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Family & The Relapse Syndrome

By: Terence T. Gorski

In many cases the addict is the first family member to seek treatment. Other family members become involved in order to help the alcoholic get sober. Many family members refuse to consider the fact that they also have a problem that requires specialized treatment. These family members tend to deny their role in their addicted family and scapegoat personal and family problems upon the addicted person. They develop unrealistic expectations of how family life will improve with their loved one getting abstinent. When these expectations are not met, they blame the addict for the failure, even though he or she may be successfully following a recovery program. Their attitudes and behaviors can become such complicating factors in the addict’s recovery that they can contribute to the process of relapse and even “set-up” the addict’s next “episode of use.”

On the other hand family members can be powerful allies in helping the addict prevent fully engaging the relapse process. Relapse Prevention Planning utilizes the family’s motivation to get the addict sober. As family members become involved in relapse prevention planning, a strong focus is placed upon co-addiction and its role in the family relapse process. Family members are helped to recognize their own co-addiction and become actively involved in their own treatment. Addiction is a family disease that affects all family members, requiring everyone to get involved in treatment. The addict needs treatment for addiction. Other family members need treatment for co-addiction.

The term “co-addiction” is sometimes used to refer only to the spouse of an addict and other terms are used to refer to other family members. We are using the term “co-addict” to refer to ANYONE WHOSE LIFE HAS BECOME UNMANAGEABLE AS A RESULT OF LIVING IN A COMMITTED RELATIONSHIP WITH AN ADDICTED PERSON.

Co-addiction is a definable syndrome that is chronic and follows a predictable progression. When persons in a committed relationship with an addicted person attempt to control drinking, drug use, or addictive behavior (over which they are powerless), they lose control over their own behavior (over which they can have power) and their lives become unmanageable.

When you try to control

What you are powerless over

You lose control

Over what you can manage.

The person suffering from co-addiction develops physical, psychological, and social symptoms as a result of attempting to adapt to and compensate for the debilitating effects of the stress of living with someone who is addicted. As the co-addiction progresses, the stress-related symptoms become habitual. The symptoms also become self-reinforcing; that is, the presence of one symptom of co-addiction will automatically trigger other co-addiction symptoms. The co-addiction eventually becomes independent of the addiction that originally caused it. The symptoms of co-addiction will continue even if the addicted person in the family becomes sober or joins AA/NA, or the co-addict ends the relationship.

The condition of co-addiction manifests itself in three stages of progression.

Early Stage: Normal Problem Solving and Attempts to Adjust

The normal reaction within any family to pain, to crisis, and to the dysfunction of one member of the family is to do what they can to reduce the pain, ease the crisis, and to assist the dysfunctional member however possible in order to protect the family. These responses do not make things better when the problem is addiction, because these measures deprive the addicted person of the painful learning experiences that bring an awareness that his/her addiction is creating problems. At this stage, co-addiction is simply a reaction to the symptoms of addictive disease. It is a normal response to an abnormal situation.

Middle Stage: Habitual Self-Defeating Responses

When the culturally prescribed responses to stress and crisis do no bring relief from the pain created by the addiction in the family, the family members TRY HARDER. They do the same things, only more often, more intensely, mores desperately. They try to be more supportive, more helpful, more protective. They take on the responsibilities of the addicted person, not realizing that this causes the addict to become more irresponsible.

Things get worse instead of better and the sense of failure intensifies the response. Family members experience frustration, anxiety, and guilt. There is growing self-blame, lowering of self-concept, and self-defeating behaviors. They become isolated. They focus on the addict’s addictive behavior and their attempt to control it. They have little time to focus on anything else. As a result they often lose touch with the normal world outside of their family.

Chronic Stage: Family Collapse and Stress Degeneration

The continued habitual response to addiction in the family results in specific repetitive, circular patterns of self-defeating behavior. These behavior patterns are independent and self-reinforcing and will persist even in the absence of the symptoms of addictive disease.

The things the family members have done in a sincere effort to help have failed. The resulting despair and guilt bring about confusion and chaos and the inability to interrupt dysfunctional behavior even when they are aware that what they are doing is not helping. The thinking and behavior of the co-addict is OUT OF CONTROL, and these thinking and behavior patterns will continue independent of the addiction.

Co-addict degeneration is bio-psycho-social. The ineffective attempts to control drinking and drugging behavior elevate chronic stress to the point of producing stress-related physical illnesses such as migraine headaches, ulcers, and hypertension. This chronic stress may also result in a nervous breakdown or other emotional illnesses. Out-of-control behavior itself is an addiction-centered lifestyle that pervades all life activity, even that which seems unrelated to the addiction. Social degeneration occurs as the addiction focus interferes with relationships and social activity. Spiritual degeneration results, as the focus on the problem becomes so pervasive that there is no interest in anything beyond it, particularly concerns and need related to a higher meaning of life.

Recovery from co-addiction means learning to accept and detach from the symptoms of addiction. It means learning to manage and control the symptoms of co-addiction. It means learning to focus on personal needs and personal growth, learning to respect and like oneself. It means learning to choose appropriate behavior. It means learning to be in control of one’s own life.

Because it is a chronic condition, co-addiction, like addiction, is subject to relapse. But a condition of co-addict relapse may be more difficult to identify. Without an ongoing recovery program and proper care of oneself, old feelings and behaviors thought to be under control may surface and become out of control. Life again becomes unmanageable; the co-addict is in relapse mode.

RELAPSE WARNING SIGNS FOR CO-ADDICTION

From the observation of counselors who have worked with recovering family members, relapse warning signs for the co-addicted significant other have emerged. The following list has been compiled from these observations.

1.      Situational Loss of Daily Structure. The family member’s daily routine is interrupted by a temporary situation such as illness, the children’s schedule, the holidays, vacation, etc. After the event or illness, the significant other does not return to all of the activities of his or her recovery program.

2.     Lack of Personal Care. The significant other becomes careless about personal appearance and may stop doing and enjoying small things that are “just for own personal enjoyment.” The person returns to taking care of others first and self second or third.

3.     Inability to Effectively Set and Maintain Limits. The significant other begins to experience behavioral problems with the children or roommates. Limits that are being set tend to be too lenient or too rigid and result in more discipline problems.

4.      Loss of Constructive Planning. The significant other begins to feel confused and overwhelmed by personal responsibilities. Instead of deciding what is most important and doing that, he or she begins to react by doing the first thing that presents itself, while more important jobs go undone.

5.     Indecision. The significant other becomes more and more unable to make decisions related to daily life.

6.      Compulsive Behavior. The significant other experiences episodes during which he or she feels driven to do more. Whatever has already been done does not seem to be enough.

7.      Fatigue or Lack of Rest. He or she becomes unable to sleep the number of hours necessary to feel rested. When sleep does occur, it is fitful.

8.      Return of Unreasonable Resentments. The significant other finds himself or herself mentally reviewing persons or events that have hurt, angered, or been generally upsetting. As these are reviewed, the significant other relives the old emotions and feels resentments about them.

9.      Return of the Tendency to Control People, Situations, and Things. As the co-addicted significant other feels less control over life, he or she begins openly to try to control and manipulate other people or situations. The addicted person may be the prime target, but does not necessarily have to be.

10.  Defensiveness. The co-addicted person may not totally approve of some of his or her own actions, but when challenged about them will openly justify the actions in a sharp or angry way.

11.  Self-Pity. The co-addict begins to dwell on problems from the present or the past and in turn begins to magnify them. The significant other person may ask, “Why does everything always happen to me?”

12.  Overspending/Worrying about Money. The significant other may be very concerned about the family finances, yet impulsively spends money in order to “feel better.” He or she becomes convinced that what was purchased was deserved, but ends up feeling guilty and even more trapped.

13.  Eating Disorder. The significant other “loses” his or her appetite to the point that even favorite foods are not appealing. Or the significant other may begin to overeat, regardless of appetite, in order to feel better. The overeating satisfies for only a very short time, or not at all.

14.  Scapegoating. There is an increasing tendency to place the blame on other people, places, and things. The co-addict looks outside of self for the reasons why he or she is feeling bad.

15.  Return of Fear and General Anxiety. The significant other begins to experience periods of time when he or she is nervous. Situations that previously did not cause fear or anxiety are now causing those emotions. The significant other may not even know the source of the nervousness.

16.  Loss of Belief in a Higher Power. The significant other begins to lose belief in a higher power, whatever it may be. There is a tendency to rely more on self-alone, or to turn to the addict for strength and the solutions.

17.  Attendance at Al-Anon Becomes Sporadic. The significant other changes the pattern of Al-Anon meeting attendance. He or she may go to fewer meetings, thinking there isn’t time, the meetings aren’t helping, or are not needed.

18.  Mind Racing. The significant other feels as though he or she is on a treadmill that is going too fast. In spite of attempts to slow down, the mind continues to race with the many things that are undone or the problems that are unsolved.

19.  Inability to Construct a Logical Chain of Thought. The significant other tries to solve problems and gets stuck on something that would normally be simple. It seems that his or her mind does not work anymore, that it is impossible to figure out the world. As a result, he or she feels powerless and frustrated with life.

20.  Confusion. The significant other knows they are feeling out-of-sorts, but don’t know what is actually wrong.

21.  Sleep Disturbance. Sleeplessness or fitful nights become more regular. The more the person tries to sleep, the less he or she is able to. Sleep may come, but it is not restful. The significant other looks tired in the morning instead of rested.

22.  Artificial Emotion. The co-addict significant other begins to exhibit feelings without a conscious knowledge of why. He or she may become emotional for no reason at all.

23.  Behavioral Loss of Control. The co-addict begins to lose control of his or her temper especially around the addict and/or the children or roommates. Loss of behavioral control is exhibited in such ways as over-punishing the children, hitting and yelling at the addict, or throwing things and tantrums.

24.  Uncontrollable Mood Swings. Changes in the co-addict’s moods happen without any warning. The shifts are dramatic. He or she no longer feels somewhat down or somewhat happy, but instead goes from feeling extremely happy to extremely low.

25. Failure to Maintain Interpersonal (Informal) Support Systems. The co-addict stops reaching out to friends and family. This may happen very gradually. He or she turns down invitations for coffee, misses’ family gatherings, and no longer makes or returns phone calls.

26.  Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation. The co-addict begins to spend more time alone. He or she usually rationalizes this behavior – too busy, the children, school, job, etc. Instead of dealing with the loneliness, the co-addict becomes more compulsive and impulsive. The isolation may be justified by convincing him or herself that no one understands or really cares.

27.  Tunnel Vision. No matter what the issue or situation might be, the co-addict focuses in on his or her opinion or decision and is unable to see other points of view. He or she may become close-minded.

28.  Return of Periods of Free Floating Anxiety and/or Panic Attacks. The co-addict may begin to re-experience, or experience for the first time, waves of anxiety that seem to occur for no specific reason. He or she may feel afraid and not know why. These uncontrollable feelings may snowball to the point that he or she is living in fear of fear.

 

(Go To Family Page Two)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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01/28/2001