addiction is a family illness

Nowadays, the unfortunate reality is that many of us have been affected in some way by addiction. We personally may not be the person suffering from the addiction but odds are there is someone in your family or circle of friends who either is currently addicted or is working on a program of recovery. The latest opioid crisis has brought addiction to the spotlight, but addiction as a problem has been around for decades.

More and more families are affected by addiction and are seeking ways to cope with a situation that places any family in a crisis mode. Even the healthiest of families find their world turned upside down when needing to deal with a family member suffering from addiction. I have worked in the addiction field for a couple decades and have seen the positive outcomes of recovery and have witnessed how families have gone from their lowest points to becoming healthy and whole. I am not saying this is easy, but I am saying it is possible.

Before I get into discussing the impact that addiction has on a family and what the family can do to cope with the addiction, I would like to offer a definition of addiction. Addiction is referred to as a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. Yes, addiction is classified as a disease not unlike any other medical disease. unfortunately, many in our society continue to view addiction as a moral failing and a choice rather than the chronic disease that it is. If you are unsure that addiction is a disease please check medical websites as they will show you why and how the medical profession views addiction as a disease.

What we mean when we say that addiction is chronic, is that addiction runs in families and is passed on from generation to generation. Not unlike chronic heart disease or diabetes, chronic addiction is treatable yet not curable. A person diagnosed with having an addiction does not have to suffer daily from that addiction but must daily treat the addiction.

I like to refer to addiction as a “family disease” since the family unit is greatly impacted by an individual member's active illness. As the disease of addiction progresses and the person with the disease begins to change their behavior, attitudes, and how they deal with the family, the family unit changes their behaviors and thoughts in order to cope with the changes of the person with addiction. When the person with the addiction enters recovery, meaning they are no longer actively using, their behaviors and thoughts will return to a more healthy view of life. But, if the family has not made any changes then the family unit remains unhealthy as they continue to view the person in recovery as if they were still using.

Therefore, it’s important to treat the person with the addiction as well as to treat the family as a whole. Not that it’s the fault of the family, but rather it’s to help the family learn healthy coping skills. If a family member were diagnosed with chronic cancer the family as a whole would be greatly impacted and would change how they view the person with cancer. Helping that family cope with the member suffering from cancer is no different than helping a family cope with a person suffering from an addiction.

So, what can a family do to cope with the crisis and upheaval in their lives as they experience the active addiction of one of their members? Let me first start with a  few “don'ts” for a family to consider:

  1. Don't blame yourself! Although this is a natural response to the crisis, blaming oneself does not offer a solution but only spirals you into a depression or a “pity party”. The reality is that you did not cause your family member to use regardless of what they may tell you while in the midst of their active addiction. Even if we were to admit it was your fault, the act of blaming yourself still does not give us a workable solution to cope with or solve the problem. It's important to remind yourself that this is not your fault and you are not to blame!
  2. As difficult as this may be, don't live your life solely for the person with the addiction. Instead, continue, as much as possible, to live your life as you have been.
  3. Don't enable. This is very difficult but essential to helping the person with the addiction to move toward recovery. Enabling takes many forms but generally speaking anything you do which ultimately helps the person to continue with their addictive behaviors is enabling.  In most cases family members don’t enable out of a desire to continue the addiction, but rather they make choices, out of love, but which end up enabling instead of helping.

Let's now look at a few tips that a family can do to cope when addiction runs in the family:

  1. The first thing I always recommend families do is to care of themselves. Coping with a family member who is suffering from addiction is quite taxing and drains family resources. It's important to do things which have nothing to do with the coping of the person with the addiction. If the family member is outside of the house then the rest of the family needs to take time to do things on their own to maintain their family bonds. If the person suffering from the addiction lives in the household it is important to have family time either with or without that person but not talking about the addiction. Don't allow the disease of addiction suffered by one person bring down the entire family.
  2. Educate yourself about addiction. The more you know the more you will understand what your loved one is going through and how best you can help them. Understanding that it is not your job to change them, but as a family it is your responsibility to guide and support them to the best of your ability. As I mentioned above, you are not to blame for the situation and so it is not your full responsibility to “fix” the situation.
  3. One way to help with family self-care and education is to seek family or individual counseling, or to find support groups. Groups such as Al-Anon are made up of members who are also doing their best to cope with the active addiction of a loved one. I know it's difficult to seek help, but if the family falls apart how will the family ever be able to help the person with the addiction? Seeking outside help will, in the end, teach healthy coping methods which will bring the family closer together.
  4. Managing expectations will keep you grounded and remove some of your stress and anxiety. Many of us feel anxious or stressed when  outcomes don't match up with our expectations. Keeping our expectations based on reality will help us feel some inner peace. For example, a reasonable expectation is that the person suffering from the addiction seeks help, whereas an unreasonable expectation is that the person will become cured just because you told them to stop using. If recovery were as simple as being told to stop doing what they're doing they would have done that at the beginning.
  5. Continually remind yourself and the rest of the family that addiction is a disease and not a moral failing to be judged. The longer you feel that it is a moral failing the more  frustrated you will become when your loved one continues their use. Reminding yourself that they are suffering from a disease will reduce some of your frustration as you realize that your family member is not necessarily being obstinate but that they need proper medical care to treat the illness from which they suffer.

Not only does the person with the active addiction suffer from the consequences of their disease but so do their loved ones and family members. The disease of addiction is a family disease, so treating it as such will help all members of the family cope in a healthy way with the crisis placed upon them. Never give up hope! I have witnessed many families come out the other end of addiction closer and healthier than they were prior to the crisis. Seek help for your loved one, but just as importantly seek help for the family.

If you're ready to explore life coaching, I would be honored to help. You can read more here about my life coaching practice or call me directly at 301-850-2177. 

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