The Whirlpool of the Family Disease

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By Todd Valentine, LCSW

The Disease of Addiction

Addiction is a chronic, progressive, and deadly disease. It’s a disease that constantly demands more but is never satisfied. In seeking more of the substance, the addict creates a lot of disruption for everyone he or she comes into contact with, particularly within the family system.

The swirling chaos surrounding the addict is the result of trying to feed an emptiness that cannot be filled. The only way to stop this process is the radical shift in perspective and priorities that come through long-term recovery. To help facilitate that shift, the most loving thing that family members can do for their addicted loved one is simple: get out of the way. I should clarify that it’s simple to describe but often feels very difficult to do.

The best antidote to the family disease is setting healthy boundaries. By taking themselves out of the equation, families can stop providing fuel for the chaos. This is the most helpful action a family member can take because it gives the addict an opportunity to confront the reality of his or her disease.

The Effect on the Family

When we think about the miscommunication, constant emergencies, half-truths, outright lies, and continual stress circling around the addict, it’s helpful to use the analogy of a whirlpool. In addition, the brain is thoroughly “rewired” so that the addict is unable to tell the difference many times between self-preservation and self-destruction. Left untreated, the addict’s disease will progress further along in this process.

The change in the addict’s brain chemistry also changes his or her social interactions, centering them around supporting the addiction. This happens in even long-standing and committed relationships.  Consciously or unconsciously, the addict’s relationships will eventually become less important than the substance he or she is dependent on, which will in time become the highest priority.

Don’t Get Pulled In

Another way to put this is that the disease of addiction as it manifests in the addict is a disease of “more.” It demands more of the substance, and to support that overarching need, the addict will demand more money, more emotional support, more time, more of whatever’s available. Everything around the addict gets pulled toward supporting their addiction or getting them out of situations that their addiction has created.

Family members direct their money, energy, attention, and resources toward the addict and their day-to-day emergencies. Sometimes these actions may even seem to help, at least temporarily. But often these resources are not moving the addict toward treatment or a context that allows them to confront the reality of their disease. Rather the family members are helping them move further away from recovery by allowing them to deny the reality and consequences of their addiction.

To return to our analogy, the family members are pulled into the whirlpool of the disease. The entire family system becomes swirling chaos circling an emptiness inside of the addict that everyone is desperately trying to fill. As mentioned earlier, the emptiness can only be treated when the addict enters into recovery. If you don’t understand this process, it makes sense that you would attempt to pull your loved one out of the whirlpool and back on to the shore. But when family members attempt to enable rescue or control, they are venturing into waters that are too strong to go into alone.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. JB

    Thank you Todd. I am right in the middle of trying to break a generational cycle. It reminds me to rather than being the centrifugal force in the middle, I need to be mindful of the waves I have casted outwards.

  2. Bretton Schuller


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