If you have been around addiction and recovery for long enough, it’s almost guaranteed you will have heard the expression “addiction is a family disease.” But what does this mean? Individuals who struggle with addiction often believe—or want to believe—that they are only hurting themselves. But the reality is more complicated than that. The truth is that addiction is like a tornado, tearing through lives. The addict or alcoholic gets hurt by it, but so does everyone around them, and usually the ones closest to them get hurt the worst. This means families often take the biggest hit when it comes to addiction.
Addiction hurts the family in multiple ways. No one wants to watch someone they love suffer, and addiction always seems to bring suffering with it. Imagine someone you care about—a son or daughter, brother or sister—once bright, loving, and full of life, slowly starts to change. They act differently, spending less time with you and more time alone or with new friends, seem tired, become depressed or angry. Their appearance changes as well. They start to get sloppy, not caring about how they dress or look as if they aren’t taking care of themselves anymore. They start to steal from you, to start fights with you and other family members. Imagine not knowing if they will come home tonight, and worrying they might die. This can give you an idea of how hard it is to be the family member of an addict, and how much damage it can do.
That’s why addiction treatment focuses on more than just getting the addict or alcoholic to stop using drugs or alcohol. This is a good first step, but it’s only the beginning. The addicted person needs to heal—and so does the family. After the damage done by addiction, it can take years for things to get better. Family members should be involved in the recovery process. They were also hurt by addiction, and they need to have their own journey of recovery. Once this happens, it becomes possible for the family to be happy together again.
My own addiction did a lot more damage than I would like to admit. My father recently told me he had to change his ringtone since the old one gave him bad memories of hearing from me when I was on drugs. Between the lying, stealing, and yelling on my part, and my family constantly wondering where I was and what kind of problem I was going to cause next, I caused more stress than anything else in their lives. And the whole time, there I was telling myself it was only my problem.
While it wasn’t an easy thing for them to do, my family couldn’t handle the stress of dealing with me anymore and had to cut me off. We didn’t speak for years. I was no longer welcome in the house I grew up in. Thankfully, recovery has helped immensely to remedy the situation. After I was sober for a year, I was finally able to sit down with my family members for a heart-to-heart. I did my best to admit what was wrong and make things right. Things are getting better now—I’ve been back to my old house for dinner, and I’m even invited to my sister’s graduation. And this means the world to me—what would I have without family? Addiction tears families apart—but recovery can help put them back together.