People saw Gina as troubled. Yet, I had been over to her house many times and her drunk, wasted mom would yell at her, demean her, treat her like crap, and torture her with a cackling laugh when her daughter asked to do things like go with me to McDonald’s. Her father did nothing to help. I am guessing this went on for years before Gina reached her breaking point. She was promiscuous and got in loads of trouble.
Gina was coping with a severely dysfunctional family situation.
When a parent has an addiction, the people around that person adapt. Roles commonly develop in response to or as a way of coping with the frustration, tension, insecurity and instability created by the substance abuser. These same roles can develop with any other severe family trauma too—if a parent suffers from a mental illness, for example.
If you have dealt with the substance abuse, addiction or mental illness of a loved one or friend, see if you recognize any of these roles:
1. The Scapegoats. These are the family members who, in response to distress, choose to pursue self-destructive activities themselves. Rather than addressing the real problem (the parent’s addiction or illness), the family punishes this person, “the problem child,” and unfairly blames him or her for all the bad things going on. Gina was The Scapegoat.
2. The Hero. This is usually the “good” child who makes perfect grades, is the model student/citizen, and does everything well. The family can look at this person, feel good and say, “See how well things are going?” The Hero mistakenly believes these good deeds will make everyone happy, so there will be less tension in the air, everything will be okay.
3. The Mascot. These people are usually the jokesters, the crack-ups, the ones skilled at lightening up the tension in the house. The Mascot is either distracting everyone with amusement or using merriment to deflect bad feelings and lighten the mood.
4. The Lost Child. He or she disappears when things get bad. The Lost Child tends to be very insular and copes by diving into books or getting lost in his or her own little world to escape the inevitable tension, negativity and pain. The Lost Child doesn’t want to get noticed and hides out.
5. The Enabler. This is someone who either runs around trying to “take care” of the addiction or everyone else or ignores the addiction as an alternative to facing it. The Enabler thinks if he or she just does ______ the alcoholic will feel better, be less angry, and then not drink or use. Enablers are easily in denial. They mistakenly end up making it easier for the person to not get treatment or help. Gina’s father was an Enabler.
As a teenager, I had friends who struggled with either a parent who was substance-addicted or who was mentally ill. I didn’t know it at the time, but these kids were coping in the easiest ways they knew how.
If you took on one of these roles or invented your own role to escape or cope with a dysfunctional family situation such as addiction or illness, this is understandable. However, if you don’t address how this role has affected you in the long term, you might be missing out on who you were really intended to be.
A role is an act. It is a part in a play. It isn’t who you were necessarily intended to be. It can’t repair all of the harm that was done to you. The role you have developed covers up painful feelings temporarily, but the feelings will return and can affect you in more ways than you realize.
If you haven’t already done therapy, now might be a good time. It is never too late. And next time you hear about that out of control teenager down the street, have some compassion. They are probably suffering quite a lot. Other valuable resources include Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) and Al-Anon(This is a 12-step group for family and friends of alcoholics/addicts).
About the author: Cherilynn M. Veland, LCSW, MSW, is author of the forthcoming book Stop Giving It Away. She leads a new self-advocacy movement intended to help women reach out, speak up, and take action steps for what’s best for them. Please support this effort by liking the Facebook page and/or subscribing for updates. You can also connect on Twitter and Google Plus.
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