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Addiction and Codependency: The Path to Recovery

Definition of Addiction

Are you or someone you love addicted to alcohol, drugs, or destructive behaviors?

Addiction is not determined by the amount or frequency of use of a substance or behavior. Instead, addiction is defined by the harm experienced from use.

Addiction can involve the use of any drug, including alcohol, or certain destructive behaviors. In the case of addictive behaviors, the behavior triggers the production of brain chemicals that bring excitement and pleasure and therefore they can become addictive. Examples include: gambling, compulsive spending, overeating (and binging/purging), destructive sexual behaviors (including pornography and cheating), workaholism, and even over-exercise.

Addiction can be defined by the presence of one or more of the following:

  • There is harm to the user (emotional, medical, social, vocational, legal, financial, spiritual).
  • There is a loss of control over use (not able to limit use, using despite serious risks or consequences, unpredictibility of behavior when using).
  • Tolerance to the drug may develop (which means that over time it takes more and more of the drug to get the same effect).
  • Physical symptoms of withdrawal whenever use stops (headaches, physical discomfort, cramps, irritability, agitation, anxiety, depression, shakes).
  • There may or may not be an urge, compulsion, or craving to get and use the drug.

Addiction Is a Family Problem

Addiction always involves impaired relationships—it is not like illnesses that are limited to the body of an individual—instead, addiction is an illness of social systems, including family, workplace, and all levels of society.

Because addiction is common, many families will have at least one relative who is addicted. Addictive behavior is destructive and hurts not only the addicted individual, but everyone close to them. All members of the immediate family will feel some degree of increased emotional and physical stress, decreased joy in living, and continued entrapment in the system. They may lose more time from work and have more medical illnesses than persons who don't have family members who are addicted.

Recognizing and Understanding Codependency

Unfortunately, the ways in which family members try to find relief or escape the situation usually makes things worse. Often, they feel overwhelmed and ashamed of the problems caused by the addictive behavior. They try to cope in the only ways they know how, such as by hiding their pain and protecting one another from embarrassment or harm. This can result in enabling behaviors: behaviors which are intended to help, but which actually increase the problems and prevent recovery. These enabling behaviors are symptoms of codependency, which is the term used to label the family's side of the addictive illness.

Typical enabling behaviors are:

  • avoiding or ignoring the destructive behavior of the addicted person
  • lying and other efforts to cover-up or hide the destructive behavior of the addicted person
  • protecting the addicted person from consequences (for example: making rent payments for a relative who spent all his money on drugs/drinking, bailing son out of jail after a DUI, paying attorney fees and fines)
  • lecturing, blaming, criticizing, threatening, and/or arguing with the addicted person
  • buying drugs/alcohol for the addicted person
  • joining in drug/alcohol use or other self-destructive behaviors.

Codependent family members may become obsessed with the addicted individual and with trying to understand, cope with, help, and/or control the addictive behavior. This obsession may manifest in many different ways. Often the codependent person will put their own needs and feelings last, even to the point that they may lose touch with their own feelings and become emotionally numb. Sometimes frustration, resentment, and anger may overwhelm them and they may nag or blast the addicted person with their out-of-control feelings. They may feel ashamed of themselves for their reactions to the addicted person, even if they never express it to the addicted person. Or they may feel ashamed for failing to help the addicted person.

Signs of codependence:

  • persistence in enabling behavior (see above)
  • repeated attempts to control or change the addicted person
  • excessive loyalty and self-sacrifice
  • feeling overwhelmed with anger, resentment, sadness, despair
  • out of control with irritability, nagging, angry outbursts
  • increasing tolerance to turmoil and emotional pain
  • emotional numbness
  • disconnection with or loss of self
  • social isolation
  • denial about the harmful consequences of both the addiction and codependency.

Three Traps Shared by Addiction and Codependency

  • Denial: The inability to recognize the harmful nature of the problem. It may even seem that the person is purposefully refusing to consider the problem. He/she may fail to see obvious facts, ignore painful consequences, and/or distort reality. He/she may have a selective memory or euphoric recall where the "fun" is remembered (and memorialized) and the negative consequences are forgotten. Defense mechanisms work overtime to protect him/her from the realities of the destructive behavior. Denial occurs in individuals, families, workplace, church, law enforcement, and all institutions and levels of society.
  • Isolation: The predictable and progressive loss of healthy relationships. The individual withdraws more and more from people who care and invests increasingly more time, energy, and money in the relationship to the drug (or in codependents, to the relationship with the addicted person). Keeping secrets adds to the isolation and harm.
  • Relapse: Don't underestimate the power and persistence of addiction and codependency, even if the addicted person has not used for years or if the codependent has been apart from the addicted person for years. The work of recovery does not end when use stops or treatment ends. It is crucial for each person involved to have a solid, continuing care plan after treatment. Active involvement in Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Al-Anon (for family and friends) helps with long-term recovery and is the best insurance against relapse. Life coaching can help recovering people to build healthy lives.

Tips for the Family

Usually the addicted person is not the first person within the family to seek help. Whoever first recognizes the problem and seeks help will open the door to recovery for the addicted person and the rest of the family. Effective treatment and lasting recovery require these first steps:

  • Admit the Facts: Addiction thrives on the denial of unpleasant facts. Recovery requires that you admit that you have problems, that your remedies have not worked and will not work, and that your life has become unmanageable.
  • Focus on Yourself: Addiction thrives on people who try to change and control others. Recovery requires that you stop trying to change or fix or control others. Stop blaming others. Stop blaming yourself. Focus on helping and changing yourself. Self-care must be your top priority!
  • Reach Out: Addiction thrives on isolation and ignorance. Recovery requires that you get information and help: read about addictions and codependency, go to Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), Nar Anon, and Gamanon meetings, seek out healthy friends, and get counseling and/or Life Coaching from a professional with expertise in addiction and codependency. You cannot do it alone, but with a little help, you can recover and build a healthy and satisfying life.



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