The Family Scrimmage: The Daily Reality of the Addictive Family

Working with addictive family’s for many years I have found that there are seven major realities that impact the family’s recovery. One of those realities is what I call the family scrimmage. I choose the word scrimmage to describe the daily reality of the addictive family because the word scrimmage, which is usually associated with football or some sport practice, is a word that accurately describes the addictive family reality. The word scrimmage originated in England in the late 1400s and literally means, “A rough and vigorous struggle that can lead to a bloody battle.”  In the addictive family there is always a daily rough and vigorous struggle when alcoholism or drug addiction exists. It is a fierce daily combat. People who have grown up in an addictive family understand the intensity of this daily struggle but not always the severity of it.

I have observed and have learned that most addictive families suffer the same realities.  The first of these realities which addictive families have in common is that they all endure Pathos, a Greek word that means deep sorrow and emotional suffering. Their lives have grown bleak, a dreary existence. The second reality is what I have identified as abstruse, meaning concealed, hidden.  Family members hide secrets for so long they become abstruse. Their secret now has a secret which is complex and each family member becomes enigmatic to each other. The third reality is how the family emotionally suffers together as a whole family unit. Their emotional suffering, their pathos, is synchronized and integrated into the family system. The fourth reality is what I call grave in-congruency. It is the constant in-congruency experienced by each family member. This in-congruency effects their spiritual, emotional and mental lives and grows more distant with the progression of the addiction. The family is not even aware of how deeply incongruent they have become in each of these vital areas.

These first four realities eventually fuse together and become the fifth reality; The Wrath Experience. Each family member’s anger and rage emerges into wrath. In the last stages of addiction the family is infected with wrath which rules in their hearts and minds.  Wanting vengeance against the addict, the family often seeks opportunities to get revenge.   Unfortunately that revenge can become the reality of homicide and/or suicide.

 The combined realities contribute to the family scrimmage, the rough and vigorous struggle. Unresolved, the struggle can, may and often does, lead to a bloody battle. When families address and resolve the first six realities, The Seventh Reality; Profound Coherence, is achieved. Profound Coherence, the exposure of all the abstruse secrets where everything fits together.

Over the years I have observed the addict or alcoholic coming into treatment, and they and their family do not go beyond first order of change when a second order of change is essential for their success.  First order of change is getting into treatment or a program and the addict or alcoholic and family are educated–becoming aware of the magnitude of the problem.  Second order of change is the process of healing and long term change of lifestyle and behavior. This comes from identifying the realities they have all been living. It is essential that the family treatment be as intense and long term as the individual addict/alcoholics treatment.

 In my book The Family Scrimmage an Introduction to the Seven Realities of the Addictive Family, I describe each reality with a “scrimmage play” to help resolve the issue of that reality, a step towards profound coherence.  Frequently, the family is confused as to the situation they find themselves in. They do not understand that as the addict/alcoholic has gained a tolerance to the substance they have been abusing, they, the family, has gained a tolerance to the abnormal behavior that accompanies the addiction.

      This is why sometimes when families come into treatment they are told they are “as sick as the addict or alcoholic.” The family may find this to be insulting.  Already confused at what is happening to them in the present moment they find it difficult to embrace the concept that they too are sick.  After accepting that reality, the family members want to know how it happened that they became so sick, addicted to the abnormal behaviors associated with living with addiction.

The Seven Realities of the Addictive Family describes in detail exactly how the family became as dependent on addictive behaviors as the addict and/or alcoholic. Professionals working in the field of addiction understand the importance of treating the whole family. What I have identified, for the most part, is nothing new, other than the words and terms. What is new is how to help addicted families break through their denial, embrace their reality and understand the importance for long term family treatment. 

     Using a term as scrimmage helps the family become aware that the addictive family rules are always stringent and relentless.  Confusing to the family is why the stringent and relentless rules must be experienced at all.  Helping the family to identify the rules based on the realities they have been living with, helps them to break through denial and prepares the family for long term recovery. They learn that these assumed rules have forced family members into specific “team positions” (remember it is a scrimmage).

     For instance, an assumed rule in the addictive family might be that each member of the family must take a side, either with the alcoholic or codependent, then choose offense or defense for the day.  Always it is a guess. The addict or alcoholic determines these rules by emotionally inflicting their addiction onto family members with angry facial expressions and unpredictable behavior.  Eventually the assumed rule becomes relentless because the unpredictable behavior of the addict or alcoholic is often abusive. Living with these stringent and unrelenting rules eventually becomes uncomfortably familiar. Symptoms of depression, anxiety and rage emerge.

     While working with the addictive family it is important for the counselor to assist the family members in identifying the in-congruency the family may be experiencing. Unlike the healthy family which is typically congruent in these areas, the addictive family is often perplexed about where they are emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Since they have adjusted to living with uncomfortably familiar relentless and stringent rules, nothing they say or do is congruent with how they feel. They are miserable, usually unaware of the depth of their misery. At this stage of the family addiction (the middle to late stage), the addictive family’s condition turns grave. It is Grave Incongruence, and each member of the family endures it.     

The ultimate goal is the experience of the Seventh Reality and as stated before, it is Profound Coherence, the understanding that occurs when the secrets are exposed and the shame vanishes. Defining the addictive family experience through their own scrimmage, will make it simpler for individuals to identify their own personal, painful ordeal and to relate with other individuals that have suffered the same mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.

While working with families who have suffered from the destruction of addiction, I have also learned and do know that the family can heal.

It is my sincere desire that through understanding the Seven Realities of the Addictive Family, the approach to treatment for the family will be more comprehensive and long term. I do hope we begin to treat the family members as their addicted counterpart.

    Extremely important in family treatment is the inclusion of a parenting group. Parents need to learn how to avoid the negative behavior that leads to the daily scrimmage. Also, many recovering parents will need to learn self-parenting coping skills to resolve lack of parenting from their family of origin.

When addictive families understand the realities they experience daily, they may make a decision to get treatment sooner, rather than later.  The “bloody battle, the rough and vigorous struggle” can end. In its place, peace and serenity will have the opportunity to overtake the family. It is the peace and serenity that can only come from surrendering to a power greater than themselves.


Susan Jackson Clinical Director His House New Creation


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