When a loved one is facing active addiction - and even when one is well into the early sobriety/post detox stage - the recovery journey can be an extremely difficult, chaotic, and emotional time. A lot of time, energy, money and other resources are funneled into helping the addicted person get better and maintain recovery with a focus on avoiding relapses.
The disease of addiction doesn’t simply affect the person using drugs and/or alcohol however; it impacts everyone who is in any way emotionally invested in their well being. When there is any major stressor in the family, we all do our best to cope, regardless of age. Addiction affects us all: employers, government, communities, but most especially the family unit.
Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease” because of all the ways in which the family is impacted, including depleted resources, and the negative emotions experienced: blame, shame, guilt, worry, fear, uncertainty, isolation, a sense of feeling loss, and disconnection (because it cannot be fathomed that anyone else would ever be able to understand). On top of that, there’s also the wreckage from addictive behaviors: DUIs, loss of job/home/family, legal issues, accidents, and more.
At first, the terminology “family disease” may be confusing. How can it be a ‘family disease’ when only one member of the family is abusing drugs and/or alcohol?
While only one (and sometimes more than one) member of the family is using drugs and alcohol excessively, the entire family system is disrupted as a consequence of addictive behaviors, which can include lying, stealing, relationship affairs, and other manipulative behaviors.
These behaviors impact family members significantly, which is why addiction is indeed a family disease. Because we love, care and want to support a loved one’s success and evolution in life, it is unbearable to watch someone we love self-destruct. We want to do everything in our power to prevent a relapse and keep someone from drinking and using illicit drugs. Because of this, each member of the family develops their own triggers and the family unit displays mirrored-addictive behaviors with the intention of trying to effectively support a family member.
Families find themselves making decisions out of fear, and often responding with frustration and anger which is more destructive than it is easy to understand.
How Addiction Impacts the Family
Addiction doesn’t discriminate, and can impact anyone at any time, from all walks of life. Even peaceful, loving homes can be divided by the difficulties caused by substance use disorder. Relationships frequently become strained, and conflict can become ‘normal’ as family members struggle to understand their loved one’s behavior. Trust begins to erode, and family members usually become more guarded as their loved one’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and unpredictable due to the side effects of their disease. Communication breaks down, which only underscores tension, frustration, and often outright anger. This leads to individuals within the family triggering each other unknowingly, which prolongs the recovery process and increases the rate of relapses for the addicted person and the family as a whole.
Family and friends may feel a host of negative emotions as a result of their loved one’s addiction. They may begin to blame themselves, which erodes their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. They may blame other members of the family, which takes a huge toll on the family unit and breaks down communication. The stressors of addiction commonly cause many other medical complications and turmoil. (Depression and anxiety are common in family members with a loved one struggling with addiction).
Sometimes there are even more serious effects on the family, including abuse, neglect, and financial instability.
Families Need Help, Too
It is a common misconception in families with a loved one struggling with addiction that if the person would only ‘get better’ or ‘stop using’ then the problem would go away. The reality is, though, addiction is also a symptom of deeply-rooted problems within a family unit that need to be addressed, and these problems do not go away simply by ignoring them or demanding that someone else changes their behavior. They won’t go away simply because the person stops using. It is very arduous for a family to effectively support a loved one’s addiction without their own support system. In fact, it is vital.
In order for a person’s recovery to be meaningful and sustainable, the entire family unit needs to heal. Just as an individual may get help for their substance use, families need help and support too – whether or not the addicted person gets help themselves.
Ways Families Can Support Their Loved One(s) and Themselves
When it’s difficult to even get a grip on the problem itself, it can be hard to know how to get help. Don’t lose hope, though, because there are several steps family members can take to seek support, get educated on the disease of addiction, and begin their own healing process.
Learn About Addiction: Every day scientists and researchers are learning more and more about the disease of addiction, and the first step for loved ones is to gain an understanding that addiction is, in fact, a disease. It’s a particularly baffling disease because the symptoms are behavioral, so it can look like the person is choosing to use and deciding to act in unacceptable ways. Getting informed about why – and how – addiction is a disease, a brain disorder, can provide the foundation for setting aside frustration and anger and setting about focusing on the solution rather than the problem.
Getting educated about addiction can also help families escape the ‘blame game’. When families can overcome the notion that a person’s addiction stems from a moral failing, weakness, stubbornness, and/or willfulness, it creates a healthy environment for healing and letting go of resentment and while managing all of our feelings.
Connect with People Who Understand: Loving someone in active addiction can be extremely isolating. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that nobody else understands what the family is going through, and the stigma surrounding addiction can make families reluctant to talk about it. The reality is, though, that more than half the population of the United States alone is directly or indirectly impacted by addiction, and families are far from alone. There are many resources available to families, and finding a community of people who understand helps dispel feelings of isolation and provides peer-based support, as well as education and advice for how other families navigate addiction.
Help is available in the form of family support groups and support systems, including Al-Anon, family therapists, group therapy, and family recovery coaching services like Passaje, LLC. (The idea is to find a safe, understanding, and nonjudgmental space where the family can talk openly and heal both individually and together.) It is essential that recovery is approached as a team.
Ask for Help: Not every family member may be on the same page with a loved one’s addiction. Some family members may be in denial about the severity of the problem, are blaming part of the family for the problem, and/or simply refuse to talk about it. Even if the entire family unit isn’t ready to ask for help, it’s okay for one (or some) member(s) of the family to seek support on their own, or with other family members who are ready.
Prioritize Self-Care: Even during the stress of a loved one’s addiction, it’s important to prioritize self-care both as individuals and as a family unit. It may feel like you don’t have the time, or the capacity, to take care of yourself, but during this stressful time it’s more important than ever. Lack of self-care is a major factor in families feeling overwhelmed and burned out.
Make time to do things together as a family, even if it’s as simple as sitting down to family dinner once a week or going on a family outing. Individual members of the family need to focus on their own self-care as well, and make time for the things that fill them up and bring them peace and joy. It’s not selfish to do this – it’s essential. Exercise, proper nutrition, good sleep habits, and mindful activities are critical when under stress, and the more you take care of yourself, the more energy you will have to implement the mental work that is required to get better at managing your thoughts and emotions.
About Passaje, LLC
Passaje, LLC’s mission is to help families heal from substance use disorder. I believe addiction is a family disease, thus everyone in the family also needs help and support aside from having the addicted person seek treatment. When families are not aware of their roles and influence, and/or are having difficulties managing triggering thoughts, it complicates and deters the recovery journey for all involved.
My wish is to help individuals in the family approach recovery as a team because no one can do it alone. Families and friends need help and support as much as the person struggling with substance use does, especially given the fact that tough love is not always effective. There’s a fine line between enabling and effective support. Family recovery is vital.