Support System Roles in Recovery

Over the last couple months, we’ve talked about what relapse means in recovery and how to set healthy boundaries with loved ones to support their ongoing recovery. The next piece of this puzzle of supporting loved ones in recovery is to understand how their behaviors and substance use has affected the people around them.

The Pond

Imagine for a moment a clear, still pond. The surface is just like a mirror it is so smooth and still. Now imagine someone comes along and throws a rock into that pond. What happens? That’s right. Ripples and waves spread out across that pond. When they get to the edges of the pond, those ripples affect the grass, the mud, and more at the edges. Then they bounce back across the pond in another direction. Those ripples continue until enough time has passed to return that pond to its still state. But that pond has been changed by those ripples. It can’t go back to what it was before the rock was thrown.

This image is what happens in a support system when a loved one uses. The rock is the loved one’s behaviors around their substance use. The pond is the support system. Those behaviors create disturbances in how people in the support system behave. The good news is that those ripples will subside, and things can find a new normal with time and support.

The Enabling Role

In order to find that new normal, though, it is important to understand what those ripples are and how they are working in your life. One of the more common ways a loved one is affected by substance use behaviors is to become enabling. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen. Most often people we’ve worked with who have ended up enabling their loved one’s using talk about doing it because they’re scared of what could happen if they don’t. For example, with teens, parents and family have said they have allowed substance use in the home because that way they know their teen is safe while they’re using. They’re afraid if they set a limit preventing use in the home, the teen will leave and find somewhere else to use and potentially engage in even more dangerous behavior. That’s why someone who is enabling can be referred to as a caretaker—they see their role as taking care of the person using rather than enabling the use.

The Family Hero Role

Another common way these ripples affect loved ones is to become the family hero. Shame, fear, and guilt over the loved one’s using behaviors drive this person to become overly positive. They work to make everything look good and give the support system the illusion that everything is fine. Perfectionism is a common trait seen with people reacting to substance use behaviors in this way.

The Mascot Role

A third way these ripples can affect a support system is to create the role of a mascot for the support system. This role holds someone from the support system up as a clown and joker. The person uses humor to deflect and divert attention away from the person using and the dysfunction developing in the support system.

The Lost Child Role

Another role that can develop in a support system affected by substance use behaviors is where people in the support system disappear. They may still physically be present in the support system, but they are quiet and careful not to make problems. This means people in this role can be easily overlooked in the activity being generated elsewhere in the support system. It also means people in this role end up sacrificing their needs to the perceived need to keep a low profile with everything else going on in the support system.

The Scapegoat Role

The last role to be discussed here is a critical one to understand when it comes to understanding adolescents in a support system affected by substance use behaviors, as teenagers are often cast in this role. The role is called the scapegoat. The person or people in this role will often act out, rebel, use substances themselves, engage in illegal behavior, and more to divert attention away from the secrets the support system is holding. In essence, they take the blame and consequences for what the loved one using is doing.

Teens in Treatment

This last role is vital to understand when discussing teenagers in treatment programs, because often there are much bigger issues in their support systems than their own use and behaviors. And it is for this reason that substance use treatment should always include interventions and supports for the loved one’s support system. These interventions often include family groups and individual family therapy. But it doesn’t have to be limited to that. Sometimes it may be getting someone else in the support system their own substance use treatment or mental health therapy. It could be addressing legal, educational, and/or economic disparity issues.

The Connections

Now, to bring these roles back to the original discussion on boundaries and supporting loved ones in recovery. In order to best support and help a loved one in recovery, people in that loved one’s support system need to understand how the behaviors have affected how the rest of the support system thinks and behaves. Only when we understand how we have been affected by that rock thrown in our pond can we make the changes needed to set healthy boundaries and truly support a loved one in recovery.