When we think of addiction, we often picture movie-like images of loners and hustlers, broke and alone, doing whatever it takes to get the next fix. But addiction is rarely a solo effort or simply someone else’s problem. It is called a family disease because of its devastating impact on those closest to the person suffering from addiction, including spouses, children, other family members and even friends. Living with someone suffering from addiction not only causes trauma to everyone in the home, but it also threatens the unit’s physical, emotional and financial health.
Why Can’t They Just Stop?
Contrary to popular belief, substance abuse is a chronic disease, not a moral failing. The person who is addicted isn’t able to take control of the problem without professional help. Substance abuse affects the brain in ways that make the cravings and reliance on drugs or alcohol involuntary. Repeated use can change areas of the brain responsible for self-control.
As a result, it can’t be controlled by a simple desire to quit, will power or just saying “no.” Like other chronic diseases, it can run in families and is influenced by environment and genetics. Thus, addiction is progressive — it worsens over time — and requires ongoing and intensive treatment to manage, similar to other chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
This is important to know because the tendency in families is to either withdraw support or punish their loved ones for bad behavior, which only worsens the condition for the addicted individual and family member. Many people suffering from addiction already feel remorse and shame for the pain they’ve caused their families. Lack of support, threats and punishment fuel their feelings of guilt, shame, anger and resentment, and then they seek to self-medicate for comfort.
This behavior can be deeply frustrating for family members, who may find themselves engaged in a power struggle in an effort to take control or change the person that only serves to drive the person deeper into substance abuse. These patterns of behavior keep both the person with addiction and their families locked in a negative cycle.
What Can You Do To Help?
Although there are specific treatment steps someone using alcohol and drugs can take to get help, family members can help create the conditions to make that decision both more attractive and effective.
Although you may be angry and resentful, it’s important to treat someone suffering from addiction with respect and dignity, even though you may feel it’s undeserved and unreturned. Blaming or shaming them only fuels defensiveness and sets up communication to fail.
You can help promote a healthier environment by reminding someone struggling with an addiction they aren’t alone and encouraging them to make new habits. If they’ve entered rehab, help them maintain an alcohol- or drug-free lifestyle by encouraging them to stick with their treatment program, such as showing up for regular doctor visits or counseling sessions, going to meetings, keeping regular contact with their sponsor, and providing a drug- and alcohol-free environment.
We live in a quick-fix society. But recovery isn’t the same as getting over a cold. It doesn’t go away in a week. It’s a lifelong process. Be patient, anticipate relapse, and don’t give up on the person any more than you’d give up on a patient with diabetes who had a spike in their blood sugar levels and went back to the ER.
Get Support for Yourself
Addiction impacts the entire family, not just the person living with the addiction. Remember, you deserve support for your healing process through education, counseling and support groups as you rebuild many broken issues ranging from physical, emotional and financial health to rebuilding your relationship with the person. It is natural to feel a sense of anger, resentment, hopelessness or even fatigue due to the many changes the family has gone through. With the right support, you can address these feelings and begin to repair bonds.
How Can You Be Healthier for the Long Term?
Substance abuse doesn’t just hurt the person with the disease; it hurts everyone in the family. And because nearly everyone in contact with that person is impacted, recovery is most successful when family and friends closest to the person are involved.
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drugs, remember that it is not as simple as just making the decision to quit. As with other diseases, professional help is often needed to recover. Look for a treatment center that offers many levels of care and treatment options, from coming in a couple times a week to long-term residential treatment.
Dr. Roueen Rafeyan is the chief medical officer for Gateway Foundation. Call the 24/7 helpline at 877-505-HOPE (4673) or visit RecoverGateway.org and take the first step to getting your life back on track.