There’s a misconception running rampant in our society; one that says addiction is a choice, and thus only affects the amoral subsect of our communities. This societal belief leads hundreds of thousands to suffer in silence, for no other reason than to avoid the shame and stigmatization. Others living with substance abuse disorders do not believe they have a problem, as they do not fit into the stereotypical image of an addict. Neither of these results of social stigma help the community heal in the face of the substance abuse epidemic.
However, beyond the obvious victims of substance abuse disorders, others suffer in silence as well. The spouses, siblings, and children of those living with untreated addiction experience the fallout just as profoundly, even though they may not use illicit substances themselves.
Causes Tensions and Stress
When substance abuse comes to light in a family, typical responses either stem from anger or disbelief. Some families with stricter backgrounds and expectancies lash out, causing a rift between the person living with addiction and the rest of the family. Unfortunately this can mean communication and support ceases, leaving people who are already vulnerable alone and sinking further into their disease.
The polar opposite reaction is one in which the family elects to ignore the problem. Rather than confronting it, it becomes the elephant in the room, never addressed but slowly poisoning everyone in different ways. If the person living with a substance abuse disorder is a parent, their children live with misplaced guilt or even fear, if physical or emotional abuse is a factor in mom or dad’s drinking or drug use. They don’t understand that addiction is a disease which influences the mind; all they know is something is wrong and they cannot fix it.
Parents and siblings of substance abusers feel similar despair and helplessness. In all honesty, most people are completely unprepared to deal with a disease as complex and deeply rooted as addiction. Mounting stresses and tension push families apart when they need to band together more than ever. Parents, siblings, and children of addicts live with the perpetual fear of getting a horrible phone call or, even worse, finding a body. Sometimes families need counseling and guidance as well, in order to work through the complicated feelings and resentments which build with prolonged substance abuse.
Feels Like Losing a Family Member
When one lives under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the person beneath the disease disappears. In their stead is a selfish, callow, shell of their former self whose only focus is fulfilling the all-consuming need to get high or drunk. Even if the transformation isn’t as drastic as that, addiction still has some pretty drastic psychological effects. Watching someone you love succumb to the darkness of addiction is like watching them slowly slip away.
For some families, that simile becomes literal. Addiction can strip away life slowly through drawn out illness, or suddenly with overdoses or drug-related accidents. Damage to the organs and brain can forever change the quality of life one can expect to experience; casual drug use and drinking is not a buffer against these effects.The unpredictable nature of illicit substances makes it impossible to know when a tragedy may occur. Even on the first use drugs and alcohol can have detrimental, potentially lethal consequences.
Moreover, there is the potential for losing a loved one to crime. People under the influence of drugs or alcohol are not fully in control of their cognitive facilities; this leads to making terrible decisions which can have lasting effects. Perpetrating serious crimes while drunk or high can lead to serious legal consequences up to and including life in prison or the death sentence in some states. Beyond that, there’s the chance of being killed due to one’s actions while under the influence- either by someone equally indisposed or by a sober person defending themselves and others. Drugs such as Flakka, cocaine, ‘bath salts’, and other insane synthetic concoctions have been reported to cause bizarre, violent outbursts and threats to life.
Effects External Relationships
When a family attempts to deal with substance abuse as a private matter, the idea of the public world learning of- and judging them for- the unfortunate situation becomes a terrifying possibility. Some will go to extremes to prevent such an event from happening: moving out of state, secretly shipping their loved one away from treatment while avoiding any discussion of where they’ve gone, and other radical measures.
This leads to stains in external relationships for all members of the family. Unable to speak to friends, colleagues, and other associates about the troubles in one’s life, they become withdrawn and secretive in order to protect the family name. Children, rather than learning and growing, become concerned with adult troubles and lose their chance to simply be children. Parents and siblings deal with awkwardly fielding questions and hastily changing the subject in order to avoid saying too much and destroying the illusion that things are okay.
For a while the act may be effective- no one suspects a thing. But the problem is holding in such a secret is highly stressful; someone is bound to crack eventually. Rather the blow up is between members of the family or a breakdown in which one reveals the truth to outsiders, bottling up the truth will only do more harm than necessary. Even if one does not want the outside world in family business, going about it in such a sneaky, deceptive way is only compounding the already troubled family dynamics.
Changes Family Dynamic
Depending on the role of the person living with a substance abuse disorder in the family, revelations of addiction can turn the family unit completely upside down. The authority of parents is challenged; children rebel, or otherwise feel pressured to be absolutely perfect in order to make up for another’s struggles with illicit substances. As I mentioned before, most families are not prepared for dealing with something as serious as addiction.
Dependence on drugs or alcohol causes personality changes, which can result in clashes within the home. When a parent suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction, their children may find themselves taking over a more parental role. Caring for the adult while they are under the influence becomes a common occurrence, forcing children to grow up and take on responsibilities long before they are emotionally or mentally mature enough to withstand that kind of pressure. This fosters resentments, anger, and pent up aggression which may show itself through different outlets and effect the child throughout their lifetimes.
On the other hand, if it is the child who is struggling with drugs or alcohol, parents find themselves at a loss with what to do to help. Often they feel guilt, scrambling to find ‘where they went wrong’ in parenting which drove their child down a path of addiction. At times this guilt might turn the parents into enablers, attempting to make up for some perceived wrongdoing or prevent the situation from worsening. In an ongoing attempt to take care of their child, some will go so far as helping support the habit- rather actively or indirectly. This places the power in the hand of the child, leaving the relationship open to manipulation.
Recovery Brings Families Together
There is a silver lining in the affects of addiction on the family: it offers an opportunity to strengthen the bonds between members of the family more than ever. If the proper steps are taken in order to help alleviate the disorder and learn to live in control again, it is possible to repair and rebuild even the most tattered family bonds. Of course, all participating parties must be willing to put in the work.
It begins on an individual level, perhaps with therapy and support from external parties. Addiction recovery therapy isn’t only beneficial to the party whom is living with the disorder; all those affected within the family unit and friend circle can learn and begin to heal with the help of a third party. With the fresh, unbiased perspective of a mental health professional, one may become aware of factors in the strained relationship which they did not recognize previously. Additionally, support groups exist to help all sorts of people affected by the substance abuse epidemic. Recognizing that others are experiencing similar struggles can be helpful to everyone.
Once everyone involved understand their own roles in the family healing process, fixing things become a matter of effort. Beginning slowly, respecting each other, and holding on the earnest desire to fix what has been broken can repair even the most damaged relationships. Above all else, remember this: we are all human, living this life for the very first time. With that in mind, keeping judgement at a minimum and love as the focus, the future can only be brighter.
What steps have you taken to repair your family relationships in sobriety? Tell us your story today!
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