your community.

 

To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at sboodhai@renascent.ca or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

Ask a Family Therapist: why do family members need treatment?

Ask a Family Therapist: why do family members need treatment?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.

 

Q: Why do family members need treatment if a loved one has an addiction?

 

A: This is a frequently asked question. In fact, when I contact family members to ask if they’ve considered our Family Care Programs, and I’m often told “They’re the one with the problem, not me!” I believe in this case the family member has a point, in that they are not the one with the addiction issue. However, that point makes the dangerous assumption that if you “fix” the addict, all the issues in the family will magically disappear. Working with families of addicted people, I know this to be categorically false. Families are a system with dependent relationships. When one part of the system does not work, it affects all parts of the system.

During periods of active addiction, all members of the family develop coping strategies to deal with the the broken promises and the resulting chaos and instability, the addicted person not functioning in their familial role, the emotional manipulation, and even the verbal and physical violence.

When the addicted person recognizes that they have a problem and enters into recovery, their loved ones don’t automatically drop the survival strategies they’ve come to rely on, even though they are maladaptive.

They’re maladaptive because they take family members outside of themselves and cause them to literally forget who they are, their passions and loves, and their own concerns and pains. This occurs because the family’s focus is so heavily on the addict during active addiction, and often during recovery too.

Renascent’s Family Care Programs are designed to address these maladaptive coping strategies. Renascent shifts the family’s focus back onto themselves, where it belongs. This is why all family members of addicted persons should seek out their own treatment.

Picture walking into a dense forest. In this forest every plant is suffering. Nothing is blooming to its potential, no trees are bearing fruit. As I walk along, I choose one plant and I take it home with me. While at home in a controlled and safe environment, I provide this single plant with everything it needs to begin to grow again. However, as soon as it begins to grow, I take this plant and put it back into the same suffering and wilting forest with the hope that all the other plants will take notice and automatically know how to begin to bloom. This is an impossibility. Every plant in that forest needs its own special care so that it can begin to reach its potential again. The same can be said for families affected by addiction. Helping the addict and putting him or her back into the affected family does not make everyone magically better. Families need to move forward together in recovery. This is why Renascent treats addiction as a family disease.

 

To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at sboodhai@renascent.ca or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.