At ALYST Health, we believe addiction is ultimately a family disease because family members are often just as affected by the addiction as the individual struggling with it. Here’s what that often looks like.
When someone struggling with addiction isn’t aware of the impact their problems have on their own life, they generally fail to understand how their addiction affects the people around them. As a result, family members may be unable to help their loved one understand the larger impact addiction has. Family members themselves may also be blind to some of the effects drug addiction has on themselves and their family at large.
At ALYST Health, we’ve seen a wide range of family situations and how addiction affects families. These are the most common patterns we’ve recognized and how family members can work to overcome them.
Long-term drug and alcohol addiction have the potential to tear families apart, but they don’t have to. Unlike other diseases, drug addiction is often more insidious and may go on for months or years before other family members begin to realize or acknowledge the severity of the situation. During that period, emotions like confusion, anger, frustration, and resentment can create undue strain between a struggling loved one and their family members. Instability and a loss of trust can make it hard to rebuild those familial bonds.
Once an addiction has been recognized, however, the biggest effect families bear witness to is the loss of potential. They’ve often seen who their loved one was before the addiction, and witnessing who they become when they’re in the throes of addiction is often the most difficult challenge family members face. Even ignoring the extreme examples of overdoses, trips to the hospital, stealing, and legal trouble, the simple day-to-day difficulties of looking loved ones in the eye, following through on simple requests, and deteriorating health are enough to discourage even the most caring family member.
While family members commonly recognize the loss of potential in their loved one, they often struggle to see their role in addiction treatment because they may not be sure about how to best approach the process. They may either want to have nothing to do with the process and assume it’s the job of professionals or try to micromanage recovery. The most successful families fall somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that the process doesn’t happen overnight. They understand that there will be recovery setbacks and dips along with success and progress, ultimately trusting that things will get better with time so long as everyone continues working toward the same goal: long-term recovery.
Family members may be willing to go to any length to help their loved one, but they often push back when they need to be a part of the process or work on themselves. They often struggle to accept some of the responsibility for enabling behavior, and instead shift the blame onto their loved one. “Why do I need to work on myself?” family members may ask. “They’re the one with the problem.”
If the goal is long-term recovery, family members absolutely need to be a part of the addiction recovery process, and they need to be willing to work on themselves to help their loved one make progress. Just as addiction is a family disease, recovery requires a family solution. In our experience, when families don’t play a role in the recovery process, their loved one has a much slimmer chance of achieving long-term sobriety.
When thinking about addiction, many people focus on the effect it has on the parents of the individual struggling with substance abuse. However, siblings can play just as much of a role in recovery and are often affected just as much as their parents. Parents are more prone to overlooking certain enabling behaviors, so siblings can provide a voice of reason to round out their parents’ perspectives.
At the same time, siblings often feel the same extreme emotions as their parents but may be more willing to step back when their brother or sister refuses to acknowledge the addiction or the problems it causes. When that happens, it’s often a clear sign that it’s time to stage an intervention. Siblings need to be willing to remain patient and steadfast during that time, acknowledging that it may take several interventions for their loved one to admit they need help.
Beyond parents and siblings, addiction also impacts other family members and loved ones. They may be more distanced from the day-to-day fallout of an alcohol or substance addiction, but addiction still puts additional strain and stress on all family members. Some loved ones may try to micromanage the individual struggling with an addiction to get them to correct their behaviors, while others may distance themselves from the situation. Most people fall somewhere in between.
The most important thing to remember is that every family member or close friend is going to respond differently to the reality that someone they care about is struggling with addiction. It’s also vital to remember that not all family members, including spouses, children, and grandparents, may be equally equipped to positively influence their loved one on the road to recovery. If they’re struggling with their own addiction or tend to fall back on enabling behavior, they may have to first confront their personal issues before they can be a positive voice for their loved one.
No matter how addiction affects loved ones, each individual needs to step back from the situation, understand how the addiction impacts their life and well-being, and assess how they can productively contribute to recovery. When in doubt, planning a drug or alcohol addiction intervention offers an accessible place to start. If you think now is the right time, learn more about how to stage an addiction intervention.