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April 2, 2015
by Joan Childs,LCSW

Codependency: The Disease of the Disease

April 2, 2015 07:55 by Joan Childs,LCSW  [About the Author]

What Do We Know?

We now know that one of the chief causes of addiction is lack of connection.  It has been documented by Johann Hari in his recent publication, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think (Hari, 2015) that after many studies and research, the primary cause of addiction is a lack of bonding.  When this occurs, human beings go into crisis. (Buber, 1958).  When this happens before the developmental stages reach adulthood, the chronicity of loneliness becomes a set up for addiction.  Hence, the drama begins.  

In her book, THE DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD, Alice Miller, MD (1992) tells us that when children are beaten, battered, abandoned, neglected and not allowed to have their feelings, their little minds try to adapt to survive.  John Bradshaw in his book, BRADSHAW ON THE FAMILY (Bradshaw, 1996), writes about how the family has to adapt if only one parent is an addict.  Each child develops a survival role that becomes the false self. (Bradshaw, 2005).  The false self or sometimes known as “the adapted self” (Longhead, 1992) over shadows the authentic self and maintains a life of its own throughout our adult life if not acknowledged and treated.  

The adapted self serves us well in childhood, but by the time we reach early adulthood, it back fires and interferes with the quality of our lives.  The lost child within, known as the authentic self becomes diminished, yearning for connection where there is none, thus addiction is lurking in the shadows waiting for its prey: the loneliness of the lost child. The first time this lost child, barren of connection has a mood alteration from a drug of choice, addiction has entered the synapses of the brain’s network and the beat of the drum begins.  The addiction is not limited to alcohol or drugs.  It can be any addictive behavior including workaholism, gambling, raging, food, sex, and other compulsive behaviors.  In the limbic system which is the seat of emotions, that part of the brain only asks the question, “Is it painful or pleasurable?”  Human beings go away from pain and towards pleasure.

Defining the Illness

In the most common terms, addiction is anything you can’t stop.  In the field of addictionology, it is “a pathological relationship with a substance, behavior or person that has mood altering effects and life threatening consequences.” (Bradshaw, 1988)

Why is codependency considered the disease of the disease?  When an addict modifies his/her behavior, the underlying causes of addiction begin to emerge.  Rarely is the family of origin dynamics not considered the most significant source of addiction.  Rarely is it not uncovered that the addict early in his/her life has been struggling with a disconnect from their family of origin either by what we know as abuse, neglect and/or abandonment.

A New Cause?

In his book, Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs (Hari, 2014). Hari suggests that what we thought caused addiction is not correct.  We learned throughout the history of addiction that there is a predisposition or genetic base as one of the chief causes.  This is not the case.  According to Hari’s research, it’s the lack of bonding that is now the underlying etiology of addiction.

This is not new to those of us who have been in the field of addiction and recovery.  Family of origin and its affect on the child in most cases determines the outcome of human behavior; hence, dual diagnosis.  It is also understood that there is and always will be a genetic component.  This explains why two or more children coming from the same family with identical family dynamics choose different paths.  The wiring in the brain is an important consideration.  When a connection has never been established or broken, human beings seek out a replacement that satisfies the loss of bonding in order to have a corrective experience.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so we look for connection in anything that will compensate for its loss. 

What has been so interesting in substantiating this thesis has been documented in Hari’s research with the studies that were done with rats.  Hari cites a professor of psychology in Vancouver, Bruce Alexander who experimented with rats that were placed in a cage alone and others that were placed in a cage with other rats that he called “The Rat Cage”. The rats in the cage that were isolated had both water and cocaine bottles to choose from.  They consistently chose the bottle with cocaine. The rats who were together interacting in the “rat cage” had the same choice of bottles, however, chose the water and NOT the cocaine (Alexander, 2013).   

Dr. Alexander wanted to see if this were true for humans.  He used the study that he thought was an equivalent to the US soldiers in Viet Nam who used heroine during the fighting.  While they were there and fearful of their lives, alone and vulnerable, they used the heroine and about 20% became addicted. However, once returned home, the study indicates that 95% of the addicted soldiers stopped using (Alexander, 2013).

So what does all this have to do with codependency, the disease of the disease?  The origin which is the set up for addiction cannot be addressed until the compulsive behaviors are modified.  Once behavior is modified, then the underlying issues can be healed.  Not unlike the return of the soldiers from Viet Nam to their families and jobs, the return to connection is the change agent for healing.  Based on these findings it would behoove the addiction/recovery therapists to do Original Pain Work including Inner Child Work, whereby the adult can give the child what was missing that he/she needed but never received.  The truth is no one can heal our wounded souls but ourselves. This is best done with a qualified, trained therapist who can guide and facilitate the process


Alexander, B. K. (2013). The rise and fall of the official view of addiction. Published on the Globalization of Addiction website.

Bradshaw, J. (2005). Healing the Shame that Binds You: Recovery Classics Edition. Health Communications, Inc.

Bradshaw, J. (1996). Bradshaw On: The Family: A New Way of Creating Solid Self-Esteem. Health Communications, Inc.        

Bradshaw, J. (1988). The family: A revolutionary way of self-discovery. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 118-120.

Buber, M. (1958). The I-thou theme, contemporary psychotherapy, and psychodrama. Pastoral Psychology, 9(5), 57-58.

Hari, J. (2015). The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think. The Huffington Post, March 17

Hari, J. (2014). Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Loughead, T. A. (1992). Freudian repression revisited: The power and pain of shame. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 15(3), 127-136.

Miller, A. (1997). The Drama of the Gifted Child. Basic Books.

About the Author

Joan Childs Joan Childs, LCSW

Joan E. Childs has been a licensed clinical social worker since 1978 specializing in change work for human potentiality, personal growth and self actualization. She was chosen to be the first affiliate of the John Bradshaw Center in the United States and is a consultant to many corporations, hospitals, universities and academic institutions.

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Hallandale, Florida
United States
Phone: (954) 568-1004
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