“The Dance” — Addiction is a Family Disease

Codependency and addiction – they go hand-in-hand and eventually become something of a dance. Let me explain…

Addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol) affects everyone in the family, which is why it’s commonly referred to as a “family disease.” It causes members of a family to develop coping methods that help them interact with one another because no one really knows , understands and/or is willing to admit, let alone confront, the underlying problem – namely that substance misuse (not the job or the kids or a bad day at the office…) has changed the way a loved one thinks, how they feel, what they say and what they do. I call it, “The Dance.”

To help you more fully understand what I mean by “The Dance,” as well as my suggestions for change, let me first give you some background on one of my own Dance stories…

If a loved one enters a residential treatment program – it usually lasts around 28 days. At the end of treatment, clients are encouraged to go to an SLE – Sober Living Environment. That can be their home (as long as all alcohol has been removed and all persons in the home agree to abstain from drinking), or it can be a treatment center sponsored SLE (usually a home in a residential neighborhood where other clients also reside, along with an employee of the treatment center), or it can be a similar type of a facility.

Now to my experience… [please note, if you’ve been following BTC, much of this is a re-sharing of my original post of a previous year, “The Dance – Understanding the Alcoholic / Codependent Relationship.”]

I’d told my loved one of my fears about what might happen if he insisted on coming home as his SLE, instead of following the treatment center’s recommendation and going to one of theirs. Yet, when the time came, he started doing that “thing” he did, and I started doing that “thing” I did. He with that “I’m so sorry” expression, pressing me to let him come to our home instead of a treatment center SLE, to let him do what he wanted — playing on the notion that if I loved him, I would. And there I was acting on my feeling that I needed to somehow make it okay for him because if I loved him, I should. After all, he’d stopped drinking, gone into rehab — what more could I want or expect him to do? But I wasn’t ready. I was scared – what if I didn’t do what he needed done and he relapsed. And I was enjoying not having the constant worry about “what if…”.

It was us doing the “dance” we’d done a thousand times before. That day, I was furious to find myself even considering doing it, again. I erupted!

I erupted from a place so deep — a place where years of broken promises, lies, disappointments and deceit had festered, until this one. . . more. . . tiny. . . little request proved to be the last straw. I erupted because I simply didn’t know how to feel, let alone say, “No, this isn’t right for me. I don’t care if it’s right for you or the man in the moon. It isn’t right for me!

Instead, I was getting it all mixed up in my love for him and my ingrained belief that I had to do what he wanted as a demonstration of that love. I was getting it all mixed up in my belief that not doing so would be selfish on my part and in my world, being selfish was bad, bad, bad. Suddenly, it all came crashing in, and my fury poured out as we engaged one more time in the dance of manipulation we both did so well – a dance choreographed by years of fear, anger, addiction, codependency, and love.

In dancing, it only takes one partner to change the step and thus the entire dance; it may even end the dance. The same is true in a family’s recovery from this family disease of addiction. You see, everyone in the family changes to some extent – they have to in order to cope. But it’s that changing that contributes to the family disease because no one is talking about the truth of the matter (generally because no one fully understands what it is). And that is that addiction — the substance of abuse — has chemically, structurally and functionally changed a loved one’s brain. Therefore, as long as the substance is in the system — that loved one’s brain — there can be no other outcome. What they say, do, think, feel is muddled / clouded by the compromised brain function caused by their disease. Trying to control or work around or adapt to that changed brain is what confounds the family members and causes them to change, as well.

What’s the answer? Stop the DENIAL that substance misuse isn’t the problem — it IS. It’s not the kids, spouse, bad day at the office…. It is substance misuse triggering the embedded, hijacked, addiction-related brain maps and thereby compromised brain functioning. If the addict/alcoholic cannot control their brains while impaired, the family member certainly can’t control their loved one because the brain is what controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does.

It just takes one to stop the dance, to change the steps and start a new dance. But if both change and learn the new steps and practice those steps, together, a new dance is created. Sometimes one or both will go back to the old one – that’s normal – it’s what is most comfortable; it’s what they’ve practiced for years. But a new dance is possible. It may be together; it may be solo, but it is possible. It takes learning the new steps, and it takes a lot of practice.

Suggestions for partners (addict/alcoholic, parent, spouse, child, sibling) wanting to change their dance:

  1. Accept that addiction (whether it’s to drugs or alcohol) is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It is not a moral weakness, nor a shameful lack of willpower. It is generally a misunderstood disease that often goes undiagnosed for some time. Until diagnosed and treated, it causes the person with the disease to act and behave in ways they normally would not act or behave because of the chemical, structural and functional changes in the brain caused by the disease.
  2. Accept that your partner (or you) has/have the disease.
  3. Accept that the partner dealing their addict/alcoholic partner’s undiagnosed, misunderstood, unhealthily discussed brain disease has suffered their own brain and physical changes; brain and physical changes that must also be addressed and/or treated, if necessary.
  4. Understand that healing the brain disease is complicated and takes time but there are many, many options for doing so.
  5. Do not look to one another for help, otherwise you will pick up your old dance. Seek individual help (there’s plenty of time for partners’ help down the line once everyone is more settled in their individual recovery) and do what you can immediately to start healing your brain: nutritional eating, exercise, adequate sleep, mindfulness practices. If necessary, get therapy with a professional who is an addictions specialist around any underlying issues, such as childhood trauma or mental illness.
  6. Most importantly – Relax. Breathe. It takes time, but there is great joy to be had in moments of every day. Just remember, you’re learning new steps, a new dance. It will take practice, but the learning and practice can be interesting, fun, engaging… as well as life-changing along the way.

My book, Loved One In Treatment? Now What!, provides more detail and implementation suggestions on all of these concepts (and it’s just over 100 pages, so it’s a relatively quick read!).

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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14 Responses to “The Dance” — Addiction is a Family Disease

  1. Hi Lisa,

    This is such great advice, and I appreciated hearing your story along with your frustrations with the whole process. The line becomes so blurred when we are trying to decide how much of a problem drinking really is. Drinking and drugs like marijuana can go on for decades, because the user can hide, manipulate and deny their addiction, while the family members suffer the consequences. It is a dance, and until the decision to get help is made, the destructive steps continue on and on.

  2. ava says:

    I don’t agree with the “family disease” mantra.
    Our son developed his substance abuse during the years he lived away from home, and returned home for a few weeks “to get on his feet” after a breakup and proceeded to overdose in our house without warning.
    My husband and I work in social services and we are well aware of addiction. We have had open and honest communication about our opposition to drug use throughout our children’s lives. Neither of us even drinks alcohol.
    It is crystal clear to us that our son has a significant substance abuse problem and that he has suffered brain damage as one result. We are not in denial or unable to confront the issue. He has decided that all of his issues are someone else’s fault- often mine- and tries to make his addiction a family problem, but we are unwilling to permit that. He is responsible for his choices and for their results. We did our best as parents and he has nothing to complain about. He cannot force us or manipulate us to tolerate his intolerable actions.
    As much as we want him to recover, he has to want it more.

    • Thank you so much for adding your comment and experience with your son’s addiction, Ava. Not all families are alike, to be sure, and not all have long periods of living together while the addiction is active – which is typically how the the dynamics of this as a family disease get set up. It sounds like you’ve set firm boundaries, which is the most important thing you can do.

  3. […] can continue to love family members whether they are living the way you want them to or […]

  4. Pete says:

    Good article and advise.

    I have a 20 year old son who is addicted to marijuana. He has been to a 21 day treatment facility but relapsed soon after coming back and has since been in and out of recovery. I understand that this is a relapsing disease but also understand that unless the individual really wants to break the cycle there is little the family can do apart from not enabling.

  5. Laurie Cota says:

    I really appreciate this article and your thoughts…
    Addiction is a disease. One that consumes an entire family.
    It is the fatal disease that took my son from me.
    I look forward to following your blog.
    -Laurie Cota

    • Oh Laurie – I am so very, very sorry that this disease proved fatal for your son. I appreciate you sharing with BTC readers to help further the understanding that addiction is a disease, and it can be fatal.

      I went to your blog, Dear Maks – Reshaping My Life after the Death of My Son, and am sharing the link so other readers can find the powerful posts you share about your experiences ~ ~ http://www.dearmaks.blogspot.com/ Thank you…

  6. […] is a family disease. It doesn’t just drop from the sky and land in your household by random. There is a reason that […]

  7. Carol says:

    Great article.. Thank you. The term “dance” is so prevalent in my relationship; at this moment I’m contemplating separation as a way to find my own recovery. Our 34 year marriage is on the line as we face issues developed from both of us lacking to take responsibility for our own actions. His denial and refusal to take responsibility for his health and wellness has landed him with open-heart surgery , forced early retirement, and financial hardship for us. My inability to detatch has certainly not helped the situation; in fact, this dance continues today with one more drink and my walking away from “our” home responsibilities and/or facing anything that reminds me of his addiction. I’m realizing that this dance is causing the deterioration of what was once a great bond. Thank you for this article. It helped put some perspective on the subject and the need to take responsibility; if only for my part in this family illness. I can only hope and pray he finds his own way.

    • I’m so glad to hear this article has helped you, Carol. You may find some other helpful articles on this site in the secondhand drinking | help for families section. I wish you all the best.

  8. […] is a family disease. It doesn’t just drop from the sky and land in your household by random. There is a reason that […]

  9. […] Mar 8, 2012 … The same is true in a family's recovery from this family disease of addiction. …. Filed Under: Alcoholism | Drug Addiction Treatment | Recovery, … [more] […]

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