Part 1: All in the Family: Are You the ‘Chief Enabler’ for an Addict?
For parents struggling with addictions, trying to manage normal day-to-day family issues such as sibling rivalry and school stresses and pressures is compounded by a special complication, something specific to families dealing with addictions (or families in which one or both parents are unable to function in their parenting role on a regular basis). As hard as most parents try to protect their children from the negative impact of their drinking or drug use, the impact is experienced by all family members. One way this plays out is through rigid and dysfunctional family roles.
Before we continue, let me say something about family dysfunction. As a treatment provider for people with addictions and their families for many years, I saw how devastating addictions can be to lives young and old. What’s important to remember here is that despite having an addiction that often leads to very negative behaviors—including violence, abuse, neglect—and despite being labeled “dysfunctional” (we’ll get to that in a moment), these are families that also are bonded by love and loyalty. These are parents who love their children and want the best for them and children who love and defend their parents despite having suffered due to their behaviors.
Taking apart the word “dysfunctional,” the prefix ‘dys’ refers to pain. Dyspepsia is a stomachache; dysmenorrhea is the technical term for painful periods. Dysfunction in the family context means that a family is functioning in pain. Meals do get made, children attend school, play sports, parents work, but the context in which all this happens is emotionally painful. Sometimes my clients would get defensive about the term “dysfunctional,” telling me that it felt like blame to say their family “ didn’t function.” So I make a point of agreeing: there is functioning and often children from families impacted by addiction function very well in some ways; but it would also be unfair and inaccurate to fail to acknowledge the pain that occurs too.
In all families, affected by addiction or not, family members take on roles. Sometimes Mom takes on the role of the discipliner, sometimes Mom is the “banker” for the family. Dad might have been the “sports guy” or the social planner. Imagine a particular behavior—for example, climbing a tree or catching a frog—and most people would then be able to predict which family member would be most likely to engage in that behavior and which would be least likely. The kid who was “outdoorsy” or a girl who fit the “tomboy” role would be first in line. In healthy families, the roles arise from internal personality characteristics and are flexible—as a child grows, develops, and changes, so do the roles.
In families affected by addiction, certain specific roles seem to evolve. These roles are more rigid and predictable, and have been described by a few well-known writers in the field of addiction and family roles. The names change from writer to writer, but the basic roles are similar.
The Second in Command:
In families where addiction is impacting the dynamics, the alcoholics or addicts often have someone on “their side,” someone who takes on the task of keeping the family functioning by keeping the person who is using as functional as possible. This person calls in sick for the drinker, or makes excuses at “Meet the Teachers Night.” They find themselves lying to the kids, the neighbors, their friends and ultimately themselves. Family systems therapists refer to this role as the Chief Enabler, or Codependent. Sometimes in the literature on addiction and alcoholism, people refer to the codependent person as “addicted to the addict.” These people seem to need the relationship more than they seem to need their own health. Let’s take a closer look at this role.
This role is a tough one: the job includes handling all the chores and responsibilities the drinker is not doing. The Chief Enabler just takes over, managing, organizing, acting as the Executive Director, administrative assistant, communications director, and database manager, over-functioning in all these roles (the school principal called? Your boss called? A run-in with police? “I’ll handle it” is the typical Chief Enabler response). He or she is the glue that holds the family together, usually working long hours; often at a job earning money and then at home taking care of all the details that can get left unmanaged when an addict uses.
The purpose of this role is to prevent the family (including the drinker) from experiencing the negative consequences of addiction. Of course this is impossible, which makes this person feel hopeless and frustrated, but also very important, since there are small successes and triumphs (such as a little league game attended by the addict or alcoholic, or open house at the school) along the way. The Chief Enabler feels “stuck” and often very angry about their stuckness because they know how important they are to the “success” of the family (in fact, it often feels like “if I don’t do it, it won’t get done”).
People in this role often receive much praise and support from the community. People outside the family often admire the Chief Enabler, which is one of the few positives about being in this role—often others outside the family recognize how critical the Chief Enablers actions are to the health or even survival of the family—so you hear comments like, “Mary really holds that family together.” The other side of this coin is that they also feel alone and furious at being stuck with being the responsible one who has to take care of everything. The fact that these people often do an excellent job, partly because they’ve had so much practice, is their blessing and their curse and is the catch 22 they experience as “stuckness.”