How Does Addiction Affect the Family?

How Does Addiction Affect the Family?

It’s often said that addiction is a family disease. That means that everyone in the family is affected by one member’s addiction. How can that be? Addiction can’t hide in the closet, hidden from view of other family members. Whether the loved one with addiction is an alcoholic, does illicit drugs, takes prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes, or engages in compulsive behaviors such as gambling, work, sex, shopping, or eating, these actions and behaviors affect everyone in the family.

Addiction is also a progressive disease. Without treatment, it only gets worse. So, too, do the effects on the family. Addiction affects the stability of the home, the unity of the family, mental and physical health, and the overall family dynamic.

If the addict is a parent, the children suffer in multiple ways. Not only are their basic needs for food, shelter, and nurturance unable to be met, the children may be subjected to bouts of rage, emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse. The children of alcoholics or drug addicts may withdraw, become alcoholics themselves, or fail to develop into normal, functioning adults. In fact, studies show that children of addicts often follow the pattern of abusing alcohol or drugs. The earlier a child starts drinking or doing drugs, the more likely it is that they will have a problem with substance abuse and dependence as adults.

Spouses or partners of addicts go through various stages: denial of the problem, covering up the problem, lying to others about the problem, overcompensating to make up for the shortcomings and failures of the addict, enabling the addict to continue his or her addictive behavior. Sometimes the spouse or partner is also an addict. These situations cause massive family dysfunction and threaten lifelong problems for affected children.

When addiction is chronic, family finances are often in shambles. Many families lose their homes, go into bankruptcy, or face serious economic consequences when bills can’t be paid. If the addict is the breadwinner and he or she loses their job, the burden falls upon the remaining spouse to shore up the family. Often this proves to be a losing battle. There may be serious legal problems, even resulting in jail time for the addict as a consequence of his or her actions. Frustration, anger, bitterness, betrayal, shame, guilt, and hopelessness set in – not only with the spouse, but also other family members. They often feel that they should have seen the problem and been able to do something about it.

Family addiction requires treatment just as the addict requires treatment. You can’t overcome the effects of the addiction if you don’t learn all you can about the disease, coping mechanisms and effective strategies for dealing with the disease, and how to take care of yourself independent of the addict’s disease. Most of all, family members need to understand that they aren’t to blame for the actions and behavior of the addict. They don’t own that responsibility: it belongs solely to the addict.

When an addict goes into treatment, family members – in the best circumstances – go into family therapy. This helps them prepare for when their loved one completes treatment and returns home. Many times behaviors need to be changed. Alcohol must be removed from the home, for example, or the environment cleared of any drugs. Prescription medications need to be locked up. Schedules need to be altered to accommodate the recovering individual’s attendance at counseling and/or 12-step group meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers
Anonymous, and so on.

Family members also need to recognize that recovery is a lifelong process. The addict will always be in recovery. It isn’t a one-time stint at rehab and then life continues on as before. To give the recovering individual – and the family – the best possible outcome, family members should be supportive, loving, and encouraging.

If you have an addicted family member, can you ever again return to normal? With treatment, both the addict and family members can go on to live full, happy, and productive lives. For the addict, this will be the new normal. For family members who have learned how best to support their loved one in recovery and how to take care of themselves, it may well become the better normal.

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