Reframing codependency as secondhand drinking (or drugging) – for heavens sake, why? and why would it even matter?
In the world of addiction treatment and recovery, we often refer to family members and friends of addicts | alcoholics as “enablers” or “co-dependents.” Their “condition” is called codependency, and they’re encouraged to get help. But to the family member new to recovery terms and concepts, words like codependency | codependent make absolutely no sense and are often dismissed as “not applicable to me.” It is in that moment we lose valuable opportunities to heal the family member and in that healing to help them better help their loved one succeed in long-term recovery.
But if we reframe codependency as secondhand drinking (or drugging) – something that draws a parallel to the concept of secondhand smoke (the impact on others’ health of a person’s smoking) – we have a unique opportunity. It is an opportunity similar to what happened when we shifted our focus from trying to get the smoker to stop smoking and instead to helping others protect themselves from the health consequences of secondhand smoke.
Following this same line of thinking, if we shift our talk away from terms that imply family members did something wrong (were codependent) or something that furthered their loved one’s substance misuse (enabled) to focus on the impacts on them of their loved one’s drinking | drugging behaviors, we cause an attitudinal shift. This shift can change the family member’s perspective and willingness to participate in the recovery process – both theirs and their loved one’s.
And here’s why.
Secondhand Drinking In Concepts Similar to Secondhand Smoke
Secondhand Drinking (SHD) is term to describe the impacts on the person who is on the receiving end of another person’s drinking behaviors. Drinking behaviors include: drunken arguments; crazy, convoluted accusations; verbal, physical or emotional abuse; neglect; driving while impaired, riding in a car with an impaired driver; unprotected, unwanted, unplanned sex, sexual assault; and blackouts. [Secondhand Drugging (SHD) similarly is a term to describe the impacts on the person on the receiving end of another person’s drug misuse behaviors.]
Drinking Behaviors are the behaviors a person engages in as a result of excessive alcohol changing brain function. Again, these drinking (drugging) behaviors include:
- drunken arguments
- physical fights
- verbal; physical or emotional abuse; neglect; bullying
- driving while impaired; riding in a car with an impaired driver; getting a
- unprotected, unwanted, unplanned sex; sexual assault
- problems at work or in school
- domestic violence
Secondhand drinking is what happens to the husband whose wife repeatedly promises to stop or cut down but every night can’t keep her promise. When he confronts her, she starts her offensive attacks on something he has or has not done as the reason for her drinking, causing him to go on the defensive and engage in the crazy, convoluted arguments that ensue. He rehashes these arguments over and over in his mind the next day while at work, unable to complete the task at hand, which holds up the next stage of the project on which his team is working. Their daughter who hears this exchange night after night is unable to study, get a good night’s sleep or invite her friends over for fear her parents will go off. And this has been going on for years…
Secondhand drinking is what happens to the wife and little boy of the veteran who turns to alcohol after his tour of duty ends – alcohol to relieve his untreated PTSD, fears he’ll never find a job, and confused feelings about returning to civilian life. His abuse of alcohol, untreated PTSD, and the combination thereof changes his behaviors drastically. This throws his family into a tailspin as they all jockey for what to do to make him want to stop or get help. It’s what happens to that veteran’s son at school after a particularly rough night of parental arguing about the drinking, when he can’t concentrate in class and is embarrassed by his schoolmate’s snicker when he fails to answer the teacher’s question. He’s fuming by recess and tracks his classmate down, punching him in the face. For that he’s sent to the office, only to have his parents called because he’s a behavioral problem — again.
It doesn’t take an alcoholic to cause secondhand drinking. All it takes is someone who misuses alcohol – meaning someone who drinks more than the liver can process. But if we narrow this to the world of addiction treatment and recovery, it’s estimated there are 23.2 million Americans who struggle with addiction, with only 10% getting the treatment they need. It is estimated there are 100+ million family members who are affected by a loved one’s addiction over the course of this developmental disease’s progression — 100+ million! That’s roughly one-third the population of children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, sisters and brothers-in laws who are affected by a loved one’s drinking (or drugging) behaviors, affected by secondhand drinking (or secondhand drugging). (Check out this related article, “Do You Have to Call Yourself an Alcoholic?“)
Secondhand drinking | drugging (SHD) can forever alter the lives of family members, who, over the course of their ongoing exposure to SHD, become victims, suffering their own consequential physical and emotional impairments. These are due to the brain changes caused by the chronic activation of the fight-or-flight stress response system, a system that engages when confronted with stress – danger – fear – anxiety. As a result of these brain and physical changes, family members repeatedly exposed to SHD often suffer anxiety, depression, stomach ailments, skin problems, obesity, sleep difficulties, migraines and a whole host of other conditions. They experience quality-of-life changes that are beyond a “healthy” person’s comprehension.
Reframing Codependency as Secondhand Drinking | Drugging Can Help
Helping family members and addicts | alcoholics understand SHD and the impacts of the chronic activation of the fight-or-flight stress response system, as well as the impacts of SHD on the children in the family, helps all concerned better appreciate the family needs and must have help – their own help – help that’s independent of that provided or sought by the alcoholic (or addict).
The heartening news is that reframing codependency as secondhand drinking (or drugging) can help family members become more open to learning about the chronic, often relapsing – but treatable – brain disease of addiction (whether the addiction is to alcohol or drugs). This understanding can shatter the shame and guilt and blame. It can open the family to better appreciate their loved one had no “choice” but to lie, cheat, steal and break their promises. They will understand why their loved one may have relapsed, especially if their loved one has a mental illness in addition to their addiction. They will understand that the treatment world and society as a whole recognizes the devastating impacts of secondhand drinking and wants and supports their recovery, as well. As importantly, they and society as a whole will recognize that preventing secondhand drinking (not prohibition, but preventing the alcohol misuse that causes drinking behaviors) will help the innocent children who are even more caught in the crossfire of the insanity because they have even less control, and in that helping, we can break the cycles. (Check out this related post, “Why a Child of an Alcoholic | Addict “Chooses” to Drink or Do Drugs.”)
There is so much that can be done if we reframe codependency as secondhand drinking (or drugging). For a more complete picture, please consider purchasing my book, “Loved One In Treatment? Now What!” The first half covers what happened to the alcoholic | addiction and the second half half covers what happens to the family member, including treatment and recovery for both. And, it’s just 120 pages!