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“Co-Dependent, Once Removed”

September 2, 2014
by Heidi Voet Smith
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In the treatment industry, we are quick to identify roles in a family system – the “identified patient”, the “enabler”, the “rescuer” and so on. After working with thousands of family members of chronic alcoholics and drug addicts, I’d like to add one more. A role that is taken on in the sick addictive family system - I call it the “Co-Dependent, Once Removed.”

Here is a typical scenario – Johnny is a chronic drug addict and his mom and step-dad are desperate, defeated and terrified. Johnny’s mom spends all her time, emotional energy, money, resources and physical energy trying to save, protect, and rescue Johnny. Johnny’s step-dad observes his wife’s insanity and realizes it is detrimental to Johnny and mom, and does not participate in the rescuing efforts and actually begins to resent his wife’s efforts. However, step-dad has decided to take on a new role. He has assigned himself the role of controlling his wife from her insanity of enabling her child. He spends all of his time, emotional energy, money, resources and physical energy trying to convince his wife of her insanity, rescue her from the madness of enabling, and showing his anger towards her continued futile efforts. He is the “Co-Dependent Once Removed.”

I see this cycle happen with siblings and parents more and more. The sibling of the addicted individual is doing everything they can to block their parents enabling of their sick sibling. In fact, it is not uncommon for a client in treatment to be admitted by an adult sibling who has intervened on their parents for their lack of boundaries with their addicted child. We have had numerous cases where the sibling is our main point of contact and will not even allow the parents to be involved in the treatment of their sibling, because they just “know my parents will cave and rescue them.” What these siblings don’t realize is that they’ve gotten sick too!! Their parents and their addicted sibling are not the only crazy ones in this family system! The “Co-Dependent, Once Removed” usually believe they are the only one to see the real truth of the situation and believe they are right. Which, they may be. But where they tend to be delusional is not realizing that they are caught in the cycle of alcoholism, but their focus is just different. They have become angry, arrogant, bitter, controlling, and resentful. They are quick to demand their enabling loved one go to al-anon, but they fail to see that they need al-anon too.

So for all of you seemingly healthy family members who love someone who loves an alcoholic or a drug addict, let me tell you this . . . You are not tricking me. I am on to you. While I appreciate your efforts and I know you are trying to help, do not be deluded that you are well. You need al-anon too. You need counseling too. You need God too. You can’t control ‘them’ any more than they can control the addict. It sucks. I know you’ve lost two loved ones now – one to chronic addiction and the other to obsession and rescuing.

Here is the moral of my story . . . no one is left unscathed by addiction in the family.



Good points by Heidi. My pet peeve, as an academic, is that most of the popular writers in the family addiction field have simply taken from classic writers on family systems and cut and pasted into the addictions field, without citing or attributing the original writers, who were not necessarily describing families with addiction problems. Minuchin, Adler,
Satir, wrote this up ages ago. Then, another generation of writers quotes the pop writers as the "inventors" of these concepts, or don't even reference the pop writers! This is not meant to be a criticism of Ms. Smith, who is not guilty of this practice.

Peter L. Myers, Ph.D

Heidi Voet Smith

Clinical Director Chapter House Counseling Center

Heidi Voet Smith



 Heidi Voet Smith, (LPC-S, MA), is the Clinical Director and Co-Founder at Chapter House Sober...

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