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Family Roles in Addiction
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In the last section, we discussed forms of anger within the families of addicts, These included instructive anger, safe-guarding anger, and relationship anger.
In this section, we will discuss the caretaking trap. This involves family members feeling they have no choice, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, feeling guilt and shame, and being well-intentioned.
♦ Caregiver vs. Caretaker
As you know, caregivers do good things for other people. They’re the first to take you to a movie to cheer you up if you’re down, the ones who are always finding ways to make people’s lives better. Caretakers also do things for other people. Unlike caregivers, caretakers’ efforts have been hijacked by someone’s addiction. Caretakers are the people who pay an addict’s rent or bail, clean up all the messes, and generally take care of everything. As you listen to the rest of this section, think of your clients who are caretakers for their addicted family member?
4 Caretaker Traps
♦ Caretaker Trap # 1 - No Choice
Caregivers do things for people because it makes them happy. Caretakers do things for the addict because they feel they have no choice; if they stop, terrible things will happen to the addict. Caretaking usually starts small, like lending a few dollars, but as the addiction spirals out of control, so does the caretaking.
Michael, a marketing director at a large company, was very concerned about his son’s safety. Jeff, 19, was addicted to heroin. Michael didn’t want Jeff going into bad neighborhoods to buy the drug. Instead, when Jeff needed more heroin, Michael would drive into the inner city, buy the drug, and deliver it to the apartment he had rented for Jeff. Michael’s wife, Anna, told me, "I was ok with it at first. I was really worried about what Jeff might get into. But then at Christmas, Michael left in the middle of dinner to get Jeff more heroin. That’s when I really realized what a problem this was."
♦ Caretaker Trap # 2 - Avoiding Pain & Seeking Pleasure
Michael found he couldn’t stop taking care of all of Jeff’s problems. Deep down, he still believed that by rescuing his son, he could beat back Jeff’s heroin addiction. Every time Michael was able to avert a disaster in Jeff’s life, it reinforced his belief that he was doing the right thing. When Jeff was in crisis, Michael was in emotional turmoil. When the crisis ended, he would feel overwhelming relief. This relief was Michael’s reward. Michael was controlled by the two most powerful forces in life- avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.
As Jeff’s addiction worsened, his sisters began to drift away from him emotionally. Michael saw himself as having a special bond with his son. Even though they would fight, Michael felt he understood Jeff better than anyone else in the family, and that he was the only one who could help Jeff. Michael would even get angry at his wife, Anna, when she criticized Jeff’s behavior or told him he should be more responsible. Anna told me, "Michael would say I didn’t understand Jeff, and that I should back off. Sometimes, it was like there was a wall between Michael and me."
♦ Caretaker Trap # 3 - Feeling Guilt & Shame
Feelings of guilt and shame also tie into caretaking behavior. Many caretakers feel that they somehow caused the addiction, or that they should have seen it coming. Michael blamed himself for Jeff’s addiction to heroin because he had been lenient with Jeff when he found a joint in Jeff’s backpack during his son’s freshman year of high school. Michael also worried constantly that his friends were thinking that he had failed his son, which kept him locked into the role of protecting Jeff.
♦ Caretaker Trap # 4 - Being Well-Intentioned
Caretakers usually are well-intentioned. They want to do the right thing, and don’t realize that their efforts are not helping, but are instead making it easier for the disease of addiction to persist. Caretaking feels right, especially when the caretakers is the parent of the addict, and they are understandably confused. Almost every major religion in the world teaches its followers that you are supposed to take care of someone who is in trouble.
I asked Michael to consider the following question: "How would I want my family to respond if I were the one with the addiction? Would I want them to merely fix the problems caused by addiction, or would I want them to challenge the addiction itself?" Would your caretaker client benefit from thinking about this question?
♦ 'Setting a Boundary' Exercise - 6 Steps
I guided Michael through the Setting a Boundary exercise.
Step # 1 - Identify the Person
My first step with Michael, was to identify the person he needed to set a boundary with: his son, Jeff.
Step # 2 - Identify the Boundary
Second, I asked Michael to write down his intention - what boundary did he want to set. Michael decided that he did not want to buy heroin for Jeff anymore; dropping everything when Jeff called needing drugs was costing him at work, with his friends, and with Anna.
Step # 3 - Identify Support
Third, Michael decided that his wife Anna would be his support person.
Step # 4 - Plan to Vent
Fourth, I talked with Michael about what he would do to vent his emotions when he refused to go purchase heroin for Jeff. We agreed that Michael would install a punching bag in his basement, so that he could work out his feelings physically in a safe manner.
Step # 5 - Identify the Raw-Truth
Next, I asked Michael to identify the raw truth - exactly why it was not possible for him to buy Jeff’s heroin any more. Michael said, "First, if I got arrested, there would be no one to help Jeff anymore. And having to be ready to leave at any time to go get heroin means I’m doing poorly at work, and I can’t go out to dinner with Anna anymore." I then role-played with Michael, so that he could decide how he could tell this to Jeff in a loving manner.
Step # 6 - Practice & Plan the Conversation
Michael came up with the following: "Son, I can’t keep driving to the city at any time to buy for you anymore. I don’t have any time to myself anymore, and I can’t keep my job if I keep having to leave during the day. I also need time to spend with your mother and sisters. I still want to spend time with you, and be there if you need me, but I can’t buy heroin for you any more." Finally, we agreed that Michael would have this conversation with Jeff within a month.
In this section, we have discussed the caretaking trap. This involves family members feeling they have no choice, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, feeling guilt and shame, and being well-intentioned.
In the next section, we will discuss the blame game, in which placing blame on other family members keeps focus away from the addict’s addiction.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bijttebier, P., & Goethals, E. (2006). Parental drinking as a risk factor for children's maladjustment: The mediating role of family environment. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 20(2), 126–130.
Duncan, T. E., Duncan, S. C., & Hops, H. (1996). The role of parents and older siblings in predicting adolescent substance use: Modeling development via structural equation latent growth methodology. Journal of Family Psychology, 10(2), 158–172.
Joyner, K. J., Acuff, S. F., Meshesha, L. Z., Patrick, C. J., & Murphy, J. G. (2018). Alcohol family history moderates the association between evening substance-free reinforcement and alcohol problems. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 26(6), 560–569.
Roy, A. L., Isaia, A., & Li-Grining, C. P. (2019). Making meaning from money: Subjective social status and young children’s behavior problems. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(2), 240–245.
Rusby, J. C., Light, J. M., Crowley, R., & Westling, E. (2018). Influence of parent–youth relationship, parental monitoring, and parent substance use on adolescent substance use onset. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(3), 310–320.
What two powerful life forces control a caretaker? To select and enter your answer go to .