The family is sicker than the patient?

In 2005 when I entered the field of addiction treatment, our company was helping mostly drug addicts and alcoholics who were seeking help voluntarily.  To me it appeared to be a “personal problem” that a person became addicted. After all, how could it be anyone else’s fault that a person is drinking or drugging to excess?  On occasion we would deal with family members of the patient.  They would always seem frantic and out of sorts, sometimes wishy-washy about helping financially or sometimes unwilling to help at all. Other times they would be the opposite way and want to control the treatment plan.  I always felt an extra sense of difficulty working with them but never viewed them as sick and I certainly never saw them as part of the problem.

As I went to conferences, meetings and workshops I started hearing this phrases “the family is sicker than the patient” or “the apple never falls far from the tree”.  Comments like these were coming from well seasoned counselors, interventionist and so on who were discussing cases they were involved with.  When I would question them about the comment they would always answer something to do with codependency and always with stern conviction of its truth.

It wasn’t until I began studying the art of intervention, reading the recommended books and actually working with families as my client that I started to see this truth for what it was.  It was a tough pill to swallow because not only did I see it others but I saw it in myself.

I will take the first bullet so to speak and share my own experience of being in a codependent relationship with an addict.   For me it was my uncle and for a time, my senior business partner.  Prior to our working together we were very much estranged because of his chronic drug use.  My family had exercised tough love and shut him out of our lives until he could get clean and sober, or die, whichever came first.  Growing up I can remember having crying spells wondering if he were dead or alive because at the time he was my favorite uncle.  Once we were reunited we formed a partnership in the field and started working together.  At one point he had a major relapse and it didn’t take long for it to get ugly.  His arms and legs were swollen, his breathing slowed, he would nod off sitting or standing and it came to a point where we had him committed.  He finally did get sober.

During that time I can remember being consumed with fear and anxiety, always checking on him and always on high alert.  It brought back the feelings of wondering if would live one day to the next.  I tried reasoning with him, I covered for him, I made up stories to other people about his absence or condition etc.  I can remember the shame I felt when he would be seen by others in the field, the CEO of a large addiction treatment firm high as a kite…I felt guilty by association.

Even though this was a short period of time, I got a taste of what others live with for years at a time.  I experienced intense feeling of anxiety, fear, stress, sorrow, trauma and shame.  I made excuses, I blamed him and others who influenced him, I got angry, I cried, and when I saw glimpses of hope I felt better.   This is the roller coaster of codependency!  In a few short months I had become emotionally sick, maybe even as sick as he was but in a different way.

Since then I have worked extensively with other families and I must say that the power of codependency has astounded me.  A mother of a 19 year old heroin addict cosigning her daughters elopement from treatment two days after our successful intervention.  A 65 year old man losing his life savings to the consequences of his wife’s alcoholism refuses to have an intervention because he’s afraid to lose the frail remains their relationship.   A mother of a meth addict allowing him to live in the basement killing himself because she believes he won’t go to treatment, and a failed intervention will mean she has to evict her closest living relative from her home.

There are hundreds more stories to demonstrate the power of codependency but let’s talk about what it actually is.  Codependency is the loss of one’s self in another.  As the addict starts to under-function, the codependent starts to over-function.  It literally becomes an addiction to another person.  If the other person is ok then you are ok.  Codependency places a higher value on the relationship with the person than on the person themselves.  One of the biggest fears of a codependent going into an intervention is that the addicted loved one will never forgive them for it, or that they will never see each other again.  It warps maternal and paternal instinct into something it was never meant to be.

It causes people to worry to the point of not eating or sleeping properly, it produces stress which makes people physically sick.  It causes people to live in denial about how bad things really are. It causes people to actually ENABLE the addict in their life to use harder and longer than would ever be possible without their help.    And here is the kicker, even once we get the addict into treatment and recovering, the codependent family members are still bound up with worry and fear.  They are still ready to do anything and everything the addict wants them to do.  Why? Because the addict is their drug of choice.

The title of the article is a question, and after almost a decade in the field an coupled with my personal experience I believe the answer is yes.   But the good news is that there is help for the codependent.  There are books, support groups, expert counselors, outpatient groups and even residential treatment programs for those who can recognize that they are sick and make a choice to recover.  The even better news is that our most successful intervention cases happen when everyone in the family including the addict make a choice to get treatment and support for their illness.