Whenever I visit my brother and sister-in-law’s house, things are a little chaotic. With two boys under the age of five, the house rings with laughter and little feet scampering around on the hardwood floors. There are toy trains scattered across the rug, a few Cheerios between the seat cushions, messy Crayon drawings magnetized on the refrigerator – and she’s often chasing one of my nephews around with a half-eaten sandwich, a casualty to playtime. Their house is full of life, growth and excitement, Saturday morning snuggles and the craziness that comes with raising little ones. For many families, this may sound like the normal routine. For families struggling with a drug or alcohol-addicted parent, however, the scene can be much different. As a person’s use of drugs or alcohol enters the abusive and addictive stages, the rest of the family is dramatically affected. The family develops certain “rules” on how to behave, adapt and survive with the addiction. In the unhealthy environment, children and other family members take on roles that help to maintain the dysfunctional system. It’s often been said that there are three rules when it comes to addiction in the family: Don’t speak, don’t trust and don’t feel. At Vertava Health, we believe there is one additional rule: Don’t move. The following explains how these rules come into play in an addictive household:
- Don’t Speak. “If you don’t talk about it, it never happened.” In families with addiction, members learn early on not to talk about their reality. Silence becomes a form of denial – and evidence must never be spoken aloud. Don’t talk about what is happening in the family outside the home; don’t tell your friends, don’t tell your teachers, and don’t tell other family members. After all, keeping silent is necessary for the addiction and dysfunction to thrive. “Don’t speak,” doesn’t just apply to the outside world – it also exists within the four walls of the home. At home, without words, there is an underlying hope that if no one mentions the drugging or drinking; the fights or the empty refrigerator – that it won’t ever happen again. Besides, there’s no good time to talk: Either the addicted person is high or drunk – or he or she is sober and no one wants to ruin the moment.
- Don’t Trust. In active addiction, the person using will do anything to protect his or her drug use. Sometimes, that means lying or breaking promises – to themselves or others. Repeated disappointments gradually wear away at the trust we hold in our loved ones. Via broken promises and let downs, the family circle can develop broad issues of trust. In an addicted home, the cycle of addiction (looking for drugs or alcohol, using drugs or alcohol, being intoxicated, withdrawing and/or being sober) can lead to various moods, attitudes and behavior. These mood swings can mean different reactions to the same actions. Family members learn to walk on eggshells and be leery of good moods – knowing they can quickly shift.
- Don’t Feel. Addiction in the family can mean watching a person you love go from one extreme to another, living in chaos and being lied to or let down – all on a daily or weekly basis. Factored in with the inability to talk or trust, the pain of addiction can be overwhelming. A person can only live in fear and insecurity for so long before they shut down emotionally. Used as a protection mechanism, an emotional shutdown means blocking out the anger towards addiction, the fear of making the wrong move or saying the wrong thing, and the immense hurt of holding it all inside. Learn to shut down can have dire consequences, including:
- Difficulty connecting with others
- Social anxiety
- Inability to articulate feelings
- Suspicion of others
When addiction is in play in the household, everything else takes a backseat to the drugs or alcohol. Family members copy by stuffing those emotions away – and never expressing how they feel.
- Don’t Move. In general, many people dislike change. People in active addiction especially dislike change. The family dealing with addiction is inflexible: It doesn’t adapt readily to change and it doesn’t willingly allow family members to change. As noted in Rule #2, one of the effects of drug or alcohol addiction is unpredictable behavior. As the addiction progresses, that behavior can become increasingly unstable, fluctuating at the drop of a hat. It becomes a guessing game as to how the addicted person will react. In order to bring some type of order to the household, strict rules are imposed and the family is held to rigid standards. There is little room for freedom or flexibility in an addicted household. With everything being either black or white – with no gray area in between – the addicted household experiences little compassion, acceptance or open-mindedness. Families of addiction learn not to rock the boat, not change and not to move.
These four basic rules of living in an addicted home can suffocate healthy relationships, boundaries and roles – but there is, however, hope for family members. Family care programs and therapy, as well as programs like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, can help those surrounded by addiction to achieve a balance, freedom and a healthy life worth living.