Addiction: It’s not just about the addict
The word addiction usually triggers thoughts that involve an addict and their struggles with substance abuse. Primary concerns with addiction usually lie with the addict. There is a whole other side to addiction that is usually left unspoken and often dismissed. The families of addicts have their own stories to tell.
My husband’s abuse of prescription pills, alcohol, and cocaine had become so bad that I did not want our daughter to see him so we were staying with friends. On one occasion I walked in while he was out. There was a strange musty odor. The kitchen counters were piled high with dirty dishes and burned pots. In our bedroom was red-stained wine glasses by the Jacuzzi tub, my underwear strewn across the floor and my toiletries used and spilled over. In my daughter’s room and in the guest rooms, the beds were unmade and there were countless empty bottles of liquor everywhere. Then, I saw burn marks all over the wooden furniture and small glass tubes.
Never seeing anything like it, I searched images of the glass tubes on the internet. They were crack pipes. Fear struck me like a cold hard slap in the face. The blood ran from my body. I realized my husband had, in my mind, hit a very new low: crack addiction.
The Family’s Plight
As much as that picture may have painted a sad portrait of the decline of an addict, it does not emphasize what the family member is experiencing. Watching a loved one destroy their life can be unbearable. I was sinking into my own hole and my life, feelings, and pain were being swept under the rug because the addict’s battle seemed much more imminent.
Like the addict, families of the addict can be facing their own set of symptoms due to the cycle of the disease. Like the addict, life is no longer their own. Although instead of being ruled by a substance, it is dictated by the addict. Families of addicts may face the very same agony that the addicted person is experiencing barring the ability to escape with drugs and alcohol. Nonetheless, their struggles are very real. They too may be living in a world of insanity, irrationality, chaos, and pain.
Worry, fear and pain usually become a family member’s drug of choice. Instead of waking up to a crack pipe, I was waking up each morning to excruciating inner turmoil that, much like a drug, blurred my days and nights. Married to an addict, my troubles may have been far less life threatening than crack addiction, but they were just as mentally, emotionally, and physically incapacitating. Signals you are a co-addict affect your entire life.
I had lost an unhealthy amount of weight and relied on caffeine to make it through the day. I was lethargic and my health was deteriorating. I was mentally and emotionally drained. I was irritable, impatient, highly sensitive, and incapable of carrying on a conversation without crying. I was unable to work, eat, sleep, or parent my daughter the way I used to. My emotions were on a roller coaster dependent on the state of my husband, even though I was wondering, “Should I leave my addicted partner?”.
Under constant stress, family members may experience an array of psychological conditions including but not limited to:
- panic disorder
- suicidal tendencies
Physical symptoms such as:
- eating disorders
- bowel and gastrointestinal problems
- the exacerbation of existing chronic illnesses
Families of addicts grapple with experiences and symptoms that may mimic drug addiction. While they strive to help and empathize with their loved one, they usually neglect themselves. They live through the motions of the addictive process. Families may be equally suffering the effects of drug addiction and need support. The distress faced by the loved ones of addicts is a very real component of addiction.
Where can families of addicts find help? Professional support can stunt the progression of the addiction cycle and educate family members on learning how to not let addiction run their lives. Social support can be crucial, as well. Some people you might consider when looking for help for addiction in the family include:
- A licensed clinical psychologist experienced in treating addictions
- A support group like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon
- A trusted spiritual, religious, or community leader
- An addictions specialist MD
- Your family doctor
The stories of families need to be told. Living with an addict, life can become just as unmanageable as the addict’s. Family members may withdraw and internalize their own feelings because they feel what they are going through is secondary. Feelings of embarrassment, shame, and self-blame may be keep them from getting help. It is imperative to treat the symptoms faced by the family just as seriously as the addict’s.
As a mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, child, or friend of an addict getting help can be the difference between prolonging the addictive cycle and stopping it. Relationships with an addict are rarely healthy in nature. Being introspective and discovering how YOU can change your relationship with an addict may be crucial to your recovery and the recovery of the addict.
When you are on a plane that is going down, you must reach for your own oxygen before you can help anyone else. As a family member of an addict, you need to save yourself first. Taking care of your health, emotional state and getting stronger will change your life and your role in your loved one’s addiction. Ultimately your recovery may be a catalyst in the recovery of the addict.