Addiction: A Family Disease
Before I got sober, I was a train wreck. I couldn’t stop getting high no matter how hard I tried. I lied, I stole, I provoked worry, and my actions affected my family. Despite the harm I caused, they were still there for me when I became willing to seek help.
I started using drugs and alcohol when I was 14. It started off as a fun thing with a few friends of mine. It didn’t take long before it became more than just a weekend activity. I started spending my allowance on marijuana and smoking it every night before bed. By the time I was in the 9th grade, my drug use progressed to the point where I was abusing Xanax on a regular basis and smoking weed every day. I started to lose interest in the things I was once passionate about - I quit the basketball team, I stopped auditioning for plays in the theater club, and I began only hanging out with a group of friends who used drugs as I did.
The summer before my 10th-grade year my family and I moved to a different state. I went from living in the middle of the city to the middle of nowhere. I felt depressed, lonely, and angry when we moved, and Xanax became a necessity. I was working a minimum wage job and virtually all of my paycheck went to drugs, but I would lie to my parents and act like I was just going out with my friends a lot. In reality, I didn’t have many friends. I was lonely and addiction had me in its grip. I would pop the pills every day throughout my classes to the point where I would fall asleep during my 7th-period. However, I still managed to keep my grades up, so nobody really thought I would be someone who had a problem with drugs.
As an adult, nothing could stop me from getting my next fix. I ended up being kicked out of college, unable to hold a steady job, and bouncing from couch to couch because I couldn’t afford a place to live. Thankfully, in my case, I made it out of addiction alive.
It is no secret that alcohol and drug addiction cause turmoil upon those who suffer from them. However, addiction is often considered a family disease because it affects not only the individual but the entire family. The impacts of addiction upon the families and loved ones of addicts can be devastating, causing family members to begin behaving in unhealthy ways to cope with the pain inflicted by addiction. As a result, addiction affects families’ physical health, psychological wellbeing, finances, and more.
The Family Roles of Addiction
In every family, members serve specific roles that allow the family to function and maintain balance. However, when addiction comes into the picture, family roles often begin to shift and take on a new dynamic. Unfortunately, these new roles aren’t always healthy, and they can begin to negatively impact the wellbeing of the family. Although every family is different, the following roles are the most common among families that are impacted by drug or alcohol addiction.
The addict in the family usually feels a lot of guilt and shame regarding the difficulties he or she is causing in the home. Regardless of the pain he or she feels, the person may not be willing to get sober. As the individual continues to abuse substances, the family will become stressed, resentful, and worried, causing the family to assume various roles.
The Codependent Enabler
This role is most frequently assumed by a spouse or older child. A codependent takes responsibility for the emotions and actions of others and may take care of financial responsibilities or other obligations of the addict. The codependent enabler can end up losing their sense of self and becoming consumed with the life of the addict in an attempt to protect him or her.
The scapegoat is usually a child in the family who begins misbehaving. They may face difficulties in school, at home, or with the law. These behaviors are a result of a chaotic and unhealthy home environment.
The hero role is commonly assumed by an older child in the family. The hero will appear confident, overachieve, and take his or her responsibilities seriously. Sometimes, they will take on extra responsibilities, mature quickly, and assume some parental roles. However, as a loved one’s addiction progresses, the hero may struggle to maintain a growing list of responsibilities.
The Lost Child
Due to much time and energy being directed towards the addict, a child or loved one may begin feeling isolated from the family. The lost child will struggle to develop meaningful relationships and may reach for ways to distract themselves physically and emotionally from their negative home environment.
To cope with a negative, uncomfortable home environment, the mascot will use humor as a coping mechanism. Humor may seem to serve as a momentary relief to the family, but it will deflect from the actual problems at hand.
In addition, alcoholism and addiction are biopsychosocial issues. If addiction runs in the family, children are more likely to suffer from addiction as well. If a child has been exposed to substance use at a young age, their environment can increase the likelihood that they will use drugs as well. Lastly, substance abuse increases the chances of neglect and abuse in the home, which can lead to mental illness or trauma. Nearly 50% of people who experience a mental illness struggle with substance abuse at some point during their lives. Consequently, children of alcoholics and addicts suffer immensely.
Teenagers Suffering from Addiction
Although children who come from addicted homes are more likely to suffer from addiction later in life, any teenager is still susceptible to engaging in substance abuse.
The CDC reports that alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are the most common substances abused by adolescents. In addition, nearly 20% of 12th graders have reported using prescription medications without a prescription. When teens abuse substances, it affects their growth and development. It can contribute to difficulties with decision making, risky behaviors, and can lead to addiction.
Before the family can help a teenager who is abusing substances or suffers from addiction, it is important to recognize the signs of teen substance abuse. These include:
• Breath smelling of drugs or alcohol
• Glassy or bloodshot eyes
• Abandonment of social and recreational activities
• Intense mood swings and behavioral changes
• Significant weight loss
• Losing old friends and finding a new social circle
• A decline in academic success
• Trouble with teachers or classmates
• Unexplained absences
• Sneaking out, lying, or stealing
• Presence of drug paraphernalia in the home
• Missing alcohol or prescription medications
If any or all of these signs describe a teenager in the home, it is crucial to be proactive and address the situation sooner rather than later. After all, addiction is a progressive illness and it is best to intervene as soon as possible.
Helping a Struggling Teen
It is important to know how to help a struggling teen before the devastating effects of addiction compromise the family unit. If you suspect that your teenager is using drugs, a conversation needs to happen. Before discussing the subject, however, you should spend some time researching the substance you suspect your teen is using and plan what you want to say.
Once you are prepared for your discussion, you should choose a time when you will not be rushed and a quiet, private place to talk to your teen. Although it may be difficult, it is important to stay calm and rational while confronting him or her. You can take the following steps during the discussion:
• Ask straightforward questions about behaviors and substance use
• Listen calmly and carefully while he or she speaks
• Explain what changes you have observed in your teen and why these changes concern you
• Discuss the risks of teen substance abuse and the consequences of addiction
• Let him or her know how much you care
• Set firm boundaries and clear-cut consequences that will take place if steps are not taken to overcome substance abuse
• Offer your unconditional love and support
• Discuss possible treatment options or a program of action (counseling, treatment options)
• Ask your teen if there is anything you can do to better support him or her
It is important to remember that sometimes, a teenager may be reluctant to seek help or in denial that they really have a problem. You may have to speak with him or her multiple times before they agree to get help.
If these consistent conversations are not enough, it may be time to consider an intervention led by an addiction specialist involving friends and family of an addicted teen. Interventions allow loved ones to express how a person’s addiction has affected each one of their lives. If a teenager isn’t responding to one-on-one conversations, an intervention can help them recognize the need for treatment.
Lastly, it is important to never criticize an addicted teen or expect immediate change. A teenager who is seeking treatment will face difficulties and challenges throughout their journey of sobriety. They may make mistakes, so it is important to remember that the results won’t happen immediately. Recovery requires a lot of time and patience - so the family must be patient and supportive of a loved one who is trying to get healthy.
How Addiction Affected My Family
As a woman in recovery, I can clearly see how my addiction affected my immediate family and loved ones. My father was the mascot - always covering up his emotions with humor. My sister was the hero - she overachieved at everything she did and tried to compensate for the turmoil I created in the home. Lastly, my mother was the enabler who sent me money and chose to ignore the true nature of my problem. In the end, the decisions I made hurt my entire family.
Fortunately, my family was supportive of me and chose to participate in family therapy with me. Family therapy was a safe place where we could voice our concerns, connect with one another, and begin to heal. My family doesn’t criticize or condemn me when I make a mistake. Instead, they are understanding that recovery takes time and appreciate the growth I have shown since I got sober.
Being a sober woman gives me the opportunity to pick up the pieces and put my family back together. For that, I am forever grateful.
If your teen is struggling with substance abuse or mental health symptoms Casa Pacifica’s Camino a Casa program could be a good fit for your family. Learn more about our Camino a Casa program at https://caminoacasabycp.com/.
Cassidy Webb is an avid writer who advocates spreading awareness on the disease of addiction. Her passion in life is to help others by sharing her experience, strength, and hope. She works withRecovery Local to help spread resources to those who are suffering from addiction.
References: Amended December 15, 2020