Many of us have heard that addiction is a family disease. But, what does that really mean? Yes, addiction has genetic components, meaning that you are more likely to become addicted to a substance or behavior if you have a family history of addiction, but the idea of a “family disease” actually goes much deeper than genetics.
The disease of addiction becomes an integral piece of the family system and impacts all family members. Families tend to organize their behaviors around the addict or alcoholic. As a result, the family system becomes unpredictable and may leave traumatized family members feeling just as out of control as the addict.
Most people struggling with active addiction will present with some combination of the following symptoms: preoccupation, increased tolerance, loss of control, blackouts, cravings, compulsive behaviors, medical problems, rationalizing, minimizing, blaming, sneaking, lying, hiding, secret-keeping, isolating, and euphoric recall. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, this list is probably not a surprise.
What you may not recognize is that family members and other loved ones may start to develop the same list of symptoms, as addiction becomes the central figure around which they organize their life. Family members start to experience intrusive thoughts about their addicted loved one, an increased tolerance for unacceptable behavior, loss of emotional control, cravings for their loved one, isolation from friends and family members who don’t know about the addiction, and lying/secret-keeping behaviors to rationalize, minimize, or hide the addiction. In addition, the addicted person and family members alike tend to experience uncomfortable feelings in response to the addiction. These include anger, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, guilt, fear, and shame. Family members tend to be so focused on their loved ones that they neglect themselves and don’t realize how the addiction has impacted them.
It is misguided to think that recovery is just for the addict/alcoholic. Family members have the same responsibility to identify their own unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving, and move through the uncomfortable emotions associated with the disease of addiction. If they don’t take a step back and look at how they function in the addicted family system, they risk recreating these patterns in their family, friendships, and work relationships – even while their addicted loved one is working a recovery program!
In recovery, family members must work through anger, guilt, and other uncomfortable feelings. They must learn to let go of trying to fix other people and, instead, focus on taking responsibility for themselves. This means finding happiness within the self, instead of seeking approval from others, asking for help when needed, and believing that they are worthy of positive actions and attention.
For many people, this doesn’t come easy. After years and years of living in an addicted family system, any change, even positive change, can feel uncomfortable and leave the family members on edge. Personal therapy and peer support groups, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, can help. A simple place to start is to write down the three C’s of Al-Anon: I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it. Read through these statements and repeat them to yourself every morning, as a simple recovery mantra to start changing your relationship with addiction.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction and you could relate to some of the symptoms presented here, please feel free to contact me to schedule your first session. Or, check out a local family support group meeting by clicking on the Al-Anon or Nar-Anon links.