Why should spouses and family members of recovering addicts or alcoholics seek
their own recovery? This question has recently come up a number of times in my practice. The
scenario comes in a couple of forms. One is that the spouse of a newly recovering addict is sent
to me by the treatment center in which her partner was treated because staff there is concerned
about the spouse's reluctance to do her own recovery work. (For brevity's sake I am making the
recovering person male and the spouse female. Also for brevity's sake, I am calling the
addict/alcoholic an "addict" with the implication that he could be addicted to any substance,
including alcohol.) The other scenario is that a distant family member or a friend of the family
who is more familiar with the disease concept of addiction and how it affects the whole family is
concerned about a lopsided healing process within the
family and the danger that this poses.
Why would outsiders be concerned? Isn't the problem solved once the addict stops whatever he has
been using? Isn't this what everybody has been waiting for? Now life can finally go on, can't it?
Yes, life can go on. Yes, everybody has been waiting for the addict to stop. So this is indeed
very good news. But unfortunately, no, this alone does not solve the problem of helping the whole
family recover from undesirable coping skills acquired while the addict was using. That's why
outsiders may be concerned.
What are some of the undesirable coping skills that family members develop while living with the
out-of-control behavior of a loved one? For the spouse and some of the children (if there are any)
it most likely is an overdeveloped focus on the addict. Spouses of addicts are usually very
fearful peopleoften having been fearful before they ever got together with the addict or
before the addict started using in an out-of-control manner. The fear that used to focus on the
addict's using now shifts to other aspects of the recovering addict's behavior. Is he going to
meetings as told? Is he making other healthy choices or is he indulging in too many cigarettes,
too much coffee or too many cookies? Is he going to kill himself through other poor choices?
The fear of a spouse seems to have a life of its own that can't wait to attach itself to another
source of anxiety. If it is not the recovering addict, it might be another person or another
cause. It is exactly this anxiety that is dangerous to the spouse because over the long run the
constant worry can break down the physical immune system and the spouse becomes ill. This fear is
also dangerous to the recovering addict because he might continue to feel controlled and, in the
worst case scenario, rebels against it by falling off the wagon and using again.
Another undesirable coping skill in the spouse or some of the children is an overdeveloped sense
of responsibility. Most likely the addict failed to perform adequately as spouse, as father, as
coworker or business owner while in the midst of his disease. The spouse has
learned to take over many chores and emotional responsibilities that rightfully should belong to
her partner. If she is not willing to let go (because it bestows a sense of power to be that
indispensable), her partner cannot fully step into his recovery and become the responsive
and responsible husband and father he is meant to be.
Last not least, the spouse or children might have learned to swallow any feelings, such as
sadness, hurt and anger, but also love, because it has not felt safe to express them. Just because
the addict is in recovery does not mean that the spouse has access to the words
describing her inner emotional life all of sudden. Her ability to be intimately connected and
reveal herself to others has been compromised. No amount of meetings attended to by the recovering
addict will help her find her own self. Only she can "recover" the true nature of her inner life.
Over the last thirty years alcoholic families have been thoroughly studied. Several predictable
roles children take on in these families (and other dysfunctional families) have been identified.
Usually the oldest child becomes the responsible one, meaning they tend to be
perfectionists and usually do very well in school and later in careers, and they fill in the gap
that is often left by the addict father and the codependent mother. Another child may take on the
role of the black sheep and get into trouble in school or later in life. The family's unexpressed
negative emotions such as anger and worry can be dumped on this child with the sentiment that if
he or she would just shape up the family would be OK.
Another role is that of the family "therapist". This child will lend an ear to the troubled mother
and will try to fix other people's problems through precocious advice. The family joker, another
role, will bring relief to the troubled family through humor, parody, and apparent
light-heartedness. The last role is that of the lost child. Usually this child uses a creative
outlet such as music, poetry, or drawing to withdraw from the chaos of the family and to survive
it. These roles are not static, however. Often children switch and occupy several of them during
the course of growing up.
The disease of chemical dependency affects every family member. One member's recovery does not
address the other family member's adaptation to the disease. Each family member is responsible for
her or his own process of unlearning dysfunctional coping skills and
replacing them with healthy ones. Many books have been written for people who know or suspect that
they have been affected by chemical dependency and that they are called co-dependents. The best
known among those authors are Melody Beattie and Pia Mellody. But few books that I know of address
the spouse or family member who is still in denial about their own need for recovery.
Here are a couple of books I have come across that address the family member in denial: "The
Family Recovery Guide"
and "The Alcoholic Family in Recovery"
, both by Stephanie Brown
. The former one is written with the lay person in mind and the
latter one for mental health professionals. I do think, though, that a large part of the latter
one will still be accessible to the lay person.