I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”

– Al Pacino, award-winning American actor and filmmaker

The family home – a father’s castle, a mother’s pride, a teenager’s pit, and a young child’s safe, little world, where only good things happen. Most of the time.

However, no home, however fortified, built on love, or considered safe, is immune from the haunting presence of addiction. Regardless of who allows it into the family home – Dad drinking too many beers after work, and then carrying on through dinner, Mom sneaking a bottle of wine or an extra valium during the day when the house is empty and just a little lonely, or Billy popping pills and snorting coke in the bathroom of the latest college house party – once addiction has found a seat at the family dinner table, just like any unwelcome guest, it’s hard to finally push it out the front door.

Addiction destroys families, kills family relationships, and can even grow and spread in an already dysfunctional house. No one is immune, and everyone, eventually, becomes its prisoner.

I’ve seen it, and experienced its living, breathing presence in my family home. It does all of these things and more – driving concrete wedges between people who once loved each other, and it doesn’t matter how hard you hit a wrecking ball at those wedges, they’re never fully demolished. The thing was – I invited it in.

By the time I had finally found my own addiction recovery in Philadelphia, it’s damage was done. It never gets truly fixed, either, but it does get a whole lot better…. I am now back on speaking terms with my parents (I even visit sometimes), and my sister, who now lives on the other side of the country, sends funny memes to me and we talk a lot through “chat.”

My addiction to cocaine and alcohol turned us from a loving, cohesive family into a “reality-blind,” dysfunctional one, where we all, unwittingly, played our part to perfection – should’ve won Oscars on some days.

When a family is consumed by the tragic effects of substance addiction, it invariably becomes dysfunctional, with everyone attempting to cope in different ways that before would’ve seemed quite weird, and even a little alien. Most of the time, they don’t even know they’re doing it.

The purpose of this article is to name these different roles, and describe how they function in a dysfunctional home that unknowingly let addiction through the front door: “5 Different Roles Family Members Play within Addiction.”

Be under no illusions – it is only with professional support and guidance that the family itself can be pivotal in helping the addict achieve and maintain sobriety. The family, with the right guidance, has been proven time after time to be elemental for successful outcomes in addiction recovery.

1. The Enabler

Often the actual caregiver of the family (and usually one of the parents), the enabler is the one who protects the addict by excusing their addiction-driven behavior, often driven by a personal desire to avoid their own shame and embarrassment.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re not the bad apple here. Without guidance, they don’t know another way, and their motives for their own behavior come from a good place, however naive. The problem arises because they do not confront the real issue – the addiction; their own behavior only reinforces the addict’s negative behaviors, by trying, naively, to protect them.

In reality, this is done by numerous practicalities to cover up the addiction, such as:

  • Creating excuses for them, eg. school absences or missed days from work
  • Paying their bills
  • Financially supporting them
  • Hiding evidence

However, after time, the enabler will become stressed and fatigued, while the addict shows no real, perceivable changes to their addicted behavior.

2. The Hero

The person who plays the role of the hero in this scenario is the one who brings an element of success to the family, as if to compensate for the shame and guilt the entire family feels. They achieve this, even though they themselves may be in denial, by:

  • Looking after themselves
  • Working hard, and
  • Remaining positive and upbeat

The hero is the “model family member” who everyone else in the family aspires to be like.

3. The Mascot / The Joker

This member of the family is the peacemaker and the entertainer; the mascot / the joker is the one who always brings a smile and some light relief to the dysfunctional family, using humor and laughter to minimize painful situations and calm rising tensions. They may also intentionally be spared the details of the seriousness of the addiction, in order for them to maintain the positive spirit they bring.

4. The Lost One

There will always be one person in a dysfunctional group that is both mentally and physically “vacant” – suppressing their true emotions or simply hiding them, and avoiding any conflict or argument whatsoever. They are the lost one.

5. The Scapegoat

As distracting as the hero in terms of drawing other family members’ attention away from the main issue – the addiction, the scapegoat works in reverse, by using their own failings and flaws to draw attention away from the addict. They continue to cause new issues, stirring the “family pot” with their own troublesome behavior, eg. poor grades in school/ work problems, or even legal offenses.

However, their behavior has a purpose – to make the addict feel better about themselves, as well as a way for other family members to release pent up tension and emotion, aiming it instead at the scapegoat.

Important: None of the roles described above, adopted during the presence of addiction, and while the family is dysfunctional, are remotely healthy, or in any way constructively help the addict to find and achieve sobriety.

Family members can take on healthy roles and behaviors to encourage and support addiction recovery. In reality, this is how it works: One parent plays the role of the supportive but firm parent, encouraging thoughtful and positive action. However, all family members need to change and correct their own behavior, including holding their addicted loved one accountable and showing gratitude for the addict’s positive choices and subsequent actions.

Please feel free to leave a question or a comment below – thank you.

Cite this article as:
Editorial Staff, "5 Different Roles Family Members Play within Addiction," in Medicalopedia, August 12, 2020, [Permalink: https://www.medicalopedia.org/9155/5-different-roles-family-members-play-within-addiction/].