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Family Roles in Addiction Recovery I: The Hero and the Scapegoat

A male and a female arm are shown arm-wrestling.
 

Sometimes the hardest thing about getting sober is…getting sober—or rather, what “sober” means to the person in regard to their family. This is especially true for members of alcoholic or addictive families, where maintaining the status quo may require members to operate according to prescribed roles. Getting sober means surrendering this role, eventually, in order to become more authentic or real.

This is not easy, to say the least, within a family where roles are required to keep the (dysfunctional) system going. The recovery slogan, “The only thing that has to change is everything,” points to the enormity of the change required. Sure, change happens slowly, a day at a time, but addicts understand that their way of handling life and relationships is now subject to change, especially when it comes to the roles they have implicitly been assigned—and accepted. Sobriety can be threatening to both the individual and the family, since alcoholic families have weak coping skills and difficulty adapting to the new. The status quo, or homeostasis, of such a family, is resistant to change.

Take, for instance, a child or adult child of an alcoholic family who assumes a hero role: here is the overachiever who excels at academics, sports, college, and so forth. (These roles most often apply to the children or adult children of such families.) This person feels that they are loved, not so much for who they are, but what they achieve. When such a person turns out to be an alcoholic, the injury to his/her self-esteem is severe; not only are they letting themselves down (since failure to control drugs or alcohol is often seen, initially, as a weakness), but they’re letting their whole families down by removing their hero-mask and getting real.

In the big picture, they are now authentically heroic by having the courage to face their problems. In the short run, however, family members can no longer say, “Well as screwed up as we are, at least we have one high achiever in our midst!” The hero can no longer be celebrated as the “pride and joy” of a struggling family, carried on the shoulders of jubilant parents—and above the heads of their siblings. Now the hero must abandon the mask, come down to their siblings’ level, and risk being seen as a loser (or scapegoat), someone who brings stress to the family by challenging homeostasis.

This is enormously difficult terrain to navigate—not only for the sober person but also the family, who may even subtly indicate that maybe their beloved is not really an addict or alcoholic. Very often the messages, conscious or not, sent to the newly sober person are, Please don’t change, or, Don’t make us change (or look at ourselves honestly). The family may (unintentionally, most of the time) undermine the hero’s sobriety, because of the threat to the status quo. They may pile on a stack of requirements impossible to fulfill; they may create distraction, sabotage therapy, or refuse to support treatment. Siblings may minimize the person’s drinking or using, lest they have to look at their own issues. One rule of thumb you can almost always count on is, once the alcoholic stabilizes, their family will become more anxious and agitated. Sobriety causes undue stress and agitation within such a system. Thus many heroes feel guilt or remorse, not so much for their own suffering, but how they’ve caused their families to suffer, or make them suffer by threatening homeostasis.

They may end up trying to be a (false) hero in sobriety by trying to speed their recovery as quickly as possible. Look, Ma, all better! This rarely works over time, for obvious reasons. Often heroes are surprised at the tepid or lukewarm responses they receive from some family members, responses that may leave them feeling like a scapegoat.

This brings us to role number two: the scapegoat. This role, of course, is the cause of most, if not all, the family’s woes. Their new sobriety, by default, pushes not only the alcoholic but also his family members to begin looking at themselves and their part, rather than continue to blame. Scapegoats may end up receiving a lot of mixed messages; i.e., we’re glad you’re sober, but you’re still messed up in these ways over here. They may, hopefully, begin to finally receive positive support, which can be an awkward adjustment.

A longstanding pattern of negative attention conditions a scapegoat to feel that negative attention and blame is all they will ever get, or even deserve. They often sense, consciously or not, that they are doing a service to the family by distracting or diverting everyone from their own accountability (while continuing to numb their own conscience with alcohol and drugs). Getting sober, in this instance, is often felt by them to be a kind of betrayal, because now the skeletons will have to be dragged from the closet if he/she wants to truly clean house and drop false pretenses. Many of those skeletons involve family members’ culpability and sins of the past. Some of the old family myths (that it’s all the addict’s fault) are now threatened. Why did our kid get sober again?

Most families, of course, are frightened to face this kind of change, and may cling to the old patterns for dear life. Change is often frightening, even when necessary. The scapegoat may feel some isolation and disorientation as they take the heroic, honest journey of sobriety—stepping out of their role, and away from the family (at least temporarily). This can be a lonely place to be, at the beginning, since it’s not at all certain that the family will follow them on their new path.

So it is that the newly sober person—and this applies to both roles described above—is risking abandonment, which is the worst fear an alcoholic family member often has (especially a child or adult child of an alcoholic). Add this to the fact that getting sober is very difficult under any circumstances, and you start to get an idea of the level of commitment required to stay sober. This is why “it takes a village” to help, via recovery (peer support, sponsorship), therapy or counseling, psychiatry, and, hopefully, family counseling as well, to help everyone make the difficult transition to sanity.

Next: In Part II I will discuss what happens when a mascot or lost child gets sober.

© Copyright 2010 by Darren Haber, MA, MFT, therapist in Los Angeles, CA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Leo January 7th, 2010 at 11:14 AM #1

    I have always believed that a family would support an addict’s decision to quit the habit and help him in every possible way to become sober.But I had never thought of all this in the psychological angle,and now after reading this I have realized that conditions are not always ideal and yes what you have described can be very true too.

  • viki January 7th, 2010 at 4:02 PM #2

    When there is an alcoholic in a family, the problem is not limited to that person alone. The entire family experiences its effects… the negative effect of course! It is very disturbing to have an alcoholic family member and everyday is a new battle for each person in the family.

  • Stacy V. January 8th, 2010 at 11:38 AM #3

    It must indeed be very difficult to stay in unstable family, with a whole lot of issues and problems. what is more sad to know is that if one child has a negative quality, it affects all his siblings…it is true when they say that what one does not only affects him but his family as well.

  • Tag January 8th, 2010 at 2:46 PM #4

    I enabled my dad for years with his drinking, made excuses for him and covered for him. I place myself as much at fault for his drinking as I do him because everything that I did gave him even more of a free hand to drink.

  • Pauline January 11th, 2010 at 8:37 AM #5

    Took me a long time to come to terms with the reality that drunk parents are not normal, and that this is not what I wanted my life to be about anymore. But it was hard to make that change, to go from the caregiver to the one who had to put her foot down and say that this was no longer going to be acceptable in my life. That was a tough decision to make but really the best thing I ever did for myself and my own family.

  • Cyndi December 13th, 2012 at 5:34 PM #6

    Very interesting article. Appreciate the insight.

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