I have my list for Step 8 from my Step 4 inventory. This step holds me accountable to the harms I have caused others. Step 8 awakens me to clarity. I have heard a common phrase in the rooms for years: “What is your part?” and I was asked to consider, could it all be your part? I discovered this to be more true, and I must take full responsibility for my thoughts and actions.
Al-Anon taught me that alcoholism is a family disease. The disease manifests as selfishness and self-centredness, not only in the alcoholic, but in the family member as well. I was also introduced to Al-Anon’s principle: “we can be happy, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.” I unfortunately did not heed this principle and suffered with the delusion that I could not be happy until Spencer, my son, was sober. My self reliance, driven by a hundred forms of fear and self pity, was how my disease manifested. I truly believed that I needed him to be different for me to be happy. I managed, manipulated, and mothered his life without awareness.
As my awareness of the disease grew, I was now on my path to recovery. I admitted I was powerless over wanting Spencer to be different, to be sober. And with this admission, I admitted the harms I had done. Because of this defect, I became obsessed with him and his life. The drama and pain were insurmountable for both Spencer and me. From the time he was 15 and for the next 10 years, I watched the disease progress from drinking and marijuana to OxyContin and injecting heroin. An inadvertent overdose of fentanyl finally took his life.
I am truly sorry that I worked harder on his life than on my own. My love was conditional, for it required that he get clean and sober. Little did I know that my disease had progressed just as fast as his.
Through the grace of God, the 12 steps, and loving sponsorship to guide me, I considered the question: are you willing to be happy whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not? Are you willing to change, to do the work, to experience happiness?
Brought to my knees, I admitted that I was a hopeless Al-Anon. I was open to a power greater than myself. It took Spencer’s death for me to realize my powerlessness — my disease. When I think anyone should be different than they are, I am causing harm to them and I will continue to make my list and be willing to make amends. I continue to ask God for help.
Through the process of the 12 steps, and Step 8 not being the least, I have recovered from this selfish self-centred disease, so long as I stay in fit spiritual condition. Thank you Al-Anon for showing me the path of happiness. Alcoholism is a family disease and I can be happy, no matter what. God is Good.
Take a listen to this incredible open and honest conversation between a young person in recovery and an even younger person who is just learning about addiction. It’s an amazing insight into how these conversations can go.
Sadly, children are often the first hurt by alcohol and drug addiction and the last helped. Children of alcoholics are four to nine times more likely to develop an addiction as a direct result of their family experience. Left untreated, these kids are more likely to suffer from depression and other mental health issues as teenagers and adults.
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.