Families living with addiction are often families who keep secrets. The anxiety and stress of living with an addict are a daily part of their lives, so in order to cope, individual family members and the family system develop defense mechanisms that allow them to function and avoid exposure of the problem. Instead, this avoidance creates a pattern of secret-keeping that only compounds the stress.

The energy it takes to keep addiction a secret and the isolation it promotes affect the family in many ways. If the secret is being kept from the children, they may become confused and frustrated. They know something is wrong, but they don’t know what it is. Children can become resentful that the parents don’t trust them with the truth and may develop a lack of trust in themselves and others. Extended family may also be confused as to why the addicted loved one never attends family functions. The family may stop attending family functions altogether to avoid uncomfortable questions, isolating them from needed support. Most of all, secret-keeping perpetuates the denial in the individual and family system that something is terribly wrong and needs to be addressed.

There are three main reasons why family members keep their loved one’s addiction a secret. First, the secret-keeping may not be deliberate. For example, if a wife grew up in a family where the father’s addiction was a secret, then keeping her husband’s addiction a secret would feel normal to her. Thus, the pattern of secret-keeping is passed down through the generations. Second, there is a stigma in our culture about addiction. Many people still believe that it is a weakness, not a disease — if the person really wanted to stop, he or she could do so at once. Family members that don’t want to be stigmatized will keep the addiction a secret to protect their reputation.

The third and most common reason families keep addiction a secret is due to the fear of exposing their shame. They believe that if anyone found out, their world would fall apart and their lives would be forever changed. This fear is based on the belief that they are somehow defective or deficient as a family because this has happened to them. The individual or family develops a false self, or mask, to hide behind. Shame-based families live with the rule “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” as a way to negate the shame they feel (to themselves and others).

What can help a family living with the secret of addiction? Breaking the silence and sharing with others in a safe environment is the first step. MARR offers weekly family support groups that allow families to begin talking about their experiences of living with an addicted loved one. Families are relieved to find that they are not alone — that others also struggle with this problem — and that there is hope for themselves and their family.

A strong support system is an essential part of family recovery. Families must acquire healthy communication skills and learn how to ask for help. It often takes time for family members to “take off the mask” and focus on their own recovery. But, our families tell us it’s worth it. At last, they have found the freedom to live a life without secrets — to be themselves.