Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2012

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Have you ever been concerned about a family member or friend’s alcohol or drug use, or had that feeling that something is just not right? If you think there is a problem, then it’s likely there is. And in order to understand how addiction can affect family members and friends we first have to understand what addiction is.

Addiction is a chronic disease that is progressive and, far too often, fatal. It is believed that addiction is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Recovery is an ongoing effort, and it is a process that requires the support of other people in recovery. Once someone is in recovery, relapse is always possible and total abstinence from all mood altering drugs and alcohol is necessary to maintain recovery.

Recovery is not just maintaining sobriety. In sobriety you stop using, but all your problems still remain and often get worse. There isn’t one definition of recovery, but it is a process of building a new life through sobriety and making necessary changes in your life including your health, behaviors, and lifestyle. 

Relapse is a progression that begins long before the person picks up alcohol or drugs. It begins by slipping back into old behaviors and thought processes.

A common question: “Is it a relapse if the alcoholic or addict uses another drug?” 

A drug is a drug is a drug.

Look at it this way: If someone is an alcoholic and they only drank beer, but after 6 months of sobriety they start drinking vodka, did they relapse? Of course they did. It doesn’t make any difference what mood altering drug, including alcohol, is chosen; it is still a relapse. To think that you or someone you know hasn’t relapsed because they chose another mood altering drug is called denial, a defense mechanism that someone uses to avoid something that is uncomfortable. 

We have all used denial at some time in our life. It is an automatic response out of fear of looking bad, or to avoid unpleasant consequences. Think about when you were a child and were caught taking a cookie before dinner. Your immediate response might have been to say, “I wasn’t taking a cookie,” or “I just wanted to see if we have any left.” In addiction, denial may be used to avoid giving up a dependency you don’t feel you can do without or are not ready to do without.

In addiction, denial can come from the addict, family, or friends. It can be expressed through many forms of rationalization – dishonesty, self-deception, excuses, or justifications. Through all this denial, the person actually believes that they don’t have a problem, it is under control, or the problem is not that bad. It is as if they have blinders on.

How Does Addiction Affect the Addict’s Family and Friends?

  • Family and friends may be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, potentially putting the addict or others in danger, for example knowing that they are driving under the influence.
  • Walking on “egg shells” because the thoughts and feelings of the family are controlled by the rapidly shifting moods of the addict, often destroying the family unit.
  • Family and friends being burdened by the addict’s constant state of chaos and problems caused by the addict’s addiction, for example losing their job, financial problems, relationship issues, or fluctuating moods.
  • Children overcompensating for confusion and chaos in the family by possibly over achieving in school or acting out.
  • Family members and friends can often feel responsible for the addict and curing their illness.
  • Addicts are preoccupied with their alcohol and drug use. Their life revolves around it, and they isolate from friends and family.
  • Family members and friends can become codependent – putting the needs of the relationship before your own needs or, by definition, “making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself.”
  • Addict’s continuous lying and manipulation breaks down trust, and relationships are lost.
  • Everyone knows the addiction exists, but no one talks about it, causing a constant stressful and tense environment.
  • Constant state of worry.
  • Family members and friends begin to enable the addict.

How Not to be an Enabler

Sometimes the best way to help an addict is to stop helping. What we believe is “helping” may actually be hurting the addict in the long run and prolonging the illness. For example, each time you give someone money or call the boss because your husband or significant other is hung over or under the influence, keeps the addict from feeling the consequences of their behavior. By providing a safety net, the addict never needs to take responsibility for their actions and therefore doesn’t need to get better.

Examples of enabling include:

  • Making phone calls for the person that they should be making themselves.
  • Lending or giving money for anything including food, rent, or clothing.
  • Making excuses for the addict’s behavior with family members and friends.
  • Being available every time the person needs to vent about their problems.
  • Taking care of the person when sick from using alcohol or drugs.
  • Ignoring that little feeling that tells you that your friend or family member may have a problem or has relapsed.

The addict will not get help if you keep bailing them out of their problems. As hard as it is, sometimes the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, and let the addict suffer the consequences of their behavior, take responsibility, and make the choice to get help.

If you are concerned about yourself, a family member, or a friend, please contact the Lawyer Assistance Program for free, confidential counseling at (443) 703-3041 or (800) 492-1964. You can also email us at jquinn@msba.org or lcaplan@msba.org.

Lisa Caplan, LCSW-C, CAC, is Program Counselor for the MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2012

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