Facing Up to a Loved Ones Addiction
By Bernard Kliska, Ph.D.
Melvin, the head of a family business, is known for his tremendous drive. But now, at age 55, he has really kicked into high gear. His son Steven will take over the business in a few years, and Melvin wants to leave the company in the best possible shape. A major expansion has been announced, and Melvin has begun working seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day.
Occasionally, other family members voice concern about Melvin, but they can't really argue with his success or his goals. If he fails to show up at social engagements or family events, most understand. When a few relatives have criticized him, they have been labeled selfish. You reap the benefits of the business s success, one family member said. Don't question Mel's priorities.
Although Melvin's wife is somewhat worried, she thinks he can determine for himself whether he is working too hard. She knows that he is thinking of his family s future. She is pleased that he has at least allowed himself more long weekends in Las Vegas to unwind. He is treated well there too; everything is complimentary except his losses.
Family members know that their role is to make things as easy as possible for Melvin. After all, he has it hard enough at work. He doesn't need family pressure on top of everything else.
Melvin's family doesn't realize it, but Melvin is in trouble. He is exhibiting addictive behavior in his work and probably in his gambling. His identity has always been overly dependent on his work. Now the imminent passing of the torch to his son has undermined Melvin's sense of self. To deal with his crisis, Melvin has intensified his usual coping mechanisms, working all the harder.
We see problems ahead. Within the next year, Melvin's family can expect any or all of the following: an emotional or physical crisis in the family, increases in Mel's gambling losses, even less time spent with family and increasingly erratic decision making. Addictive behavior, if unchecked, typically accelerates and leads to a crisis.
While Melvin protests that he does it all for the family, certain signs suggest that his behavior is better explained by addiction.
Self-esteem based upon performance rather than a sense of identity. Addiction is often a compensation for a shallow sense of identity. Genuine identity is formed through intimate relationships and through introspection. We develop identity primarily by facing our internal and interpersonal conflicts and working through them, turning toward ourselves and toward others. Addictive behavior takes us along the opposite path; we focus on things and avoid emotional realities.
Isolation. Addictions require isolation. Sometimes this is hard to spot because people often assume that if you are around crowds, you are not isolated. Working, drinking, drugs, gambling or any other behavior that takes precedence over emotional attachments means isolation. Large crowds frequent casinos, which are full of lonely addicts.
Denial. We hear much about denial but seldom recognize its subtle masks. Melvin sees himself not as addicted to work but as tending nobly to his family's future. In his mind, the increasing trips to and losses in Las Vegas represent not a gambling addiction but a well-deserved way to unwind.
Enabling. The few relatives who suspect that Melvin has a problem have been labeled as selfish. Those who see nothing to discourage in his behavior can be called enablers. They include Steven, who appreciates his father wanting to leave him a prosperous company; Melvin's wife, who wants the best for her son; and the other relatives who are proud of and enriched by Melvin's prodigious efforts. They are not bad or venal people. They just don't realize that they are assisting Melvin on his journey to self-destruction.
Families in business often experience intensified stress. Other families can use work as a separate arena, a place to bleed off pressure. But a family business, where work and family are intertwined, can be like an echo chamber. And when the defense for addictive behaviors serves a dual function What's good for the business is good for the family it's much more difficult for everyone to see and confront what s going on.
Also, such families might perceive a great risk in acknowledging an addiction. They not only fear as most families do the shame and public reaction, but also might be concerned with effects on profits, livelihood and the reputation of the business.
Fortunately, families in business also have some unique strengths that can facilitate treatment and recovery. If Melvin's family members can see what is really happening, they do not have to struggle with one of the most powerful roadblocks to recovery that confronts other families enlisting the understanding and support of those in the work environment and ensuring that the employee doesn't become ostracized or pushed off a career track. The family is not faced with having to rally separate support systems; its support system encompasses both home and work.
As difficult as it may be for us, we have to remember that any system that encourages addictive behaviors and fails to distinguish between hardworking, dedicated behavior and driven, compulsive behavior does a disservice not only to the individual, but also to everyone in the family. Ultimately, everyone in the family pays the price for the addictive behavior of any of its members.
Where to Find Help and Information for Addictions
The good news about addictions is that there are dozens of places you can go for information and treatment. If you or a family member even thinks there might be a problem with any kind of addiction, just take the first step and try one of these. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Alcohol and Drug Information Center. Information and links to local treatment centers are available at www.health.org.
Check out SAMHSA's National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Information at http://ncadi.samhsa.gov/radar/ for treatment centers.
Gamblers Anonymous. For information on their recovery program and to find local meeting places, go to http://www.gamblersanonymous.org.
Whether you're looking for information or 12-step treatment programs for alcohol, narcotics, tobacco, gambling, sex or any other addiction, including family support groups, here's a good place to begin your search: www.gamblersanonymous.org. Don't be misled by the gamblers anonymous in the URL: it's for every kind of addiction.
Psych Central's Resource Center. Dr. John Grohol's Internet site lists a variety of traditional and nontraditional places to go for information on and treatment of various addictions. Go to http://www.psychcentral.com/resources and click on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.
Alcoholics Anonymous. Even if you think AA s 12-step program isn't for you, there's plenty of information, some of which may surprise you, at the site: http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org. Al-Anon/Alateen.
One of the strongest predictors of addiction treatment's success is family involvement: