Our family systems work very similar to a beehive. There are jobs and responsibilities that the Queen, Drones and Worker Bees must fulfil in order to keep the hive functioning. The worker bees daily tasks change depending on where the attention is needed. They are so connected to their family system that their behaviour instinctively changes in order to survive.
Like bees in a beehive, how we respond in our environments as children, depends on what needs attention to ensure our survival. One of the most impactful sessions I had when I was in group therapy for Families of Alcoholics was learning about family roles in families with addiction. This concept was created by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse and it’s taught to many families who are healing or in recovery. I am going to go into detail about each role that was described to me. Keep in mind you can exhibit characteristics from more than one role, and depending on who the addict is will affect the role you take on. Think about which ones relate to you.
The addict is probably the easiest one to define and identify. The person who is reliant on their addiction as a coping mechanism is the Addicted. Often, this person is living in a state of chaos, is unbalanced and/or is a slave to their addiction. Often these people are struggling with an underlying trauma, mental health issue or a need that wasn’t met for them in childhood.
Characteristics: lying, manipulating, isolated, closed off, angry, unrealistic goals, strange sense of reality, ups and downs, struggling with mental health, absent, withdrawn, dependent.
Also known as the codependent or caregiver, the enabler is the person in the family who is in denial of the Addicted’s problems (or at least, is not wanting to deal with them). They usually carry the burden of the Addicted’s problems on their shoulders, assuming all responsibilities. This could also mean defending the Addicted and making excuses up for their behaviour. The Enabler unknowingly supports the addicts dysfunctional behaviour, often thinking they are being supportive to the person, when in reality they are supporting their addiction.
The Enabler takes care, or consoles the addict, usually because of a deep sense of empathy for the reasons behind their addiction. The enabler mothers the Addicted and becomes controlling of their every behaviour. The Enabler may feel like the addict needs them to survive, constantly picking up the pieces of the addict, who will enviably need to shatter to change.
Characteristics: Codependent, nurturing, defensive, delusional, anxious, passive, in denial, treat addict like a child, controlling, constantly giving threats with no follow through, understanding to a fault, worrier, feels inadequate, helpless.
The Hero is the person in the family that picks up the slack from the “absent” Addicted family member. If the alcoholic is a parent, the Hero would likely be an older child who assumes more responsibility (ex. making dinner, babysitting, cleaning, providing etc.). The Hero usually “grows up quick”, and becomes a provider for the family.
Like the name suggests, the Hero attempts to save the family by being overly responsible, self sufficient and a perfectionist. They mask the families issues, as if there isn’t anything chaotic about their situation. How could there be? They are perfect. Often their ability to soak in the chaos and to fix problems leaves them “strong”, and later in life less vulnerable or easily detached from their hard emotions.
Characteristics: Overly Responsible, Self sufficient, Over achievers, Look good on the outside but feels misunderstood, good at masking issues, anxious, perfectionist, trouble being vulnerable, “strong”/closed off, can handle a lot, nurturing, stress case, doesn’t need help from anyone, feelings of embarrassment, guilt and shame.
Opposite to the Hero, the Scapegoat is an obvious product of the Addicted’s dysfunctional behaviour. They are usually the troubled child, or the one to point blame at for the family’s chaos. Their attitude is often defiant or hostile, and often this behaviour diverts attention from the Addicted’s behaviour.
Characteristics: defiant, the rebel, has attitude, constantly getting into trouble, hostile or has an “I don’t care attitude”, misunderstood, complicated, could be involved with drugs and alcohol, feels empty.
The Mascot is the comedian of the family, lightening the chaos with humour. The humour is a coping strategy to deal with the dysfunction of the family, and their own feelings about the situation. Often the Mascot takes themselves less seriously, is immature, and is the butt end of all jokes in the family. Like a sponge the Mascot soaks in the stress and turns the unpleasantness into something liveable, making the family dysfunction “a joke”, but often suffers from sadness or depression.
Characteristics: immature, class clown, depressed, difficulty being vulnerable or feeling emotions, uncomfortable in serious situations or conversations, not taken seriously.
The Lost Child
Who? With all the chaos around them, the lost child is often forgotten about. They stay quiet, isolated and often don’t look for attention. They stay out of the way, avoiding the behaviour of the Addicted and the conversations around their families dysfunction. They cope by flying under the radar and escaping into their own private world away from all chaos.
Characteristics: a loner, lonely, quiet, shy, passive, non-confrontational, introverted, feeling neglected, angry, depressed.
How does identifying these roles help you?
Identifying the mask you wore or still wear in your dysfunctional family gives you insight into what behaviours or needs are YOURS and what behaviours or needs were acquired to ensure you and your families survival. In addition, these masks provide understanding of what your other family members may have been experiencing, and why their reactions to the family chaos were different than yours.
When I was in my Family of Alcoholics meetings I found this meeting in particular very powerful. It gave me understanding of why I came out the other end of my dysfunction seemingly fine.
It validated characteristics of myself that people saw as positive and “strong”, as ones I felt were suffocating, and preventing me from being me.
I was responsible, an achiever, a fixer, but I was also anxious, experiencing panic attacks when I lost control. I felt closed off and misunderstood. As I mentioned in my memoir Mulch: The shit that made me grow, “I came to realize that I cocooned myself. I layered myself with a protective shield every time I was shamed, guilted, lied too, yelled at. Every word, argument, threat, swear, drink, built an armour around me so thick, that I wasn’t even aware I was wearing it. I was oblivious that I was traumatised”.
Learning these roles gave me insight and understanding of my family, and the characteristics they took on. It made me look at the mask they were required to wear, the role they were required to take on in order for my family to survive. Just like the bees in the beehive, we adjusted our behaviour instinctively.
Understanding why we are the way we are is a big concept to grasp, but I hope if you are someone who comes from a family of alcoholism, these roles have provided you with new perspective, as they did for me.
Jessica Jones is a teacher living in the Manitoba prairies. For the past year she has been actively writing and sharing her experiences with co-dependency, alcoholism, and the impact it’s had on her and her relationships. Her interests include psychology, photography, and her brand-new podcast called Mulch. For more stories and articles by Jessica follow her on Instagram @from.mulch, listen to her podcast Mulch or visit her website frommulch.com.