Addiction is a primary, chronic, neurobiological disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. This simply means that every addict / alcoholic comes from different circumstances. Genetic factors, their family of origin, how and where they grew up could be important factors to focus on in treatment.Learning about the causes of substance abuse is crutial.
Addiction is characterized by behaviours that include one or more of the following:
- Impaired control over drug use – an inability to predict when or how much will be consumed
- Compulsive use – an inability to stop using the drug or alcohol
- Continued use despite harm caused to self or others
- Cravings – agitation, discomfort and moodiness
Everyone in the family is affected by one member’s addiction. How can that be? Addiction doesn’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 behaviours such as gambling, work, sex, shopping, or eating, these actions and behaviours 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.
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 behaviour. Sometimes the spouse or partner is also an addict. Children are affected at any age and face many challenges as they grow up.
When addiction is chronic, family finances are often drained. Some lose their homes, go into bankruptcy, or face serious economic consequences when bills can’t be paid. If the addict or alcoholic is the breadwinner and they loose their job, the burden falls upon the remaining spouse to support the family. 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 direct family, but with friends and co-workers. They often feel that they should have seen the problem and been able to do something about it.
Families affected need treatment just as the addict needs treatment. Treatment for families means learning all you can about the disease,causes of substance abuse, coping mechanisms and effective strategies for dealing the problem every day, and how to take care of yourself despite the chaos caused by addiction. Most of all, family members need to understand that they aren’t to blame for the actions and behaviour of 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. Both the addict / alcoholic and their loved ones need to recognize that recovery is a lifelong process. It is not an isolated situation, and just as there must be support for other chronic illnesses, these families must identify sources of support and use them.
In recovery, your family life will change depending on the needs of everyone. This is sometimes the hardest part of treatment, but with some work and lots of support it is possible.