Considering the Cost of Addiction to Families

The degree of distress experienced by families affected by addiction is usually underestimated. In all normal situations, families try to take care of each other, especially in times of illness. What happens when you refuse your family's help, and then appear to go out of your way to upset them? Most people in this situation will try even harder to get the result they want — and most family members want their loved one to stop the drinking or using drugs. It's one of life's ironies that the harder the family members try to help you, the worse your problem sometimes seems to get.

The blame game

In the early stages, the family, especially the person closest to you, doesn't want to believe what is happening to you.

Some very normal personalized beliefs come into play for your loved one, including the following:

  • If I were a better wife (or husband, son, daughter, mother), you would love me enough to stop drinking or using.
  • As a parent, I must have done something wrong to make you feel so bad that you have to take these drugs.
  • I need to work harder to make sure you love me, and then you'll stop, and everything will be okay.

Believing they're to blame, the family members begin to bend over backward to make things better for you and to keep the family functioning. Meanwhile, you tend to blame someone for your need to drink or use and you likely pick on those nearest you, your family. No one can talk about what's really happening — after all you may get angry or you may leave.

Communication begins to break down, and the vicious circle goes around and around, with all players locked into their own very private pain.

The consequences to you and your family

The addiction problem of a family member can lead to all sorts of harmful consequences:

  • Socially: Through embarrassment and shame, families decline invitations, stop inviting friends to their home, and start to ignore friends and hobbies. The family becomes gradually more and more isolated — unable to tell anyone what's happening.
  • Psychologically: When family members have been lied to many times, they find themselves furiously searching for evidence to support their suspicions.
  • Emotionally: Living with you and your addiction is like being on a roller coaster. The family members feel angry, frustrated, helpless, confused, hopeless, desperate, guilty, and ashamed.
  • Physically: The stress of living in a chronic state of chaos, being on edge all the time (constantly worrying as to what your next phone call will bring and what they'll find when they open the door to your room) eventually takes a toll. Family members of addicts have more than the average prevalence of anxiety, depression, headaches, migraines, digestive disorders, and heart problems. It's not unusual to find close family members of addicts admitting to feeling periodically suicidal.

In short, the family becomes so focused on your behavior that they're distracted from all but essential matters. The family develops its way of coping; the family becomes so hooked on helping you that contemplating no longer helping you is as difficult for them as it is for you to stop drinking or using. A huge fear of making changes builds up, and this eventually becomes counterproductive for you and for them.

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