The disease of addiction and alcoholism is one that not only impacts the individual suffering from substance use disorder but also the family. The statement “addiction is a family disease” is often heard within clinical environments or within the rooms of 12 Step recovery fellowships. It is a difficult statement for many to accept because believing that addiction is a family disease means that it is not just the individual with the “problem” but rather that the addiction has caused sickness within the entire family unit. This can be very difficult for the family to accept, because accepting that the family is dealing with the disease means that the family, and not just the individual suffering from addiction, must also get help in order to heal and get well.
So what does it mean when we say “addiction is a family disease?” Well, first it’s vitally important to point out that saying the family unit has been effected does not place blame on the family. In fact, no one is to blame at all. It simply means that a family unit, no matter how healthy or dysfunctional from the start, will always be negatively impacted by the individual’s addiction and thus develop negative coping skills in order to continue to function. A disease after all is a disorder of structure or function that produces specific signs or symptoms. It is a particular quality, habit or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or group of people. In that context there is little argument that the addiction of the individual ultimately impacts and influences that attitudes, behaviors, habits and emotional state of a family unit as a whole.
Addiction is a reaction to psychological, emotional and spiritual discomfort or pain that manifests itself in the misuse of substances. It can also be a physical reaction brought on by physical pain or discomfort when the individual becomes physically dependent on substances and unable to stop using them on their own. Due to way the brain is hijacked by substances in terms of reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry, the individuals is often unable to stop or regulate their drug and alcohol use and instead cultivate and continue negative actions, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and habits that allow for the substance misuse to continue, regardless of the individual’s desire to stop or its negative impact on the individual or those close to them.
This continued pattern therefore impact those closest to the individual dealing with addiction, which is usually their family. Parents, grandparents, spouses, children and extended family watch the individual self-destruct and create their own patterns both physically, emotionally or psychologically to both deal with the individual, be as help as possible and also create a safe space for themselves during the chaos of addiction. Fear, anger, sadness, terror, anxiety, depression, shame, guilt and other take an emotional toll on the family. Regular daily routines are interrupted and new routines take their place. Family members begin to adapt to the negative impact of addiction and create new coping skills that do not necessarily support their own health and safety. No matter the health of the family unit, addiction will overwhelm even the healthiest of families and create codependency, maladaptive behaviors and put the whole family system at risk. The natural dispositions of loved ones when the individual is in pain is to protect, defend, justify, rationalize and rescue. Unfortunately, due to the nature of addiction, those types of behaviors from the family only feed to addiction, even though the family is attempting to support their loved one and do what they think is best.
Under these living conditions, family members are under an unusual amount of stress and fear. The entire family unit adapts to the chaos of addiction and become absorbed into it, negating their own health and well-being and instead creating new negative and destructive patterns in an attempt to deal with the daily life of living with and loving someone suffering from addiction. Loved ones lives are interrupted and disrupted. There is no debate that addiction is a family disease.
So what can a family do? First, it is important to seek help. Obviously the whole family wants the loved one with the addiction to seek help and find recovery, but a family unit needs to seek help regardless of if their loved one gets well. Ideally, the loved one will get treatment and begin living in recovery while the family members seek out their own recovery from the madness of addiction. However, if their loved one will not accept help it should not prevent the family members from seeking help themselves. They must accept that addiction has negatively impacted them and they are in need of support and healing.
For family members, there are many sources and services available to them. There is 12 Step fellowships like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon. There are community parent and family support groups. There are grief and loss groups. There are many individual therapists. Many spouses and parents realize the addiction has impacted their relationships (whether married to the person with the addiction or a parent’s marriage suffering due to a child with an addiction) and seek out help from a marriage and family therapist. Many loved ones living with a person with substance use disorder report trauma surrounding the addiction and seek specialized help from a therapist or professional that can help them process that trauma. There are even workshops and treatment centers that aid the family in beginning a journey of healing.
Additionally, the family should always be involved in the treatment process and treatment experience of their loved one. There is no “dropping my addicted love one off at rehab and allowing the rehab to fix them.” That is not how treatment works. The family should be involved throughout the process. This helps the family understand addiction, create health boundaries, learn how to support their loved one with an addiction but also allows them to receive the coaching, support and insight they need for their own personal journey of recovery. Addiction is a family disease and addiction treatment centers should be treating the entire family unit so that the entire family unit can process, heal and begin the important journey of recovery for everyone that has been impacted.
If you or someone you know is in need of help because of drug and/or alcohol abuse or addiction, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (410) 773-0500 or email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on all of our drug addiction and alcohol addiction services and recovery resources, please visit our web site at www.marylandaddictionrecovery.com.