People are sometimes confused when they are told that addiction is a family disease. Some take this to mean that addiction runs in families. Others believe that it means that the family caused the addiction. Neither of these is correct. So what does it mean to say that addiction is “a family disease?” It means, quite simply, that when addiction enters a family, everyone who loves the addict or alcoholic is deeply affected. In fact, many of those who work in the field of addiction treatment and recovery believe that family members—to varying degrees—will become just as sick, or even sicker, than the addict. One can even make the case that family members will travel a parallel path with the person suffering from addiction—mirroring each of the diagnostic indicators of addiction.
Living the Small Life
For example, while the person with the addiction becomes preoccupied and obsessed with alcohol or drugs, the family becomes narrowly focused on them (“What is he doing? What is he thinking? Where did he go? How is he feeling today?”) Just as the person’s obsession with alcohol and drugs causes him to neglect other important areas of his life, the family’s obsession with their using causes them to live increasingly narrow lives. To put it simply, life for the family becomes very small.
Just as the person with the addiction develops an incredible tolerance for increasing amounts of alcohol or drugs, the family learns to tolerate behavior which they would never accept from anyone else. They find themselves paying the addict’s bills, bailing them out of jail repeatedly, allowing temper tantrums, and making excuses for outrageous behaviors.
When the addicted person is deprived of access to alcohol or drugs, he experiences physical and emotional pain and distress. When the family does not know where he is and what he is doing, they often feel intense anxiety—sometimes terror—as they imagine the worst possible scenarios. This sometimes causes family members to actually purchase alcohol or illegal drugs for them so they can use “safely” at home.
Loss of Control
In time, the person struggling with addiction begins to lose control over how much alcohol or drugs he will use. He will make promises to his family and to himself that he will limit his use—fully intending to do so. He will buy enough beer—he thinks—to last a week and finds that it’s gone after one night. Similarly, the family will draw a line in the sand and say, “This is the last time we bail you out of jail!” only to find themselves doing it over and over again. Family members will lose control in another ways as well. Sooner or later, they start screaming—demanding that they stop his use of alcohol or drugs.
Continuation of Mistakes Despite Negative Consequences
Just as the addicted family member continues to use alcohol or drugs despite being thrown into jail, losing jobs, and ending relationships, so the family finds themselves continuing to scream and enable despite considerable evidence that these behaviors not only do not work, but make the problem worse—screaming gives them an excuse to use; enabling gives them the opportunity.
The Way Out
One of the most important things for people suffering with addiction to understand is that there is a way out of the nightmare which has descended upon their lives. In short, recovery is possible. However, this often starts when they receive the “gift of desperation”—the awareness that he can no longer live with alcohol or drugs in his life. Similarly, most families need to receive that same gift—realizing that most of what they have done, no matter how well-intended, has not worked. They need to understand that there is a way out of their nightmare as well. As the family disease concept has become more commonly recognized, therapists and support groups such as Al-Anon have become life-savers to those who love and live with addicts.