News about the rise in addiction in the U.S. focuses mostly on the addicts — how they got hooked on pills, and the dangerous consequences of that addiction.
But as experts know, addiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum — people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are often enabled by family and friends in a web of codependence.
“Codependence is not an official diagnosis,” says Debbie Hutchinson, Psy.D., MFT, manager of the Outpatient Behavioral Health Programs at Mission Hospital Laguna Beach.
“It’s a pattern of behavior where one person relies on another person to meet his or her needs emotionally,” Hutchinson explains. “In addiction, one person often functions in the role of enabling another person.”
She gives an example: “If a husband says to his wife, ‘I’ve been using again, but I’m going to really monitor it this time,’ the codependent wife will say, ‘Honey I understand you’ve been really trying to do a good job with this.’ She is trying to be supportive but unintentionally minimizes the problem. She feels good in the role of being helpful to him and feels good receiving his acceptance and approval. However, he may not receive the encouragement to take the active steps that are needed to obtain sobriety,” explains Hutchinson.
Codependent people tend to tolerate the addict or alcoholic’s worst behavior, even if that means embarrassing public scenes, stealing and lying to family members or general lack of responsibility.
In this scenario, nobody gets a chance to recover.
Codependents are obsessed with other people, wrote Melanie Beattie in her groundbreaking book “Co-Dependent No More.” They can detail exactly what their addict or alcoholic friend or partner should do to improve, but they have no idea of what they need to make their own lives better.
Breaking the pattern
Hutchinson says that when codependent spouses or partners open up, they talk about frustration and feeling drained. They so consistently put their own needs last that they don’t even know what those needs are, she says.
“The codependent person is the caretaker,” Hutchinson explains. “And after awhile that’s draining. If you’re going through life not focusing on your needs, it’s like taking a glass water and pouring all the water out,” says Hutchinson. “You’ll run out of energy.”
She tells of a man who came to her for help who was codependent with his mother, and even with his friends. He found himself getting into abusive relationships. “He would try to be there for his friends 24 hours a day, and ended up losing his job because of all of the chaos that caused,” says Hutchinson. In therapy, he learned how to set boundaries, how to say no appropriately to friends who wanted his help. “With new coping skills, he turned his life around, and eventually found a new career,” she says.
“When you set a boundary for a person, when you put your needs in the picture, you’re helping the other person to know how to be in a relationship with you, that you’re not going to be walked on,” says Hutchinson. This is being assertive, not aggressive, she adds.
Parents and kids
Disengaging from set behaviors is not easy, especially when the addict or alcoholic is a teenager. But programs exist to help parents and their kids with these complex problems.
Mission Hospital offers a unique program called LIFE PLAN, designed for teens in recovery who have completed their program, to help them set goals and then form a network of support — mentors, counselors and teachers, like a personal “Board of Directors” — to help them reach those goals.
“I like to think of addiction as family treatment instead of one person having the problem,” says Hutchinson. “We’re all relational beings.”
Mission Hospital provides treatment for both adults and adolescents,
an in-patient detox program, a 28-day outpatient rehab program, parenting classes, cognitive therapy and family sessions. The hospital hosts a variety of 12-step group meetings.