Alcoholism and Drugs in the Family

Norman L. Coad, D.Min

About 65% of adults in the United States drink alcohol. Almost 10% of the adult population has an alcohol problem. The population of the United States is about 319,000, that means about 32,000 have a drinking problem.[1]

The effects of the children growing up in an alcoholic family are profound and negative. One out of every eight children under the age of 18 is growing up in a family where one or both parents are alcoholics. Most of the alcoholics are men.[2]

The term used to describe the effects of the family members in the alcoholic family system is co-dependence.[3]

Codependency as a clinical term is described by Timmen Cermark, M.D. based on the schema of DSM-III. His criteria used to make the codependency diagnosis is as follows:

  1. Continued investment of one’s self-esteem in the ability to control oneself and others in the face of serious adverse consequences.
  2. Assumption of responsibility for meeting others needs to the exclusion of one’s own.
  3. Enmeshment in relationships with personality disorders, chemically dependent, other codependent,and/or impulse disordered individuals.
  4. Three or more of the following:
    •  Excessive reliance on denial
    • Constriction of emotions
    •  Depression
    •  Hyper-vigilance
    •  Compulsions
    •  Anxiety
    •  Substance abuse
    •  The past, or current victim of physical or sexual abuse
    •  Stress related medical illnesses
    •  Remaining in a primary relationship with an active substance abuser for at least 2 years without seeking help.[4]

The problems relating to the alcoholism can begin before birth. The emotional state of the expectant mother influences fetal development.[5]

Family systems research has produced several models of the alcoholic family. Included here is a representation of these. The family roles are identified as: the Alcoholic, the enabler, the family hero, the last child, the family mascot and the family scapegoat.

  • The Actual Alcoholic—creates a permanent crisis in the family which is marked by disorganization, emotional, financial, psychological and behavioral chaos and shame. Everything is organized so he/she can drink/use.
  • The Enabler— the chief enabler assumes responsibility for sheltering the chemically dependent from the harmful consequences of the alcoholic’s irresponsible behavior. The enabler plays varying roles to accomplish this: sufferer, waiverer, controller, placator. etc.
  • The Family Hero—assumes the responsibility for the family’s self worth. He/she is the family counselor, is super responsible, Mr. or Ms. Successful and always keeps everything together.
  • The Lost Child—whose primary goal is to escape notice, and escape by emotional and physical separation from the family. The family does not concern itself about him/her. This child lives with loneliness and worthlessness.
  • The Family Mascot—diverts attention away from the problems caused by the alcoholic by using humor to break the tension.
  • The Family Scapegoat—His/her primary function is to divert attention away from the alcoholic/drug related problems by inappropriate behaviors. He/She externalizes extremely negative emotions and behaviors with anger, resentment and hurt.

These learned behaviors balance a dysfunctional family system so that the family continues on. The behaviors are themselves dysfunctional and self defeating which assures the alcoholic’s family dysfunction will carry on to another generation of families. Many of the children of such families will have alcohol and drug problems of their own or marry those with similar problems.

Adult children of alcoholics with their dysfunctional attitudes, emotions, behaviors and relationships are so prevalent that they are a recognized alcohol/drug family related category of individuals.

In Janet Geringer Woititz’ best selling book, Adult Children of Alcoholics she lists themes of group behaviors that are common perceptions of adult alcoholics:

  •  Adult children of alcoholics guess at what normal behavior is.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics judge themselves without mercy.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty having fun.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics take themselves very seriously.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics have difficulty with intimate relationships.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics overreact to changes over which they have no control.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics usually feel that they are different from other people.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved.
  •  Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving severe consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. The impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.[6]

Not all alcoholics are the same. Some are mean alcoholics, some funny, some quiet. Some are high functioning, some not. Some are dry drunks that are so mean because they want to drink but forbid themselves. Everyone wishes they would drink to get some relief from their anger. Some drink all the time. Some are bingers with gaps of weeks or months between drinking bouts. Some drink, overdose and pass out. Others black out. They are overdosed but continue to act out with no memory of what is going on.

Under the influence they can breakout all the windows of the house or stand on the table and sing, be the life of the party. They act out under the influence of alcohol whatever is on the inside. They are often sexually promiscuous. They can commit incest and sexually abuse, rage or be calm.

The emotional abuse of such an environment is profound on the children. No one knows what to expect and they internalize a great amount of shame, anger and anxiety. No one in the family ever talks about it. It is too shameful and dangerous. They do not feel free to bring friends home. Under the onslaught of trauma the child with the ability to dissociate will and become fragmented.

Drug addicts, like alcoholics, live for their drug of choice. I cannot recall when I worked with a person that had only one dysfunctional issue. There are many co-occurring problems—alcohol and drugs, methamphetamine and marijuana, sexually transmitted diseases, financial and all sorts of social problems. The opiate addiction and morphine addictions are profound. Many have prescription drug addictions or abuse the prescribed drugs.

All together, drugs and alcohol account for a huge amount of pain, heartbreak, economic, financial and social loss with wasted lives.

End Notes

1. J. Kinney, MSU and Gwen Leation. Loosening the Grip. St. Louis. Mosby Year Book. 1991. p. 21, 22.
2. Ibid. 178.

3. Ibid. 177.

4. Ibid. 177, 178.

5. Ibid. 180.

6. J.G. Woititz, Ed.D. Adult Children of Alcoholics, Deerfield Beach, FL; Health Communications, Inc., 1983.

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