Addiction as a Family Disease

The connection between the family and the addict

A person who with the disease of addiction is often not the only one who suffers. Often, the family closest to that addict is affected. In most cases, the family members of an addict or alcoholic suffer emotional, mental and psychological pain as a result of their loved one’s actions. But why is this the case? Families are often believed to be systems that form their own organisation and they develop ways of interacting with each other and the outside world. A change within the family system can lead to changes in the greater system. How does this happen?

How Addiction effects the family

Addiction and alcoholism usually effect the family in many ways. They can experience short-term or long-term effects, usually caused by the addict/alcoholic involved. In most cases, the damage starts off slowly. The addict/alcoholic may be able to hide their addiction well and the family still have trust in them. This can then escalate to strain within the family unit, which eventually leads to mistrust and broken relationships. As family are closest to the person with the disease of addiction, they notice first hand the physical and emotional symptoms the addict/alcoholic may encounter such as aggression, weight loss, isolation, etc. Relationships often become sensitive as they may confront the person addicted which may lead to arguments or violence if the person addicted is on denial. This causes immense emotional and mental strain on the loved ones trying to help. Drug addiction and alcoholism usually causes broken families, lost friendships and ends up leaving the person alone and isolated. Statistics show that 1 in 5 children grow up in a home where their parents abuse drugs and alcohol and 19% of individuals between 12 and 20 experiment with drugs and alcohol due to peer pressure at school or trying to escape a toxic home environment.

But how does the family play a role in all of this?

Family roles in addiction

Even though the addict may or may not cause most of the destruction within the family, often family members can play roles that can cause more harm than good. It is important to understand these roles and how to get help for these. Family members may often be in denial about their loved one’s addiction, refusing to accept they have a problem and letting them carry on as they are. The most common role is that of the enabler and/or rescuer which may often enable the addict by taking responsibility for their wrong doings, cleaning up their mess such as paying off their debt or even making excuses for them at work. Some family members may become extremely co-dependent.

Some signs of a co-dependent relationship can include control, nurturing, and maintenance of relationships with individuals who are chemically dependent.  

So, what can the family do?

Support for family affected by addiction

The family often places their loved ones in a safe environment to receive treatment and they are left to pick up the pieces. This creates chaos in their lives. For this reason, it is very important that the family seeks support for themselves on how to deal with their loved ones once they find a new path to recovery. Most treatment centres will have family support groups. Even if their loved one is not in treatment it is important for them to gain advice and counselling on how to get help for their family members.

There are support groups such as Al-anon and Nar-anon for families to cope with the stress of having a loved one who suffers from the disease of addiction. They can also investigate Tough Love groups.  

  • Dominique Le Claire Rossouw