Addiction in Family and Social Systems

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

An underemphasized area in the disease model of addiction is the role of environmental factors.  Genetics and sensationalized hijackings of the midbrain are certainly factors in the development of problematic addictive behaviors, but they are overemphasized at the expense of family and social factors.  The disease model paints addiction as an individual problem and gives family dynamics and societal norms a get out of jail free card, so no wonder it maintains its stronghold as the dominant theory – everybody other than the identified addict gets to point their finger from a holier than thou position of moral superiority and save themselves from the discomfort of identifying and addressing their own issues.

Addiction and Family Systems

Family roles (e.g. the hero, the mascot, the lost child, and the scapegoat) are well-trodden ground in the rehab world.  It is well established in family systems theory that healthy families promote the differentiation of self – the separation of emotional and psychological functioning – amongst children.  Carl Jung termed the differentiation of self individuation, and stated that the most critical job of the parents is to ensure children feel loved and accepted for who they are, not for being who the parents want them to be.  Jung also said the greatest burden on a child is the unlived life of the parent.  How many parents succeed in recognizing the regrets of their own unlived lives and encouraging their children to pursue their own paths?

I lost count long ago of how many young adults squeezed themselves into parental boxes in the form of safe college majors, best career options, and practicality at the cost of meaning.  Is it any surprise then that somewhere along the way the deeper, wiser part of the self that lives in us all demands attention in the form of some so-called pathology – depression, panic attacks, substance use, cutting, reckless spending, compulsive eating…  etc.  When we live someone else’s life we compromise our individuation.  While living someone else’s life may earn acceptance and approval from family and societal systems, is it any wonder that problems emerge?  Symptoms are really just messages from the self conveyed at a higher volume because more subtle messages were ignored.  The self will not be ignored.

We’ve all seen the father who’s failed baseball career becomes his son’s burden as he screams from the bleachers.  Family and social systems make it clear to their members what is acceptable and what is not, and those who do not fit nicely into the mold are often cast in the role of scapegoat.  Dating far back into the ritualistic history of humans, scapegoats have born the sins of the tribe and been designated for absolute removal, outcast into deserts, and sacrificed to atone for the sins of others.  In families, the scapegoat is often referred to as the problem child and is the one who does not conform, carries the sickness of the family, and often manages the pressures of carrying the family’s burden with substance use or other forms of fast-acting relief.

Addiction and Social Systems

From a broader perspective than addiction and family, addiction can be seen as the scapegoat for the sickness of a society.  American addiction rates are amongst the highest in the world, and those who struggle with addictions carry the sickness of a society that is often so infatuated with its greatness that it neglects the areas in which it can improve.  Much like the goats cast out into the wilderness to die alone, addicts are cast into the shadows of freeway overpasses and into cold cages.

No, this article is not saying that American culture is horrible and mean parents are to blame for hurting their children’s feelings and causing addiction.  This article is suggesting that our wonderful society and the hard-working families within it can sometimes unintentionally contribute to an atmosphere in which some people feel they have to compromise themselves to belong, and that compromising one’s self is often a factor in the development of problematic addictive behavior.

Recent trends in schools see music and art funding continuously cut.  Consider two hypothetical sons in the same average American family, one wants to be a lawyer and the other a painter, what messages will those sons receive?  It might be rare for the son who wants to be a painter to be rejected outright by his parents, but it would not be rare for that artistic son to be encouraged to consider more practical options that would stifle his creative spirit.  Again, this article is not an indictment of American culture and families, just a call to recognize the powerful foundations that messages from families and culture play in determining what adaptations children make, and how those adaptations can lead to problems later in life.

Interventions are a useful example of how families can convey hurtful messages to loved ones even with good intentions.  Research shows that interventions rarely work and often backfire.  Imagine an intervention where, instead of a family sitting around telling one member she’s going to be cut off unless she goes off to rehab, each family member talked about their own shortcomings and how they were going to work on them.  The identified patient/scapegoat/problem child/addict in such an intervention of personal responsibility would be much more likely to acknowledge her or his own shortcomings and commit to change.  No person, family, or society is perfect.  Any family or society that considers itself perfect, the best, or just fine while pointing fingers at individuals without consideration of system wide improvements is simply feeding its own narcissistic delusion.

Western civilization brought many wonderful advancements and made the daily lives of those lucky enough to reap the benefits incomprehensibly easy in terms of daily tasks like eating, drinking, sleeping, and regulating body temperature.  A golden path is laid out, just work hard, choose a practical profession like law or medicine, we’ll make our parents happy, and we’ll be happy. With such a clear path to happiness who wouldn’t take it?  People who do not eagerly proceed down the yellow brick road paved with the hopes and expectations of others and instead choose harder courses and detour from conventional ideas of success with substances must have something internally wrong, right?  Well, in terms of shaping patterns of thinking and behavior DNA may frame the borders, but when it comes to the details that fill the genetic framework, there’s no place like home.

If you or a loved one would like to try a non-12-step approach to recovery from substance use, our outpatient treatment can help. Please don’t hesitate to reach out – you don’t have to do this alone.