By Drew Jamieson, PhD, LMFT, LCAS-A

Families operate as a system. When everything is balanced and functioning well, members are respected, confident, and secure. When things get out of balance, emotions can run askew. What may seem like a minor issue to one person, may be a major concern and problem for another family member.

In much the same way, a substance use problem of a family member affects more than the person addicted – it impacts the entire family. The family system will orient itself around the addiction as a way of attempting to establish equilibrium. Each person in the family must find a way to adapt and adjust to the disturbance. Typically, this adjustment shows up in established, unspoken rules that are required for equilibrium to be maintained. These rules are: don’t talk, don’t feel, and don’t trust (Black, 1981). Family members will refrain from talking about the problem because they are in denial, or ashamed, or choose to avoid the situation completely because it hurts too much or it’s easier to be numb. Trust becomes unattainable because too often, the family has been let down.

Because addiction is a disease of the whole family, family members of a chemically dependent person also need to enter in to a healing and recovery process. A first step toward this process is parallel to the first of the Twelve Steps of AA: admitting powerlessness over drugs and alcohol and unmanageability in life. From there, a family member must accept what are called “the Three C’s” of recovery: 1) I didn’t Cause it; 2) I can’t Cure it; and 3) I can’t Control it.

Loved ones of those in active addiction use a lot of energy blaming themselves in many ways. Many family members spend much energy and attention on striving to fix and control it. Family members will pay bills, flush pills, empty bottles, call in to work for the addict, bail the addict out of jail, make excuses, loan money, and so much more, in effort to control the use and somehow love the person out of addiction. Letting go of this responsibility and accepting the 3 C’s is necessary for a family member’s own recovery. Family members must recognize that taking care of self is not selfish or mean, but in fact, is a bigger act of love.

When we recognize the effect addiction has on the entire family system, we recognize the need for recovery of the entire family. Recovery is about breaking free from the rules in place with addiction and learning how to talk again, to feel again, and to trust again.


Black, C. (1981). It will never happen to me. New York: Ballantine Books.


Drew Jamieson, PhD, LMFT, LCAS-A, is a family counselor at Fellowship Hall Drug and Alcohol Recovery Center in Greensboro. He is a marriage and family therapist and certified addiction specialist with over 12 years’ experience in working with families and addiction. He can be reached at

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