Sad, funny, sexy and shocking, TV series ‘Shameless’ might be the first show to accurately portray codependency roles of family members affected by addiction.


Funny, dramatic, sexy and shocking are all words that could be used to describe Showtime’s Shameless, now in its sixth season. Based off the original British series, Shameless showcases a family of six children born to addicted parents. Dysfunctional and self-destructive, the Gallagher family does a pretty good job of depicting what it is like to grow up with two addicted parents on the wrong side of the tracks.

Often dubbed a family disease, addiction affects every member of the family. Shameless takes you on a journey with the Gallaghers as they face fleeting highs and ever-deepening lows, but the one thing that always stays consistent is their love for each other and their resiliency in the face of adversity.

Addiction as a Family Disease

Family members are naturally reliant on one another to help each other through life. But when one person has an addiction, that person is no longer reliable and typically causes turmoil and drama within the home instead. In the case of one or more parents suffering from addiction, the entire family is affected emotionally and usually financially as well.

Families run on a combination of roles, rules, rituals, boundaries, and hierarchy. This organisational structure is naturally put in place to uphold the well-being of the family and happiness of its members. But when there is an addict in the family, the structure becomes distorted. In an effort to cope with the unpredictable and unreliable behaviour of an addicted parent, the rest of the family tends to take on new roles that are not always healthy for their own mental and/or physical well-being.

Codependency Roles in the Addicted Family

There are six types of codependent family roles typically assumed:

  1. The Addict
  2. The Hero
  3. The Scapegoat
  4. The Caretaker/Enabler
  5. The Mascot
  6. The Lost Child

For the full definition of each role, please see the infographic: “Codependency Roles in the Family”.

Which Codependent Roles do the Gallaghers Adopt on Shameless?

The Gallagher family consists of the parents, Monica and Frank Gallagher, and their six children, Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl and Liam in order of oldest to youngest. Each member of the family takes on one of the above roles in the following ways:

Monica and Frank: Both Gallagher parents are addicts.

Frank spends most of his money on alcohol but will not turn down a bit of crack, coke, weed or any other drug if he gets the opportunity. Frank depends on government disability cheques from intentionally getting hurt in the workplace and he and his kids live in a house that is not quite rightfully theirs. Frank’s addiction has taken him to a point where he cares about no one unless they can help him get money, drugs or alcohol — even stealing from his own kids. Known as a master manipulator and liar around town, his attempts to get money for his addiction and the people he hurts in the process get worse and worse as the show progresses.

Monica disappeared on the family long ago, and suffers from addiction as well as bipolar disorder. She reappears every now and again throughout the 6 seasons, but she refuses to take her bipolar medication and her spells of manic behaviour and severe depression are the main focus of her character. Her bouts of depression offer a moment of sympathy for the viewer, but these moments cannot quite redeem her actions during her manic phases, which include stealing her kids’ savings and blowing it all within a couple of days on drugs and a used car.

Fiona: The eldest child, Fiona takes on the hero role. She leaves high school after Monica bails on the family when Liam is still just a baby. Since Frank is never around (and when he is, he is wasted), Fiona takes it upon herself to take up the responsibilities of the household including paying the bills, taking care of the house, making lunches and ensuring the kids get to school. Although she never manages to hold down a steady job, with the help of her brothers Lip and Ian, they manage to scrape together just enough money to keep the household running. She is known for her many relationships but none last as she displays seriously self-sabotaging behaviour every time a relationship seems like it might have some staying power. This likely stems from the underlying feelings of guilt, fear and shame that are typical of the hero in these situations.

Lip: Lip takes on the role of the scapegoat. The brains of the family, Lip is incredibly intelligent and is constantly scheming ways to help out Fiona with the household bills. However, they often get him in trouble with the law. He also has a lot of pent up anger which he seems to release during the many brawls he gets into with neighbourhood kids, or by running from the cops. Later, when he gets into college on a scholarship, his role begins to complement Fiona’s as a hero. Despite the challenges that college brings, Lip wants to finish his education and get a good job so that he can better support his siblings.

Lan: Portrayed as the lost child, Ian often sinks into the background. He tries not to cause any trouble and usually puts others’ needs in front of his own. He does not even tell his family that he is gay as he does not want to put yet another burden on them. Ian slips away from home for months at a time — once to work in a gay club while hooked on drugs, and another to illegally join the army using Lip’s ID — and while the family wonders where he is, they seem to have bigger issues to deal with than to find their quiet, responsible brother Ian who they just assume will return when he is ready. It is not until later in the show that Ian is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and viewers are privy to the internal struggles Ian must deal with learning that he might be ‘just like his mother’ whom none of the children have been very fond of.

Debbie: Debbie takes on the role of caretaker or enabler. When Frank is passed out on the kitchen floor, she is the one to put a pillow under his head. She is constantly making excuses for Frank’s behaviour and encouraging her family to forgive him and treat him better. She only wants to see the good in her father and despite him disappointing her again and again, she still sticks up for him and hopes that one day things will get better.

Carl: One of the most interesting Gallaghers, Carl takes on both the caretaker and scapegoat role. Quite young in the first few seasons, Carl mainly watches what is going on but quickly begins to show sociopathic tendencies such as harming animals or setting things on fire. As he gets older, his desire for Frank’s acceptance leads him to work with Frank on several schemes (this is the caretaker role), almost landing them both in jail. He then starts dealing drugs for one of the local gangs (scapegoat) and lands himself in a juvenile detention centre.

Liam: The youngest of the crew, still in diapers, Liam would be considered the mascot of the family. Cute, adorable and innocent, Liam makes the others smile and laugh when times are tough.

Shameless in the Disease of Addiction

Watching the Gallagher children get hurt by Frank over and over again is at often times heart breaking. With absolutely no ability to care about anyone but himself, one episode shows Frank calling his kids’ social worker with an anonymous tip that their family is unfit, simply because Fiona asked him to leave the house when he was being destructive. The kids were all separated into foster homes and Frank could not even remember making the call (or so he said) because he was too drunk at the time.

And while some critics say that the highs and lows are exaggerated throughout the show — and they probably are to some degree in order to make the series engaging — they are unfortunately not that far from the truth of what happens in some families that are struggling with severe addiction.

Family Addiction Treatment

Because a family is naturally intrinsically involved when one member suffers from addiction; when that person seeks addiction treatment it is recommended that the family join them for family therapy at the same time.

In the case of Frank Gallagher, friends and family tried many times to get him into treatment, but his addiction was too far gone. In one episode he admits to having started drinking in his teens and has not been sober since. This goes to show how important it is to get an addict into treatment as soon as possible. For the highest chances of recovery it is important to get help at the first signs of substance abuse or addiction.

If you or someone you know are struggling with addiction, contact one of our counsellors for a no obligations, free assessment today.

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