What do we mean when we say addiction is a family disease?
Well, it means that family members play a vital role in maintaining active addiction and just as vitally in preventing and discontinuing it. Yes, families are that powerful!
In my tenure as an addiction professional, I can say with certainty that a person’s chances for ongoing sobriety partially rest on the condition of their family. If the family addresses their side of the addiction, the person’s likelihood of success will increase.
Which is why, to treat addiction, we must look at the entire family. Sadly, most families demonstrate the same resistance to change as the actual users. Families struggle to see their place in the addictive cycle and often become agitated or even offended if a professional attempts to point out their ineffective behaviors.
It can be helpful to underscore how both families and the person using share some of addiction’s basic hallmarks. Held hostage as they are by their loved one’s addiction, the family can mirror the user’s behavior in several ways:
- Hiding and Sneaking
Whereas the addict engages in all types of hiding and sneaking to cover their addiction, the family often does the same in their attempts to uncover it. Checking phones and text messages. Snooping through a person’s belongings. Calling others to get information on their loved one while hoping they don’t get caught. Such conduct isn’t any more normal or healthy just because someone who’s sober and well-intended is doing it.
A staple behavior of active addiction, outright lying or fudging the truth can become a familial reflex as well. Say they’re caught spying on the user. They deny it. Or they want to protect the person from the consequences of their addiction. They cover up. I hate to resort to clichés, but the truth shall set you free.
Just as users obsess about their substance(s) of choice, family members fixate on their loved one’s addiction, commonly allowing thoughts of “Where is she/he? Is she/he OK? When am I going to get a phone call? What now/next?” to consume more days and nights than not. Such spinning only feeds worry and anxiety.
When a family member loses whatever modicum of control they have over the user, or if their loved one enters treatment, the family member can experience withdrawal. Symptoms can include irritability, extreme anger, blame, anxiety, restlessness, sleep issues, and missed personal obligations or employment. These symptoms are triggered by a fear, which continues to perpetuate the cycle, causing ongoing use and devastation.
As addiction professionals, we’re not doing our jobs if we don’t address the family component of the illness. As we do with active users, we must challenge and push families, too.
Essential is to remember that families are operating from a place of fear: It’s terrifying to feel so utterly helpless when someone you love is ruining his or her life. And so families make a lot of compromised decisions — decisions that usually involve short-term or ineffective solutions to the problem at hand and only lead to continued substance abuse and more family devastation.
My advice? Get honest with families. Educate them about how addiction affects them, too. Help them come to terms with their loss of control, regardless of where their loved one is at with their addiction. Families need to realize that they can get well now and not wait for the user to be ready. You need them on board and their loved one most certainly does, too.
As professionals, we speak from a place of objectivity. Families do well to put their trust in us. We can encourage this by always extending compassion and empathy for their suffering.
This, really, is the most important part of our jobs.