The Impact of Addiction on the Family

Whether we want to believe it or not, addiction does not just impact one person. It spreads its tendrils out and touches the whole family. For the person misusing substances, getting honest about how their chemical use impacts their loved ones and effectively working with and through the emotions that arise as they face these issues are parts of the healing process. For family members, facing the pain and grief caused by a loved one’s addiction is part of the journey. For all parties, learning to recognize and change old patterns of being and doing that are both protective – against the pain of the addiction and other issues – and reinforcing – contributing to the power of the addiction and associated behaviors – is important for a lasting, well-rounded recovery.

In this 3-part blog series, we’ll take a look at addiction and the family. First, we’ll explore the negative impact of addiction on family members and the family unit as a whole.  In the 2nd post,  we’ll consider the old habit patterns that may hinder recovery for all members.  We’ll close the series by exploring the help that’s available for family members.

The Impact on Family Members

Addiction impacts family members and family relationships. The effects can be slow-growing and subtle, expanding layer by layer over time, just like the addiction. They can also hit like a lightning strike. Here is a list of 4 ways that addiction can negatively impact family members and the family unit as a whole.

  1. Isolation from the outside and isolation within – Addiction is messy, confusing, and loaded with stigma. The addict and the addiction can become the secret responsibility of the family, within the home. Addiction within a family can lead members to pull in and away from friends and activities outside the home. Support networks that could have been utilized become inaccessible because of the fear of criticism and judgment and because of the energy-consuming nature of addiction.

Family members may also begin to isolate from one another. Often referred to as “the elephant in the room,” addiction can become the subject that everybody talks about and then the subject that everybody avoids. Over time the energy given to the addiction – whether through constant attention or avoidance – leeches away energy for solid connection. Strong communication and healthy bonding can be replaced by silence and withdrawal.

  1. Loss of Trust for the Addict and other Family Members – Here’s the truth. People who have become addicted to chemicals often mean what they say in the moment. Yes, sometimes they lie straight out – they tell you the sky is green when it is clearly blue. Often though, they will say something and really mean it. Right then. At that moment, they’ll say, “yes, I’ll stop using”, “yes, let’s go shopping on Saturday”, or “yes, I’ll be home for dinner”.  And they mean it.  Sadly, the moment passes. They use again, miss the shopping date, and don’t come home for days. It doesn’t actually matter whether the lie is direct, or if inconsistent follow-through is the issue. Whether they are out and out lying, or they really did mean to stop using, meet you to go shopping, or be home for dinner, trust falls to the wayside. Inconsistency can be just as damaging as straight out lying.

The loss of trust isn’t limited to the relationship with the addict. It can expand through the whole family as boundaries erode, family rules change, and other family members start to behave inconsistently. Sadly, the dishonesty that seems to follow the addict like a shadow can eventually become systemic leading to a lack of trust that pervades the whole family.

  1. Fear and Confusion – It can be very scary to watch a loved one fall down the hole of substance misuse and addiction. Family members may watch their loved one engaging in dangerous behaviors, having accidents, becoming physically ill or overdosing, or becoming homeless or institutionalized. Their safety is never assured, and they may seem to become a different person, someone the family doesn’t know anymore. They may also become physically or emotionally abusive toward other family members, so it can become difficult to feel safe around them.

Beyond the fear that can become a constant weight, the process of navigating addiction is confusing. The inconsistent and erratic behaviors that are often a part of active addiction are only part of the issue. Even once the person struggling with substances reaches out for help, knowing what kind of treatment if any is best, navigating insurance and financial requirements, and understanding the ups and downs that can come during the recovery process can feel like a tangled knot with an endless number of strings.

  1. Increased, Overall Stress – Everybody experiences stress now and then.  One teacher that I’ve had the pleasure of working with says that we all have a bowl. If we’re lucky and sleep well and wake up naturally, we start the day with an empty bowl, but over the course of the day, drops of stress fall into our bowl. In a family where addiction is a factor, those drops may feel as though they are a steady stream – financial concerns, legal, employment, housing, or education problems, arguments, inconsistent, erratic, and dangerous behaviors, frightening health problems,and physical and emotional abuse can become regular issues, and lack of outside support and isolation and distrust within the family only add to the trouble. The stress can be overwhelming, and often, reaching out for help feels impossible. Unrelenting stress and the inability to express, release, and manage it can lead to a plethora of health issues, including addiction.

Addiction does not limit its impact to the person under its spell. It reaches out and touches everyone that is close to the addict, and that is, so often, the family. Addiction is an isolator, it is the eater of trust and stability, it causes fear and confusion, and all of that equals an increased amount of stress.

Oftentimes, when someone enters treatment for a substance use disorder, there can be a sense that the problem is being fixed. That is only partially accurate. Yes, good treatment by qualified professionals is important and helpful, but it should not be limited to the person struggling with chemical use. Family members have suffered too, and family members benefit from their own treatment and healing work.

In the coming weeks, we’ll continue exploring the topic of addiction and the family. In our next post, we’ll consider the old habit patterns, both protective and reinforcing that may hinder recovery for the addict and the members of their family, and we’ll close the series by looking closely at the help that’s available to family members who have been impacted by addiction.

If you or a loved one is struggling with the use of alcohol or drugs, please reach out for help.  You can visit the SAMHSA treatment locator for help locating an appropriate treatment facility.  You are also welcome and encouraged to reach out to us at 1-888-448-LUNA (5862).  Our trained professionals are happy to help.


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