Iíve witnessed addiction within my family for my entire life. Alcohol and drug abuse were so common in my household when I was growing up, it took a long time for me to even notice these substances and the habits of my parents and sister.
One moment of realization that stands out to me came when I was at a high school girlfriendís house for dinner. I put something in the refrigerator, and out of curiosity, I remember asking earnestly where her mom kept her beer. She told me her mom didnít drink. What might read as a simple preference shocked me to my core. Until that point, I couldnít conceive that a refrigerator wouldnít hold at least six or 12 beers at any given time.
Iíve spent more than a decade after that point trying to understand, cope with, and combat various forms of addiction within my family. And I know Iím not alone.
In the United States, substance abuse is one of the leading causes of preventable illness and death, and this trend is becoming increasingly unmanageable. Along with impacting peopleís personal lives, substance abuse costs an estimated $740 billion each year in the U.S. due to crime, lost productivity, and healthcare. This has created a dire need for substance abuse nurses and other addiction treatment specialists.
Beyond larger trends, addiction most obviously affects the people who are abusing substances. However, each of these individuals is someoneís father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter, and one personís choices can have drastic effects on the lives of their family members. Here are some strategies for moving forward when addiction has been a major backdrop of your life.
What Does Addiction Look Like?
The first thing to do is to learn about addictionís role within your family history. This may not be easy as often substance abuse is accompanied by trauma, tragedy, and difficult relationships. If communication about these subjects isnít possible, you donít necessarily have to talk with family members about their motivations for substance abuse in order to begin forming a useful perspective.
You could write in a journal or discuss your experiences with a counselor or a close friend in order to begin building an understanding of how addiction has functioned in your family. You wonít uncover every reason for a family memberís habits, but here are some questions that might help you identify patterns:
Did there seem to be particular triggers to substance abuse? For example, if alcohol has been a factor involved, did an individual drink more heavily after something went wrong at work?
Did substance abuse seem to be related to social groups or other activities like gambling or smoking?
What changes did you notice in the individual when they abused substances? Did they become angry, sad, violent, quiet, especially happy, or display some other behavior that seemed abnormal?
What were their reactions afterward? Did they ask for forgiveness? Did they refuse to discuss past events? Did they even seem to recall their behavior? Did they ever acknowledge that they might be struggling with their habits?
Again, these questions can simply give you things to think about. A counselor may be able to better guide you through understanding the various forms of addiction within your family. You might also join a support group for individuals who have family members that suffer from addiction. This can be a great opportunity to share your experiences and learn from others who have gone through similar struggles.
Once you have an idea of how substance abuse has functioned within your family, youíll be primed to notice and prevent those same behaviors as you interact with the world around you.
Pay Attention to Your Own Behavior
While science hasnít pinpointed a particular gene or test that can prove an individual is at a higher risk for developing an addiction, there are undeniable trends pointing toward a genetic predisposition toward substance abuse for some people. Unfortunately, if your family has a history of substance abuse, you may be at a higher risk of developing a number of addictions.
This isnít an excuse to give in, and it doesnít mean youíre doomed to make the same substance-related decisions as anyone in your family. However, it does mean youíll need to be aware of your own behavior and take extra steps to protect yourself.
Pay attention if you find yourself overdoing it with some behavior. For example, you may have a habit of drinking too much alcohol at once, or you might find that you canít stop eating a tub of ice cream until itís all gone. Social stigmas surrounding overindulgence and addiction can cause you to keep these habits a secret. This isnít usually an effective way of changing harmful behaviors, and it may cause you to slip further into bad habits.
If youíre already struggling with addiction, know that this doesnít mean youíre a failure or that youíre somehow morally corrupt. These mentalities can be another side-effect of the stigmas surrounding addiction. Speaking with a counselor or a close friend can be a great first step in understanding your own behaviors, accepting and forgiving yourself for past interactions with addictive substances, and creating new ways of coping that donít involve substance abuse.
You Canít Make Positive Choices for Others
This can be the hardest part of understanding addiction within your family. Itís possible to have happy, healthy relationships with family members who secretly or openly struggle with addiction. However, it can be deeply troubling to watch someone you care about harm their body for the sake of a buzz, a high, or some routine they canít or wonít break.
Iíve had hundreds of conversations with my mother, in particular, about her relationship to alcohol over many years. Early on, these would often involve fiery, teary-eyed shouting matches about how I hate what sheís done to herself. I would tell her I was afraid or ashamed or frustrated looking back on past events. So often, her responses have been self aware and apologetic. In the end she says something like, ďItís just what I do. Itís what makes me happy.Ē
I still tell her Iím worried on a regular basis, and I will listen to her, help come up with strategies, or help arrange for her to seek professional help. But I make sure not to shout at her or shame her. I know she isnít a bad person, and I donít think making her feel bad about herself will help her toward recovery.
I donít expect her to make any major changes anytime soon. Because of this, sometimes I have to let her off the phone or stop talking to her for a period of time in order to cope with the knowledge that she is hurting herself.
This requires stepping back and letting go. I know I canít make her choose to stop drinking. That hurts, but I have to focus on living my own best life. If you have family members who struggle with addiction, I hope you can find a similar understanding. You can accept a person and their struggles while also guarding yourself against the pain it may cause you. This is true even if youíre not directly interacting with that person on a day-to-day basis.
Rewrite the Norm
As I mentioned above, I struggled to understand the concept that an adult could choose not to drink. That had been my version of a normal way of life. Looking back, Iím shocked at a lot of things that passed for normal, and Iíve come a long way in establishing my own way of interacting with the world in public and at home.
This can be difficult without positive examples in your life. How do you react to a bad day at work if you donít have a whiskey bottle to comfort you? What does it look like to have fun without a beer in your hand? If someone offers you a chance to try some substance, promising itíll make you feel good, why shouldnít you take part in the family tradition?
When I left home at 18, I swore I would never drink or try drugs. I was angry at the realization that my family was so weak ó or thatís how I saw them at first ó and I never wanted to be like them. As I got a little older, I began experimenting with the occasional beer or a shot of some liquor in social settings. In college, I fell into various groups that were often centered around a party lifestyle, which sometimes involved drinking or drugs.
Quickly, I began to forgive my family because I was enjoying the same highs they were. But then I also saw the downsides to overindulging: hangovers, sickness, weight gain, and issues coping with emotions. As is true for many people who grew up around addiction, I struggled with bad habits off and on for years. Even now that Iíve established healthier habits, those experiences and the risks of addiction arenít things Iíll ever take lightly in the future.
To be clear, I donít think any professional would ever recommend the kind of experimentation I went through, and I wouldnít recommend it from a personal perspective. However, Iíve been able to reach a place where I can understand and acknowledge risk factors in my own life and prevent myself from going over the edge.
For me, this involves replacing poor habits and impulses by journaling, exercising, and playing music to find meaning in my life. I understand that Iíll always have to be on guard against addictive behaviors that might start small and then escalate, creating serious and far-reaching problems. You will have to find your own pathways toward a healthy lifestyle. Working with professionals who specialize in issues related to addiction and substance abuse could be a major help in identifying positive coping strategies.
Youíll be faced with circumstances that challenge you throughout your life. By educating yourself and paying attention to patterns in your behavior, you can avoid common pitfalls of people who have grown up in families with addiction and begin to create positive habits for dealing with stress that donít involve substance abuse. This isnít always easy, and you may slip up. But donít give up. Just because youíve come from a history of addiction, doesnít mean it has to rule your future.