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Roles in an Alcoholic Family

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 4.30.44 PMI 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.

The Alcoholic

– 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.

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– 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.
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Lost Child
– 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.

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12 thoughts on “Roles in an Alcoholic Family

  1. My first husband is an alcoholic. We divorced after 14 years of marriage. We divorced in 1999 … So it has been quite awhile. Al-Anon became my life saver during those years. But more than that it shined the light on my childhood. My mother is an adult child of two alcoholic parents. My father acts like an alcoholic …has my entire life…but never drank much. Was a rageaholic…as was my grandfather. So… I believe it was inevitable that I ended up marrying an alcoholic. Somehow I found my way to Al-Anon meetings. It saved my life and my sanity. I went in for the issues with my husband … but then the light bulb came on in regards to my childhood. I began to work my program around not just my marriage but also my family. Once I got off the merry-go-round…I think everyone thought I joined a cult! But I was definitely feeling better! I played two specific roles in my family growing up ; the hero role and scapegoat. The scapegoat role is the one that really messed with my head. My mother would always shift blame from my father … to me. I was carrying so much shame and guilt around from this. I began to struggle with depression and anorexia. I married to get away from my father. I was 20 at the time. Not realizing I had married an alcoholic. We had two daughters. The day I found Al-Anon was my saving grace. I began to realize that I wasn’t crazy but that all of this actually had a name! But now my daughters are grown. My oldest is not married but has a strong relationship with God. She has struggled with specific things. She is 30 now. What I am seeing and hearing clearly is The Lost Child role. We all know we can’t bring program to others. We can only live it ourselves. It’s agonizing to sit back and hear her pain …when I know where the answers are. But! I went to visit her with my fiancé recently and we had a major blowout. We haven’t spoken much in a month since. I just feel like I have been blamed for most of her childhood… when I was actually the one in program and not enabling her father! But … She is getting some kind of vounseling somewhere because she has been talking about role reversals. Where the child becomes the parent and parents become the child.She says I have done this to her. But where I have gotten really angry at times is that I have often felt it. But I feel her acting like the parent and treating me like the child. I feel the disrespect and I get angry inside. If I try to take back that parent roll she doesn’t allow it. This happened during our last visit and I was humiliated in front of people she lives with. So I layed some boundaries and left. I got up without a word and left. She had been miserable in her Lost Child role and continues to blame me. She has refused to get herself into counseling and I have tried to keep my mouth shut and not try to fix her. You know the saying; “When you get sick and tired of being sick and tired … you will do something about it.”
    So… we finally talked yesterday. She again brought up our role reversals. Where we need to have proper mother and daughter boundaries. But I also let her have it. I told her that quite often I try to take that parent role and she simply will not allow it. She treats me like I am the child and will not respect me as her mother. She got quiet. I flat out told her I would no longer put up with the disrespect. I told her that the fact she learned this is not all her fault … it is part of the dynamics that happen in dysfunctional homes. But … I did reiterate to her that she ….also … flat out disrespects me and won’t allow me to be the mom. She got quiet. I also said; “Now I know that I did things in the past that did not earn your respect. I can own that. But regardless… I am still the parent. So …you also need to see that you are going to have to allow me to be the parent. And respect those boundaries.” She got quiet. And I told her I fully understand what she is saying to me because I learned about the role reversal in Al-Anon. I told it had been years since I studied it and that maybe it’s time I pull it out and brush up on it again.
    So… I don’t know where she is getting this information in regards to the role reversal info. I don’t know who is vounseling her or influencing her.., but I am excited. This is HARD!!! It takes a lot of work.

    Thanks for listening,
    Laura Scheierman

  2. I relate most with (SCAPEGOAT),I’m so glad I stumbled into the blog! I’m in recovery & have PTSD from my childhood. I think your blog is really going to HELP me. THANK YOU, CADY

  3. Oh, how I relate to the Lost Child! Also, I felt like my job was always to please the alcoholic in my family and therefore took on the role of people pleaser into my adulthood. As I get older, I’m starting to give less of a shit what other people want (within reason, of course, and not if it means hurting others, if that makes any sense). Kudos to you for sharing your story (I haven’t read your book yet, but I plan on buying it very soon, I promise!).

  4. I don’t know what it’s like to live in an alcoholic family. I do, however, know what its like to have a traumatic, frightening childhood. I know what pure ugliness is…. I used to smile and laugh quite often, but that was before I thoroughly grasped mentally the experiences that made up my life.

    In the past and for most of my life, I’ve relied on bible teachings and principals to bring me stability and happiness. I’ve come to realize that although this practice has not brought me great happiness, it has made me become the person I am today. And, I like who I am.

    Now, if it’s in anyway possible, my wish is that REAL Joy and Smiles may enter my life and stay!

  5. Wow! Cady, thanks, this was really eye opening. I see so much of myself in the Hero, which I never would have labeled myself until I read it. I’m oldest born, had an alcoholic father, my sister turned to alcohol and drugs early on, my son is a recovering addict and my husband has issues, too. I followed right down the path, didn’t I? Through Naranon I did learn not to be an enabler, which has helped me tremendously. But, it’s a constant struggle every day to hold on to one’s own self-worth and identity apart from the struggle of those afflicted. I think you’re an amazing and brave woman. I also see myself in the one who wanted to be an artist, author, actress, etc., but my own self-worth was so low I didn’t think I could achieve anything real. I know better now. Better late than never!

  6. Hero, Scapegoat, Mascot, Lost Child (that one is terrifying to me on every level) — just depends on the day for me I guess. Becoming so self-aware of these things and WANTING to make it better is a step in healing though, right? I mean it gives me a hope that even though something that may be considered broken and may never be fixed, can at least be made better or easier. If that makes sense.

    Grateful you’re slowly helping me learn how to just BE and that that’s enough. Thanks, Cady.

  7. I have always seen my role in my dysfunctional, alcoholic, child-abusing family as the denial-buster, truth sayer. I was surprised to not see that role illustrated.

      1. Thanks for the link, Cady! I guess I was unusual, in that I did not act out with promiscuity, or substance abuse for long. I am also considered a “prude” by many in my family, because I chose the straight and narrow path, compared to what my siblings chose.

        Like you, I found healing in the love and support I received from my husband (we are coming up on our 37th anniversary!), as well as some excellent therapists, a 12-Step program and a loving God.

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