I grew up in an alcoholic family system. The illness in my family effected all who were in it, or around it. It took me years to recover. To this day, my recovery is a practice, a never ending series of decisions and growing awarenesses.
I have learned that alcoholism is only one face of addiction. There are many things to have addictive relationships with: anger, sex, shopping, food, exercise, TV, sugar, drugs, pills, work, gambling, even the internet! Here is a good definition of addiction from Psychology Today. In effect, addiction is a compulsive reaction to stressors, a need to take action rather than deal with or “feel through” the feeling that is bothering you.
Typically, an addict will deny their behavior because they feel it is essential to their surviving whatever stress they feel. Addiction is compulsive and yet cunning. It is important to note that being an addict doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a person who has something to overcome. So many of today’s heroes are people who have overcome great obstacles!
In order to help myself overcome what I experienced growing up, I find it is very helpful to continue to look at the behavior and emotions around alcoholism/addiction, as well as its effect on those around it.
The following is attributed to a book that is, unfortunately, no longer available by M. Davis, called “Surviving An Alcoholic Family.” I find it a very clear description of the roles we are often assigned in a family struggling with alcoholism/addiction. If you recognize yourself in one of these roles, please do not feel ashamed or hurt by it. You are also not a bad person, but someone who is seeking wisdom and happiness! Those who seek are those who want to find!
Awareness is always the first step toward healing.
- other family members revolve around this person
- likely to be experiencing quite a bit of pain and shame even though they may not see it as the result of excessive alcohol or drug use
- as things get worse, the alcoholic is faced with increasing feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, fear, and loneliness
- develop a number of defenses to hide their shame and guilt – may include irrational anger, charm, rigidity, grandiosity, perfectionism, social withdrawal, hostility, and depression
- project blame or responsibility for their problems onto others including family members who take on unhealthy roles in order to survive
- children of alcoholics feel guilty for their failure to save their parents from the effects of alcohol
- “The alcoholic parent is not satisfied with his own childhood, he wants yours too… When the father vanishes into alcohol, the son/daughter lingers and lingers, searching for a lost part of him/herself.”
- steps up and takes control if the alcoholic loses power
- enabling is anything that protects the chemically dependent person from the consequences of their actions
- spouse often takes on the role, but children and siblings can also be enablers (multigenerational alcoholic families will sometimes designate a child in this role, a sign of more serious pathology)
- tends to everyone’s needs in the family
- loses sense of self in tasks of a domestic nature
- never takes the time to assess his/her own needs and feelings
- person never gains what they need most in order to get better: insight
- never are confronted with the facts that would drive home the point: drugs or alcohol are destroying their lives and their family
- as long as the enabler and the chemically dependent family members play their game of mutual self-deception, things never get better – they get worse
- others cannot bond with the caretaker due to the bustle of activity
Caretaker’s purpose: to maintain appropriate appearances to the outside world.
- high achiever; takes focus off the alcoholic because of his/her success; perfectionist; feels inadequate; compulsive; can become a workaholic
- alcoholic bestows this role onto the individual whose accomplishments compensate for the alcoholic’s behavior
- often the oldest child who may see more of the family’s situation and feels responsible for fixing the family pain
- child excels in academics, athletics, music or theatre
- gets self worth from being “special”
- rest of family also gets self worth (“we can’t be that bad if one of us is successful”) – his/her deeds assure the family that their definition is more than alcohol
- hero does not receive attention for anything besides an achievement; therefore, inner needs are not met
- he/she loses the ability to feel satisfied by whatever feat he/she has manifested
- as things get worse, the hero is driven to higher and higher levels of achievement. No level of super responsible, perfectionist, over achievement can remove the hero’s internalized feelings of inadequacy, pain, and confusion
- many others grow up to become workaholics and live under constant stress as they work in the service of others seeking approval for their extraordinary effort
- they often end up distancing themselves from their family of origin
- interestingly, many family heroes grow to marry alcoholics and become enablers
Hero’s purpose: to raise the esteem of the family.
- goes against rules; acts out to take the focus off the alcoholic; feels hurt & guilt; because of behavior, can bring help to family
- lightening rod for family pain and stress
- direct message is that they are responsible for the family’s chaos
- family assigns all ills to the person who harbors this role, e.g. “Mom would not drink so much if (Scapegoat’s name) were not always in trouble.”
- in reality the misbehavior of the Scapegoat serves to distract and provide some relief from the stress of chemical dependency
- child has issues with authority figures as well as negative consequences with the law, school and home
- on the inside the child is a mass of frozen feelings of anger and pain
- may show self-pity, strong identification with peer values, defiance, and hostility or even suicidal gestures
- this role may seem strange in purpose. However, if there were no scapegoat, all other roles would dismantle. He/she allows others a pretense of control
- alcohol is not identified as an issue – often, the scapegoat is identified as ‘The Problem.’
Scrapegoat’s purpose: puts the focus away from alcohol thereby allowing the alcoholic to continue drinking.
- uses humor to lighten difficult family situations; feels fear; others see him/her as being immature; limited by bringing humor to all situations even if inappropriate
- this individual most popular in the family; brings fun and humour into the family
- learn to work hard at getting attention and making people laugh especially when the anger and tension of substance use are dangerously high
- often named a class clown in school; frequently demonstrates poor timing for the comic relief; most people don’t take this child seriously
- often hyperactive, charmers, or cute
- inside, they feel lonely knowing no one really knows the real person behind the clown’s mask
- may grow up unable to express deep feelings of compassion
- may put themselves down often as well as cover up their pain with humour
- accepts laughter as approval, but the humor serves to hide inner painful feelings
- the laughter prevents healing rather than produces it
Mascot’s purpose: to provide levity to the family; to relieve stress and tension by distracting everyone.
- no connection to family; brings relief to family by not bringing attention to the family; feels lonely; does not learn communication and relationship skills
- has much in common with scapegoat – neither feels very important
- disappears from the activity of the family
- sees much more than is vocalized
- reinforced for causing no problems
- build quiet lives on the edges of family life and are seldom considered in family decisions
- they hide their hurt and pain by losing themselves in the solitary world of short-term pleasure including excessive TV, reading, listening to music, drugs, object love, eating and fantasy
- favorite places for the lost child are in front of the T.V. as well as in his/her room
- due to the sedentary lifestyle, a lost child tends to have issues with weight
- as adults they feel confused and inadequate in relationships
- may end up as quiet loners with a host of secondary issues such as: sexuality problems, weight problems, excessive materialism, or heavy involvement in fantasy
Lost child’s purpose: does not place added demands on the family system; he/she is low maintenance.
In my experience, it is easy to fall into more than one of these categories. Sometimes I was “the scapegoat” in my home of birth, other times “the mascot,” and other times “the hero.” As I moved into having adult relationships, I was often an “enabler,” while feeling like “the lost child” within myself.
Now I know that I do not need to be any one of these things. There is a greater role I must BE: that of my authentic self. If I sense that I am falling into a role, or having one put upon me, I can recognize that this is only an old, familiar system, and I do not have to play the part that is being thrust upon me. Nor do I have to react or respond to any accusations. I know who I am, and I know what the truth is, for me.
I hope this blog has been of some insight or help for those of you struggling with similar upbringings or issues.