How does addiction affect family relationships?
Addiction is a family disease. One of the toughest aspects of addiction is the chaos you, the addicted person, bring to the family. Like any other illness, addiction elicits a multitude of emotions and behaviors from family and friends. They may become angry or resentful toward you for the hurt they experienced while you were in active addiction. They may have even been fearful that they would lose you to a divorce or that you would die as a result of your addiction. When your family members realized that they could not change your addictive behaviors, they likely felt completely powerless over their own lives.
Often family members feel personally responsible for holding everything together. They fear that if they don’t, the family will fall apart. This intense feeling of being personally responsible for you as well as the family is a huge burden— and it can lead to feeling victimized, angry, and full of blame.
Enabling behaviors include the following:
- lying for the addict to protect his or her reputation with employers or friends
- assuming more responsibility around home or work to make up for the addict’s lack of contribution
- denying that the problem exists
- accepting blame for the addict’s behavior
- withdrawing physically or emotionally because of the stress caused by living with the addict
- continuing to support and be there for the addict, even when this person has become physically, verbally, or emotionally abusive
Many family members have gotten caught up in the dishonesty of trying to keep everything looking good on the surface, while this only allows the situation to continue unchecked.
It’s often true that as an addict you have caused any number of problems and brought harm to others. But family members will not gain anything from remaining stuck in the blame game. Instead, healing and balance will come for you and for your family members when they turn their energies toward think- ing about what they want for themselves, and when they learn to detach with love—to love you but reject your addictive behaviors.
How does addiction affect children?
Children can sense the danger in an addictive family and often know before the parents do that something is terribly wrong. Some children may respond to conflict by withdrawing or emotionally shutting down. Other children may rally to assume additional responsibility in the family to make up for the lack of support from the addicted parent.
It may take time for your children to trust you again. Your recovery may stir up lots of different emotions in them. They may react with hope and happiness, resentment and anger, or something in between. Be patient; allow your children to feel, express, and process these emotions.
Now that you’re out of treatment, you may not know exactly what to say to your children or how to interact with them. This can be a confusing time for children, and they may deal with hurt emotions by acting as if everything is fine or by being aloof and angry. Like most parents, you really love your children and want only the best for them.
Because you are a recovering addict, you might feel hypocritical talking to your children about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs or about things such as trust. Put those thoughts aside; your job as a parent is to inform and protect your children. If you send them honest, consistent messages, they will listen. One of the first things you can do to repair your relationship with your children is to help them understand what addiction and treatment are all about.
What is your family going through now that you’re sober?
Some family members believe that everything will be fine now that you are out of active addiction and working on recovery. Others may not instantly accept or trust you. They may wonder how long this new “recovery” will last. Either way, just because you are clean and sober right now doesn’t mean that the resent- ments, distrust, loneliness, and hurt are gone from your loved ones. In fact, now that they are not worrying about your use as much as before, they may be more present to the hurt and loss they sustained during years of living your addiction.
What can you do to improve family relationships?
Learn all you can about recovery
The more you and your family know about recovery, the more helpful you will be to each other. Consider attending a program together with family members to learn about addiction and recovery. Although taking time out for such a program is difficult, most people find it time well spent. It may also be helpful for you to attend an Al-Anon meeting and listen to the stories of those families struggling with active addiction in order to empathize better with your family’s side of the situation.
Encourage family members to accept powerlessness over addiction
One of the first tasks for family members is to admit they are powerless over the disease of addiction—they are no more able to control your addiction and its con- sequences with willpower than they would be to cure you from diabetes or any other disease. Admitting powerlessness will help your family members let go of shame, guilt, and resentments. It’s not anyone’s fault that you have the disease of addiction. Your family members could not control your addictive behaviors or make them go away through any amount of love, tenacity, or patience.
To admit to being powerless over anything is a difficult and humbling experience.
Set goals together
Although your family members are not responsible for your recovery, it may be helpful for you to set goals with supportive family members. Commit to participate in events, such as going to meetings, or to take certain actions (for example, calling your sponsor) each week. Ask your loved ones to hold you accountable to these agreements.
Protect your recovery
Protecting your ongoing recovery is one of the greatest things you can do for your family. You can help accomplish this by
- attending Twelve Step meetings on a regular basis
- finding a sponsor who has been in recovery for a while and who can serve as a guide
- seeing a therapist or psychiatrist regularly if you have a co-occurring disorder, such as depression or anxiety
- attending continuing care groups where different recovery topics are discussed
See a family counselor
Marriage and/or family counseling may be of benefit to you if you or your family has experienced difficulties with communication, trouble in balancing the demands of home and work, the loss of a family member, the stress of co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety, or childhood traumas. You may also wish to see a counselor to enhance your family relationships by learning such skills as effective communication, conflict resolution, assertive- ness, and time management.
How can you handle family events where alcohol is served or other drugs are present?
Family events, including holidays or other celebrations, can threaten your recovery if you don’t plan for them because they can cause increased stress, heighten emotions, create free time without structure, and cut off or limit your access to your sponsor or recovery support group.
Make it a priority to talk to your sponsor and lay out a plan for coping with family events and celebrations where alcohol or other drugs could be present. It’s easy to become busy or overconfident, taking shortcuts and not making recovery the priority. You forget that without abstinence from alcohol or other drugs you will lose all the things that are valuable in your life.
Recovery action Step
Let your sponsor know if you may be in a tough situation during a family event. Make sure you have a way to leave the event if you feel your recovery is threatened.
Take another recovering person with you for support during the family event. Having someone there who understands your fears and urges is important. It keeps you accountable.
Regular Twelve Step group attendance is another key resource for family members. Al-Anon, Alateen, and Adult Children of Alcoholics groups are available to help family members begin their own recovery process. These groups will help family members come to terms with reality, live in the moment, and take charge of their lives. Rather than react to addictive behavior, they will learn to focus on themselves and make meaningful choices. Below is information on and links to these groups, as well other family resources.
Al-Anon and Alateen members are people who have been affected by someone else’s drinking. The websites for these groups offer an online searchable directory of meetings in the United States and Canada.
Adult Children of Alcoholics
Adult Children of Alcoholics is a nonprofit organization that maintains services for those seeking to arrest the emotional disease of family alcoholism. This website offers a searchable list of meetings worldwide.
Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation offers a Family Program where family members can learn how to deal with the recovery of a loved one, while still taking care of themselves.
Talking With Kids About Tough Issues
Talking With Kids About Tough Issues is a national campaign by Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The website offers tips on discussing topics such as alcohol and other drugs, sex, violence, and HIV/AIDS with children.