“Addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics.” — National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
And with more than 22 million Americans in need of treatment for alcoholism or a substance abuse problem in 2013, a lot of families are at that breaking point.
There are a lot of moms, dads, siblings, and spouses out there trying to deal with their loved one’s addiction, asking themselves, “What did I do wrong?” The short and long answer is … nothing.
The 3 C’s of Recovery can help families remember that.
What are the Three C’s?
- I Didn’t Cause It.
- I Can’t Control It.
- I Can’t Cure It.
Addiction is a disease. It may be difficult to think of addiction as a disease, but it is. For many people, however, addiction is viewed as a moral failing or a lack of willpower. Or they feel that the addicted person was “raised wrong” or spoiled.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” And much like diabetes or cancer, it can’t be caused by any one person’s presence, behaviors, or words.
Drugs increase dopamine in the brain, mimicking a biological response to a natural reward. In other words, the drugs make the addicted person feel euphoric, and the brain teaches that person to keep seeking that feeling. When some drugs are taken, they can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards such as eating release, reports NIDA.
How then can normal rewards compare with the highs associated with drugs? They can’t, and the user becomes depressed over time, unable to enjoy what they once did. So, they seek more and more drugs to get the feeling of euphoria they felt early in their addiction.
Alcoholism also causes physical dependence, with the craving that the alcoholic feels for alcohol being the same as the need for water or food, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The biological evidence supporting addiction as a chronic disease should reinforce for families that they are not the reason behind their loved one’s addiction. There is nothing a mother, father, sibling, spouse, friend, or caregiver can say, do, or think that can cause his or her loved one to become addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Addiction as a disease also means families can’t control their loved one’s addiction. Physical dependence is in charge. If an addicted person suddenly stops drinking or using drugs, withdrawal symptoms like nausea, tremors, hallucinations and convulsions will kick in.
Focusing on and trying to manage an addicted person’s behavior will not control the disease. Laying blame won’t work, and neither will family members adapting their own behavior to accommodate their loved one’s addiction.
In fact, adapting – also known as enabling – is a strategy many families use to try and control their loved one’s addiction. Sometimes, this manifests as family members protecting their loved one from the negative consequences of his or her behavior by making excuses or by cleaning up any messy situations caused by the addicted person. In some instances, family members give the addicted person money or purchase alcohol for the addicted person to consume in a safe place.
These attempts to directly or indirectly control the addicted person’s behavior don’t change it and can have the opposite effect.
Some families lose their sense of what a “normal” life is. They adapt their behavior to hide the truth of their loved one’s addiction from themselves – and because of shame, from others. And by hiding from everyone in their lives, they lose much needed support.
Other families stop expressing genuine feelings in an effort to contain the problem. Eventually, the emotions break free from suppression, resulting in an inevitable outburst. The emotional disconnect also causes families to miss out on making real connections with each other and being present in each other’s lives.
Meanwhile, none of these actions change the reality of a loved one’s addiction. No one can control someone else’s addiction or how that addiction affects the addicted person.
And no matter how much families love their addicted family members, their love can’t cure addiction. There is no cure. Recovery is a lifelong process, and as the American Society of Addiction Medicine explains, “… because relapse is possible even after many years of remission, we cannot use the term ‘cure.’ ”
Like other chronic diseases, addiction is managed through aftercare programming, relapse prevention, and a strong, ongoing support system. When a person in recovery relapses, this is a re-emergence of symptoms requiring treatment.
“Addiction treatment should be held to the same standards of success used to judge treatment of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma where relapse and noncompliance with therapy and medication are common.” — Thomas McLellan, former adviser to the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the World Health Organization.
Families that change their perspective on addiction – seeing it as a chronic disease rather than an acute illness that can be cured – are less likely to be disappointed if their loved one relapses. Family members can always offer support, but they should only do so in a way that equally values their own self-care needs.
Struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction is one of the hardest things anyone can do, and each person’s journey of recovery is their own. The same holds true for families.
If you need help dealing with addiction in the family, Al-Anon Family Groups and Nar-Anon Family Groups have some great resources. For those able to attend, Mountainside offers an intensive Family Empowerment Workshop.
If your loved one is struggling with substance abuse and needs treatment, call 888 833 4676. We can help your loved one overcome their addiction, and help you begin to heal as a family.