This is the first in a series of blogs about the effects of substance abuse on family relationships. Addiction is a family disease and every member of the family is affected. When a loved one is active in their addiction the equilibrium of the whole family is upset. The selfishness and inappropriate behavior of the loved one in the throes of substance abuse causes great sadness, hurt and anger in the family. Broken promises turn into lies. Continued lack of integrity on the part of the addict leads to strained and sometimes severely damaged relationships.
Family relationships are sometimes broken beyond repair, and other times there is hope that the family can once again get to a place of love and mutual respect for each other. Regardless of whether the relationships can be repaired or not, hanging on to the anger and resentment for longer periods of time is unhealthy and needs to be addressed to heal.
Feelings of hate and anger toward the addicted loved one are most commonly caused by a number of false beliefs about the addict that have become accepted as truth over time. Understanding the reasons that family members hold on to the anger and resentment is a great place to start in resolving them and beginning the healing process.
False Beliefs that Feed Hatred, Anger and Resentment
Believing the addict will never change.
The phrase “once a substance abuser always a substance abuser” is an example of this false belief. Many families have been dealing with an individual who has practiced their addiction for years, and even after multiple recovery efforts has gone back to abusing drugs and/or alcohol. At some point the family concludes that their loved one is unable to change and doomed to a life of addiction. This belief leaves family members feeling helpless and blaming the addicted family member, and the blame is further fueled by their fear and unresolved anger. The process becomes automatic over time and the family member is stuck in feelings of hatred and resentment toward their loved one.
Most of the families I work with still remember loving their addicted member greatly. However, the introduction of substance abuse into the family began a path of destruction that over time eroded the feelings of love and respect they once had for their loved one.
An example of a family I worked with comes to mind. When their son was 16, he became addicted and had to go to treatment. Over the next eight years there were many rehab visits with periods of short- term sobriety followed by relapse. Their hate and anger became so strong they actually felt like throwing their son away and just letting him self-destruct. Fortunately, the family took my advice and sought out treatment for themselves and worked with me to set healthy boundaries regarding their relationship with their son. They were able to resolve some of their anger and regain a healthy perspective free from the resentment and bitterness.
Family members believing they are better than the addicted one.
As hard as it is to admit, some of us have a self-righteous attitude about our own lives. We believe that we would never become addicted. We think we are better than the addict and are not capable of being “that kind of person.”
Over many years as an addiction specialist I’ve seen quite a number of situations where one or two of the family members take this attitude. It’s not hard to understand that if we think we’re better than somebody else we would default to harsh judgments and criticisms as a way of trying to relate and cope with the problem. Of the families that take this stance, those who want a happy ending will need to seek help and do some self-reflection on the reasons behind their beliefs.
Seeing addiction as a lifestyle choice.
Unfortunately, it is still a commonly held belief that addiction is a choice. It’s also often referred to as a moral problem or a lack of willpower. For many years now we have had clear scientific evidence and research confirming that alcoholism and addiction is a disease. It’s not about being a criminal, it’s not about lacking will power and it’s not a moral issue. Addiction is a chronic disease, much like diabetes or Crohn’s disease.
The families I work with who are willing to accept this fact and see addiction as the enemy, not their loved one, increase their chances of healing family relationships immensely.
Believing the addicted person only wants to take.
The behavior of addicts and alcoholics simply destroy all trust when time after time they lie and break promise after promise. Families simply run out of hope that their addicted family member can ever develop a sense of integrity and become a trustworthy human being.
That was my predicament when my family performed an intervention on me over 29 years ago. I had manipulated, lied and taken so much from my family without any remorse when I was actively using. I not only took money but their trust and emotional support, too. My gratitude is eternal for what they did for me and how their love set me on the course to taking responsibility and sincerely seeking help. We all found out that I could change.
When dealing with an addicted family member, please remember that drugs and alcohol are the enemy – not your loved one. Addiction is a disease.
Don’t wait to seek professional help for your loved one and for your family. Just as with any other chronic disease, it will not go away on its own and will only get worse over time.
My story of recovery is just one of many successes. Just as I could change, so can others and under the right circumstances many addicts do recover and go on to lead healthy, productive lives. In fact, many of them end up devoting at least some part of their lives to helping other addicts find their way to recovery.
If you or a loved one may be struggling with addiction, it is very important for you to seek out professional help as soon as possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I may be of assistance to you or your loved ones. My website provides more information on my practice and how to contact me with questions or take advantage of a free 20-minute phone appointment.
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