Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy

When someone is struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse, or any other sort of addiction, they sometimes feel they are the only person who is impacted by it.  This is part of the reason that they sometimes dismiss other people’s pleas to notice or change their behaviors—they don’t understand that addiction affects many people, not just themselves.

Even when the drinking, drugging, excessive shopping, gambling, porn, overeating, internet– whatever the dependence is– occurs in private, the effects are felt much more widely than that. Many addicts believe nobody knows about their addiction—but even when people somehow don’t “know” what exact behaviors are occurring beyond their presence, they certainly are affected by the consequences of them. People can, to a certain extent, “hide” an addiction—but not the fall-out from it.

For instance, some addictions (especially drinking or using illegal or prescription drugs excessively) have lingering physical effects that render the person unable to do many things responsibly (such as drive, help with family needs, competently perform on the job, etc).  Most addictions are expensive, and use money that sometimes would have gone to family or other needs. Addictions are time-consuming, and eat into the quality of all relationships for that reason.

All of those are situations that very much involve others—and may leave them feeling powerless to do anything about what is happening, usually angry and often very much hurt. Often the addict is either not allowing him or herself to hear the emotions of those around, or has convinced him/herself the responses are somehow exaggerated. People may feel worn out, exhausted from trying, with no success, to get the addict to know what their behavior is doing to them. Generally, this begins a downward turn to the relationships involved, as people around the addict withdraw, become depressed or chronically angry and start to feel as trapped by the addictive behavior as the addict does.People who are caught in addictive behaviors are generally less emotionally present to others.  In fact, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the addictive substance or behavior becomes very much like a whole other relationship. Partners and friends notice that their own needs may go unmet, often find that they are forced to change last minute plans because they cannot predict the addict’s behaviors, or spend a lot of time feeling lonely—as it is the case that when someone is compulsively caught in addictive behaviors they can’t simultaneously be fully present in/to other personal relationships.

Adults can at least tell their partners or friends how they feel; however, children are not able to do that.  But they suffer when their parents are not emotionally or physically present to do things with (or for) them.  Worse of all, of course, is when children are witness to—or victims of—abuse that is related to the out-of-control behaviors of their parents (or other adults). They have no way to stop violence on their own.When partners, whole families, or even more extended networks—like everyone in an office setting—are affected by one person’s addiction, they sometimes fall into denial (much as an addict often does)—hence the term “co-dependent”, or they spend much valuable time trying to find ways to compensate or cover up for that person’s behaviors, or they decide to terminate the relationship entirely. None of this leads to a good outcome. Often it takes a very long time for the addicted person to even begin to “hear” the comments of others—so convinced are they that their behavior is not outside the norm or not noticed.  By the time that happens, much emotional and physical damage may already have taken place.

Often professional help is needed to address the primary addiction itself, as well as all the peripheral consequences to others around. It is very important in considering therapy for addiction that family members be willing to participate as well. It is not uncommon for them to take the attitude of “Well, ‘it’s YOUR problem, so you fix it.”  However, this almost always results in an incomplete recovery.  Therapy for an addiction usually has the best chance of a positive recovery when people close to the addict participate as well.

Kathi Whitten, LCSW   copyright 2010