Co-addiction – the disorder suffered by the family members of a substance user


When a person develops an addiction, or codependency, in relation to a particular substance, that person gets sick, but so does that person’s family. This is known as “co-addiction” or “codependency”. In this article, we’ll give you some key information to help you understand what this disorder means, what causes it, and which tools are available to address it. To help us in this difficult task, we have the testimony of Desirée Bujanda, author of the book Yo, madre de un adicto (I, Mother of an Addict).

I, mother of an addict is the story of a codependent person

I, mother of an addict, tells the story, in the first person, of a mother from the moment she realizes that her son is consuming cannabis (and other drugs) until he recovers following his stay at a rehabilitation clinic.

The second you start reading the book, you are able to identify with the protagonists, because the story is about a completely normal family that shows no signs whatsoever of one of the sons developing an addiction.

What makes this book different and so valuable when compared to other stories about addiction is reading the story from the mother’s point of view. From her perspective, we find out how she has to cope with her son’s constant lying, the visits to psychiatrists, and her son’s inability to give up his drug use, due to the illness he suffers.

It’s a very painful account of how Desirée starts to question absolutely everything: how and where she went wrong, whether she raised her son in the right way, and, more importantly, how she can help her son move forwards.

During this process of self-discovery, she arrives at the conclusion that part of the solution is for her to also admit that she is sick too: she is “codependent”.

Co-addiction: causes, types, and consequences

“The addict is addicted to the substance; the co-addict is addicted to the addict.” Desirée Bujanda.

The word “codependency” is formed by the prefix “co-” (meaning “company”) and the word “dependency”; that is, the person who accompanies someone with a disorder due to substance abuse. It refers to the relational disorder suffered by a family member or friend when they develop an emotional dependence on the substance user.

Codependency is a disorder well known among psychologists. It affects those people who are involved in another person’s problems, to the extent that they worry excessively about the other person’s well-being and start to forget about themselves and ignore their own needs.

In Yo, madre de un adicto, Desirée, along with the expert who advised the family, explains all the reasons a mother can become codependent and what type of role they normally assume.

Firstly, they explain how a codependent person is obsessed with controlling the other person’s behavior and how in most cases it is the mother who, due to cultural reasons, overprotects her children, making them into people with fragile characters.

Moreover, codependency manifests itself in different roles that mothers and other family members tend to take on according to their personalities:

  1. Police officer: monitors and makes sure that the user gives up the addiction.
  2. Savior: wants to save the user from the consequences of their own actions.
  3. Hero: brags about the sacrifices they’re making to help their loved one.

These aren’t behavioral patterns that only appear in the context of addiction; they can arise whenever any disease affects a child. In these cases, parents – out of love – try to solve all the child’s problems, thinking they have their child’s best interests at heart.

What’s more, even if unconsciously, many mothers (and, sometimes, fathers) feel guilty about what their children are going through, which makes them believe they deserve the pain they are feeling; sometimes, they even develop an unhealthy need for the sick person to be around them, as their only way to feel happy. 

That’s why the codependent person might end up in worse shape than the user if they don’t get involved in the recovery process and don’t pay attention to their own needs. In other words, the codependent person needs to heal too, but … how should they go about it?


How to deal with a case of co-addiction

Family members shouldn’t feel guilty about their children’s behavior. You can try as hard as you like to raise a child, give them your love, and find tools to guide them through life, but children will always have their own will.

Also, the problem goes beyond willpower, because there are triggering factors that will make a person develop an addiction; there are other issues at play, such as genetic and inherited factors (especially in the case of alcohol addictions), and reasons related to lack of skills and self-esteem, poor emotional and stress management, etc.

As far as parents are concerned, their actions should focus on making sure their child grows up in a healthy environment that encourages communication between children and parents. It is also important to lead by example and set limits when using substances (including legal ones).

In fact, environments that don’t foster communication between parents and children, where emotions are not shared, and where the parents’ and children’s aspirations differ greatly are the perfect breeding ground for a youngster to develop an addiction. Drugs will offer them that happy world they can’t have at home.

So, what should a mother or a father do to help their children without developing a codependency themselves?

The book offers some key insights:

  • Recognize that there is a problem and give it a name: emotional codependency.
  • Avoid overprotecting children; on the contrary, give them the freedom to be responsible and mature. The book even talks about “tough love”.
  • Promote detachment: each person is responsible for themselves and should tend to their own needs.
  • Live in the here and now: remorse about the past and fears about the future won’t help the dependent or the codependent person.
  • Understand what your children are going through: their brain is telling them to use drugs and they won’t be able to create new, healthy habits without adequate help.
  • Accept that this is a chronic disease and people may relapse at any time; but, with the right tools, they will overcome it.
  • Take the experts’ advice: trying to solve the problem by yourself will only harm the substance user and will delay their recovery.

To conclude

We highly recommend reading  I, mother of an addict, because it can help many families understand what their children are going through, and they might find useful answers to questions they may have.

Finally, if you need professional help, at Dianova, we have spent over 35 years helping people suffering from addictions to give up unhealthy habits.

We are an advisory body to the United Nations, and our multidisciplinary team of professionals have helped over 5,000 people overcome their addictions.

Get in touch with us by following this link; we’ll be delighted to help you.