Guilt, even if unacknowledged, runs rampant in the minds of substance abusers and their family members. Because denial is the No. 1 symptom of alcoholism and drug addiction, guilt may go unrecognized at first, but it plays a major role in the family dynamics of addiction. For the addicts, guilt results from the embarrassment to themselves and their loved ones caused by their behavior and their lack of responsibility for their actions. Guilt also gives them a false excuse for continuing to drink or use because alcohol and drugs alter their reality and enable them to hide from their feelings.
Substance abusers are masters at making excuses for their excessive and obsessive use of alcohol or drugs. They see themselves as victims, and they can offer up untold reasons why they do what they do. The underlying reason, however, is to stop feeling how they are feeling. They may be angry or sad. They may feel afraid or insecure. They may even be joyful and exhilarated and want to enhance those feelings. As their drinking and using increases, the guilt they feel over their behavior also increases. They become trapped in the cycle of addiction. Recovery involves taking a serious look at the emotions underlying substance abuse and dealing with the guilt.
Family members begin to take on the emotional symptoms of addiction, including guilt. They become anxious and worried about the consequences of the addict’s behavior. They worry about paying the bills or the possibility of abuse. They suffer embarrassment when others see the foolish behavior caused by drinking and using. In an effort to control the addict’s behavior, they begin to wonder if something they are doing is causing the addict to drink or use. They want to solve the problems endured by the addict and the family members, so they grasp at every possibility, either real or imagined. Spouses, for example, may think they can change their partners by trying to become more attractive and appealing, or by manipulating and pleading. When families participate in recovery, they gather tools for letting go of guilt and learn new ways to conduct their own lives.