The Overview of Addiction and the Family System

Addiction to drugs or alcohol hurts the whole family. A family is sometimes referred to by therapists as a system. That might sound overly analytical or technical, but it will help you to think of it this way: remember the mobile you hung over the crib for your baby to play with? Lots of different toys hang down on strings, but they are all attached to each other, directly or indirectly. If the baby bats one toy, all the toys will move. 

But think about this: sometimes, if the baby sets one toy spinning, another toy that isn’t even close by may be affected in such a way as to swing or spin even when the ones in between aren’t moving around much. All are connected, sometimes in ways that seem tangential or indirect, and when one starts spinning or swinging, any or all of them can become upset too.

Consider a knitted sweater. If you get a pull or a loose thread in the sweater, the tension or scrunching up of the fabric can be seen inches away from the loose thread, and that problem can affect the whole garment. Similarly, a family is one whole made of several interrelated parts. A problem, illness, or addiction in one member affects everyone. Thus, taking drugs or drinks is a disease that affects the entire family. In some cases, it is needed to conduct family therapy for addiction.

Addiction can lead to cause dysfunctional families, which can be upsetting. The family continues to function, but the functioning happens within the context of pain. People get hurt, promises get broken, misunderstandings occur, but the family soldiers on, often hiding pain so that to the outside world, it looks like the family is functional.

One aspect of this painful functioning has to do with the unspoken rules that families are dealing with addiction insist upon. These rules are so ubiquitous among families struggling with addiction that they can be listed out, like symptoms of a disease. Often family members, when confronted with this list of family rules, heave a collective sigh of relief and disbelief, and how is it that my secret inner life is so knowable to the rest of the world? But that is how consistent these unspoken rules are. These rules include the following:

They do not talk about anything real. This is where the saying “don’t mention the elephant in the living room” came from. The elephant is the addiction, and like an elephant, it is so obvious you have to walk around it to go anywhere, and everything you do involves managing it. However, none of the family members addresses the problem.

They do not express their emotions. They do not remain honest or open to each other. In fact, they do not have emotions if at all possible. If they do, you risk breaking the first rule, which is to address the addiction.

They do not trust anymore. They do not trust anyone, not themselves, not their family members, not their therapist, and not their pastor or even God. The pain of addiction and the rollercoaster of hope and disappointment lead to this rule.

For dealing with this situation, mention the elephant in the living room becomes obligatory, i.e., go for family therapy for addiction treatment.

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