How Addiction Affects Families


Typical Family Reactions are Normal and Understandable

To understand how addiction affects the family, it is helpful to first examine the relationship of your loved one in active addiction with the drug. According to the medical definition of addiction, the most important relationship in an addicted individual’s life is with the drug.

If you visit the self-help section of your local bookstore, you will see many books with the word “codependent” in the title. Psychologists have studied this idea and dismissed it because they have found no evidence to support the concept of codependency. Psychologists now recognize that families do their best to cope with a family member who is addicted. In other words, families display normal reactions to a condition that is difficult to understand. 

This is NOT a simple choice between the drug and family (or job or friends or community). The medical definition interprets drug behaviour as a compulsion – an irresistible urge to use drugs. If the relationship between the addicted person and the drug is primary, then all other relationships take a back seat. This dynamic is why some people say that those with addiction issues are selfish or self-centred. The addicted individual will tend to do whatever he or she needs to do to protect the primary relationship.

Family Reactions, Emotions and Coping Skills

Many families, usually parents, harbour a secret suspicion that they have done something to turn their loved one into an addict. This seems particularly true if there are other children who are not addicted. Why did one succumb to drugs while the others did not?

The emotions of family members of those living with addiction can range from loneliness and helplessness to guilt and chronic anxiety. The most intense emotion that families face, however, is fear. Often, this is a fear that their loved one will die. Families develop many different coping skills to deal with the abnormal situation of a loved one’s addiction. The most common of these are anger, taking control and continuing to believe their loved one is honest with them despite evidence (denial).

Results of these coping skills can vary.

For example, families tend to react to their loved one and their addiction behaviour, making them feel as though they cannot help. Families also typically feel that their loved one is incapable of making healthy decisions on their own. They feel obligated to take responsibility and try to control them. This can create tension and can ultimately make it hard for family members to talk about their own suffering, so they stay silent. Because of this focus on the addicted loved one, family members will often lose their sense of self.

New Coping Skill: Authorship

If you were not aware of your strategies/tactics when your loved one was in active addiction, you will likely transfer these over to when they are in recovery. Reminding him of appointments, offering to drive him to a community support meeting, and other behaviours may be signs that you are still taking responsibility for him.

The best way to cope with situations is to keep in mind: Each person is the author of his or her life. This means not only your loved one but you as well. Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote about authorship: “Responsibility means authorship. To be aware of responsibility is to be aware of creating one’s own self, situation, feelings, and, if such be the case, one’s own suffering.” We know that authorship – taking personal responsibility for one’s life – is a key to health and well-being. This also includes how a person chooses to deal with adversity.

You Are the Author of Your Own Life

The biggest problems in families occur when one adult tries to be the author of another adult’s life. Telling another adult what to do, think, feel, or say is attempting to take authorship over that person. On occasion, when someone has completed treatment, they may return home and then demand you or other family members act, think, feel, or speak in certain ways, based on things that they learned in the treatment program. However, the decision to act, think, feel or speak in those ways are yours alone, not your loved ones. In respect and in turn, families need to remember that their loved one’s recovery, feelings and choices are his responsibility and only under his control.

In all, the best way to encourage someone else to take responsibility for themselves is to take responsibility for yourself. So how can you demonstrate this? You must realize and embody the fact that no matter what, you are always the author of your own life. Nothing can change this fact. Authorship is taking ownership of your behaviour under all circumstances, realizing and living the reality that no one can force you to feel any particular way, even though it really seems that way sometimes. How you feel arises from your interpretation of an event, and you alone can change that interpretation.

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