By: Jamie Salsberg, LCSW, CAP, MPH, Assistant Clinical Director at Transformations

Many people have heard the saying, “an addict will steal your wallet, and then help you look for it.”  This idea, highlighting the lying and manipulation that surrounds addiction is devastating for the families and loved ones dealing with addicts, but what is this lying and manipulation really about?  If addiction isn’t a brain disease, why does it involve such devastating psychological and social effects on everyone around the addict?

Addicts

There is something powerful that happens as drug use turns into drug dependence and addiction.  It is a difficult concept to explain to anyone who has not been through it.  A close second may be to imagine not eating for a month and then seeing and smelling your favorite meal right in front of you.  What would you be willing to do or say to get it?  Drug use and the need to use becomes more of a compulsion than anything else, and choice falls by the wayside.  Driven only by obsessive thoughts and the physical and neurological need for a substance, the ideas of trust, love, connection, family and compassion become a distant memory; and it is from that place that the behaviors stem.

These are not the actions of the person they once were, they do not come from the knowledge and experience they have gained in life, but from the simple or raw drives that have only one goal in mind.  The idea of lying or manipulation does not typically occur to someone in active addiction.  What occurs to them is survival; a level of commitment that most people may never experience.  To literally be willing to do or say whatever it takes to have it happen, whatever it takes to get the next hit, the next fix, to feel okay again.  The thoughts of how their words or actions affect the people around them, or hurt the ones they love are not even in their frame of reference; the people in their lives and what they mean become a distant memory.

The present focus of the mind is on only one thing: survival.  Really, it is about relief more than anything; relief from the pain of the absence of that drug.  At that point, the lying becomes pathological, compulsive to the point that they begin to believe the lies themselves, because it is the only mode of survival.  To do and say these things, is literally like taking the next breath, in the mind of an addict, the only possibility.  And the consequences of these choices are not even a thought.  Not because they don’t love the people in their lives, but because they are unable to even connect in that moment with what love is.

Parents

Many parents will say, “This is not the son/daughter I raised,” when dealing with a child in active addiction.  It may start with the simple lies, about where they have been, explanations for physical symptoms, or reasons for needing money.  They will literally lie to cover up lies, as an addict will try to prevent anything that may get in the way of getting high.  And then the manipulation starts.

The mind works in mysterious ways, for although it has no access to empathy or compassion for others, in the throws of addiction, there is direct access to how to play on the emotions of others.  Parents may hear things like, “If you don’t help me, then I will just be out on the streets,” or “If you don’t give me this, then I will probably overdose and die and it will be your fault.”  These statements designed specifically to create guilt and sympathy and elicit a response that will support their addiction.  And these statements typically work well, at least for a time.

A parent is literally programmed instinctively to do whatever they can to protect their child.  And when the panic sets in that their child might be in danger, they will literally do anything they can to keep them safe. Now at this point, the same struggle is now shared in two people, the addict, and the parent. While the addict is solely focused on avoiding the earth-shattering realization that they might have to go even a minute without some substance, the parent is in survival mode as well. The addict can only focus on self-preservation, while the parent will often not only be responsible for themselves, but also retain responsibility for their child, which is compounded is there are other members of the family. Sadly, what parents often do not see is that their response often keeps their child sick, that as they are trying to help their child stay alive, they rob them of a life.

Significant Others

“He is not the man I married,” or replaced with any pronoun, this statement is often heard by a significant other describing their loved one in active addiction.  Many would describe addiction in a romantic relationship akin to adultery.  All of the things that come along with a loved one being unfaithful with another individual occur with addiction.  The significant other lies, cheats, hides, deceits, but mostly is unfaithful with their time, attention and presence to their significant other.  “Even when you’re here, you’re not here” is something that most loved ones have shared with their significant other in addiction.

The addict often drives their significant other to believe they are the one at fault, or that they are crazy for suggesting that the individual is cheating, using or doing something wrong. Trust and faith are completely broken when the addict creates guilt and shame surrounding their significant other questioning their trust.  Most loved ones will share that they entered into a relationship as partnership, a sacred contract if you will, designed for each individual to support the other.

With addiction, comes codependent unhealthy relationships, instead it turns into each fulfilling a need for the other, the addict to be rescued or fixed, and the significant other constantly needing to save them.  The addicted mind quickly finds ways of manipulating this mindset, blaming their significant others for their actions, or scaring them into agreeing or caving through threatening their own safety and self-destructive tendencies if their loved one does not support them.

Children

Perhaps the most devastating effects of addiction are those experiences by the children of alcoholics and addicts.  Growing up with a parent who drinks or uses drugs addictively results in an adult child being much more likely to end up struggling with addiction themselves.  Is this really just a result of genetics?  Research suggests that a significant reason for this trend is a result of parents who are addicts or alcoholics being emotionally unavailable to their children often during critical phases of attachment and bonding development.  A child learns their core beliefs about themselves and the world from their parents.  Just like with a divorce or other significant event in child’s life, parental addiction plays a major role in the development of these beliefs.

From the perspective of a child, who relies on their parents for food, shelter, guidance and love to name a few, it is actually psychologically safer for them to believe that there is something inherently wrong with them than to believe that their source of survival is flawed or sick.  One of the most common situations affecting this in addition to an addicted parent’s lack of emotional presence is their inability to keep commitments to a child.  This is in a sense a manipulation and a lie, particularly in the eyes of that child.  While the parent may have intentions of keeping the promise to show up at a baseball game, spend a day at the park, or read a story to their child, inevitably, their commitment to the drug will always come first.  This results in the child experience guilt or questions about their own fault in this experience, anxiety about a lack of love from their parent, or fear of constant repeating of inconsistent behaviors.

What typically happens is that parent continues to promise to make it up to their child, to stop drinking or using, to show up for the next event, and the child becomes more disheartened with each promise.  The promises become lies in the eyes of the child and trust is broken.  In active addiction, parents are often preoccupied with not looking like the bad guy to their children, to hold up that manipulation that their drinking or drug use is not a problem, and this results in only more heartache for the child.

Children who grow up in homes with a parent in active addiction are also more likely to be victims of physical or emotional abuse, suffer mental health issues including anxiety and depression, be involved in crime, have deficits in cognitive or verbal abilities, and marry or be in a relationship with an addict or alcoholic later in life; and while it would be nice to be able to attribute all of these things to genetics, they are more likely a result of the lying and manipulation that they see and experience growing up.

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