Addict, Co-Addict; A Family Affair

I have been reflecting on the tragedy of having an addiction for the last few chapters, and now I want to turn my attention to those who are in a relationship with an addict, and even more broadly examine the dysfunctional patterns that created through association with addicts. The term “codependency” was originally associated with a person in a relationship with an alcoholic. Over the years, the term has expanded to include any person in a relationship that exhibits dysfunctional patterns of living. Co-addicts learn ways of acting and reacting when relating to an addicted person (similar to those in relationships with someone who is affected by mental illness or is abusive). Living in dysfunctional or traumatic environments sets up a pattern whereby a person’s way of being in the world is contingent upon the behavior of others. This is especially likely to occur if a person is unstable in some way to begin with.

Dr. Tian Dayton addresses these issues in her compelling book Trauma and Addiction: “Because of the unpredictable, uncontrollable and inherently traumatic nature of substance abuse and addiction, people who are chemically dependent, or those in an addict’s family system such as a spouses, children and siblings, usually experience some form of psychological damage. Family members as well as many addicts present disorders that extend across a range of clinical syndromes, such as anxiety disorders, reactive and endogenous depression and substance abuse, as well as developmental deficits, distortions in self-images, confused inner worlds with disorganized internal dynamics, and codependence.”

Co-addicts believe that, because they don’t directly use alcohol or illegal substances, they have escaped the effects of a dysfunctional family system. They fail to see how their behaviors—perfectionism, hypervigilance, caretaking, and controlling and/or avoiding feelings—pollute every relationship and perpetuate the disease. This is where the term “co-addict” comes from. Dysfunctional systems are often referred to as “the gift that keeps on giving.”

If you have grown up in an environment in which mental illness, rage, ongoing depression, alcoholism, strict religiosity, or physical or sexual abuse was present, then you have been affected—which means you are hard-wired to repeat reactive behaviors in your primary relationships.

Addicts shouldn’t rely entirely upon self-assessment to see if they are addicted. Likewise, I appeal to potential co-addicts to ask family members to tell them how they are affected by their behaviors.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in numbers, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms─to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In my family, there are co-addicts who suffer from severe depression or eating disorders, who act out rage on others and exert extremely controlling behaviors upon everyone around them. I have other family members who hide behind rigid religiosity and self-righteousness, and refuse to examine their behavior or beliefs, believing their views to be the only “right” ones. It’s painful to watch these dysfunctional patterns continue, and even harder to see how they negatively affect all of my other family members. It has always been difficult for me to understand how people minimize, deny, or outright refuse to see how their own behaviors affect those around them. As a mental health professional, I can only understand such blindness as some kind of needed defense mechanism. But the truth is this: If one family member is affected, all family members are affected. Everyone is responsible for being rigorously honest about their behaviors.

It’s my belief that breaking the chain of addiction or co-addiction—repairing, changing, altering, and/or accepting the ways in which we thing, feel, and behave—is the responsibility of every individual. Twelve-step programs are available for all manner of addictions and dysfunctional relationship patterns. Though they may not be the only solution to addict and co-addict patterns, they can be a good place to begin to sort out the layers of conditioning and beliefs that are affecting you and those around you. I recommend that you investigate a twelve-step program as a place to start. After all, they are free—except for your involvement and commitment, of course. There is hope to heal your pain-filled inner world.

Below is a partial list of existing twelve-step programs for addicts and friends and family members of addicts (borrowed from Wikipedia):



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  1. Ron Kelley says:


    Wow. I never really thought about how wide the ripple spreads from one’s pebble landing in life’s pond. Thank you for the wakening.

    You’ve done a lot of research on this. Great list of info for those of us who may not have realized some areas of weakness do have support available.


    • Hi Ron,

      Sometimes that ripple effect seems endless.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog and comment

      I really mean that as I know how much time and energy it takes to compose even a small reply and you always put a lot of thought into your comments.

      Best, dawn

      • Judith Churchman says:

        Good job, Dawn. You are a great example of some one who chose to work on these patterns. Bob and I have addressed some of our addictive patterns. We’ve both lost over 20 lbs. since we saw you in Dec., and I plan to keep going. Good ol’e Fat Flush Plan and no drinking of alcohol or eating flour or sugar. Good habits to keep before we re-wire or retire in June. It is painful to watch the patterns in our own families as well.

        Lots of love,

        • Hi Judith,

          What a delight to see you on my blog. Congratulations to your and Bob’s 20 pound loss. I know how difficult changing our patterns can be.
          Yes, it is very painful to watch the repeated patterns in our own families, sometimes even taking them to their death. When actively participating in an addiction, we truly seem unable to see ourselves clearly much less to see the way out.

          My love to you and Bob. Dawn

  2. Ron Davis says:

    Great stuff Dawn! So grateful for the gifts you have given me and the ripples those gifts have created, ripples which wash over the co-addicts in my life and help to cleanse the wounds the disease of addiction has inflicted upon them as well as on me. Stupid hardwiring.

    • Dear Ron,

      It is I who thank you for It is you who have taken what you have leaned, changed yourself and passed it on.

      Warmly, dawn

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