Understanding Addiction: Family Members

If you think someone you love has a problem with alcohol or drugs, when and how should you intervene? Can you really get involved without making the situation worse? There is no easy answer, but there is a confidential way to find out what to do next. The professionals at The National Rehab Hotline 866-210-1303 are waiting to answer your questions confidentially and free of charge 24/7.

Our helpline provides support and information to individuals and families who are struggling with alcohol and drug use. We can tell you which signs and symptoms to look for and what kinds of treatments are available, or we can lend a friendly ear in a crisis. Sometimes, it helps just to know you’re not alone. To learn more about substance use disorder and what causes it, keep reading.

Addiction Affects Us All

Americans pay a high price for substance use disorder. Besides the toll it takes on relationships, quality of life, and health, it costs the U.S. billions of dollars in absenteeism from work, legal and court fees, and health-related illnesses. These statistics show how serious the problem is:

1. Approximately 95,000 people in the United States die from alcohol-related causes every year.
2. In 2014, 3 in 10 driving fatalities involved the use of alcohol.
3. The United States spent $249 billion on alcohol-related issues in 2010.
4. Over 10% of American children live with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder, according to a 2012 study.
5. Between 2009 and 2014, 1 in 35 children lived in a home where at least one parent had a drug use disorder.
6. The United States spends more than $740 billion annually on costs related to the abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.

Addiction Changes the Brain

The human brain only weighs 3 pounds, but it’s the most complicated organ in the body. Like the chips in a computer, it has neurons that work together to create networks and send messages. Different circuits control different functions in the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system. Cells called neurons release feel-good chemicals, or neurotransmitters, into the space between the cells. Neurotransmitters cross the gap from one neuron to another to deliver messages. Transporter cells bring the neurotransmitters back to the original neurons, turning signals between the cells on and off.

Alcohol and drugs interrupt the way neurons and neurotransmitters work. Some drugs mimic the body’s natural neurotransmitters and send distorted messages through the brain’s communication system. Other drugs cause neurons to release too many natural neurotransmitters, and some keep the brain from recycling neurotransmitters normally. These changes lead to the cravings and compulsions that accompany addiction. Simple pleasures, such as walking on the beach or eating ice cream, cause the brain to release small amounts of neurotransmitters. Some drugs hijack that process, releasing large amounts of neurotransmitters and producing euphoria.

When we engage in healthy, pleasurable behaviors, our brains release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The goal is to get us to remember the activity and encourage us to repeat it, creating a habit. Drugs cause the brain to give out large streams of dopamine, reinforcing the connection between the substance and the pleasurable experience. The brain learns to crave the high from the drug. Its reward system eventually links drug use with specific triggers in the environment, and the habit becomes a reflex that continues even after drug use ends.

Is It Time to Get Help?

It’s normal to wonder if you’re over-reacting when you think about getting help. Is substance use affecting your family life, work performance, or relationships? Have you noticed legal or financial problems? Is there a decline in self-worth or trouble with daily routines? If so, don’t question yourself. Nobody wants to make waves, but not responding causes problems too. Substance use disorder gets worse when it goes untreated.

In addition to staying calm and setting boundaries, you can learn about the signs and symptoms of substance use and keep a list of things that make you think there’s a problem. Written records will confirm your own suspicions and support your claims if you decide to talk to the individual, friends, family, or professionals about the problem. If everyone agrees, it’s probably time to designate someone to coordinate the effort to start rehab.

Research has disproved the belief that someone has to hit “rock bottom” before they get help. The earlier someone identifies the problem and acts to fix it, the easier the addiction is to treat. Waiting for incidents like the loss of a job or an embarrassing encounter with the legal system damages self-esteem, adds layers of shame, and makes cravings worse. Pretending the issue doesn’t exist increases the chances of future crises and allows unhealthy family patterns to get more deeply entrenched. As the addiction progresses, so do the challenges that loved ones face. Gradually, everyone’s life becomes more difficult.

Five Things to Remember

Sometimes, friends and family make detailed plans to confront the addict, but the process is usually more successful with the help of someone who understands and knows how to set up a meeting or intervention. Participants carefully plan what they want to say ahead of time, and a structured discussion anticipates desired outcomes and follow-up. Interventions are like relationships. They work better when they’re built on honesty, trust, and a healthy respect for boundaries. Criticism, demands, and threats only make matters worse, and there are no shortcuts. It helps if everyone has realistic expectations and remembers these tips:

1. Keep the faith.

Addicts and family members are often in denial about the severity of the problem. Even if someone admits to having difficulties, they may not want to change. They may be ashamed, afraid of consequences, or reluctant to share with health care professionals. Others use alcohol or drugs to help them cope with conditions like depression or anxiety, and the thought of quitting can be scary.

2. Build mutual trust.

Addictions damage relationships and the balance becomes even more difficult when you’re trying to help. If you can, start on neutral ground and don’t nag, talk down to, or try to control someone else’s behavior. Feeling stressed or manipulated makes the urges even stronger, but it’s important not to protect someone from the consequences of their actions (unless those actions endanger them or someone else).

3. Practice self-care.

If you’re in a relationship with a person who has an addiction, you’re likely being exposed to stressful situations yourself. Support groups can help you cope, give you a chance to share, and offer helpful advice. You can’t be there for someone else unless you take care of yourself.

4. Keep the lines of communication open.

Chances are, you’re tired of your loved one’s behavior and ready to let them know how you feel, but you may need to make changes too. Close friends and relatives usually adapt their lifestyles to minimize the negative fallout from addictive behavior, and the efforts to protect become dysfunctional themselves. Besides, if everyone else understands and is willing to change, it may be easier for the addict too.

5. Know what to expect.

Treatment varies from outpatient counseling to residential rehab centers, depending on individual needs and budgets. Most rehab programs involve families in therapy, and the need for compassionate communication continues. Friends and relatives may be criticized or blamed for contributing to the addiction and should remain open to hearing how they can be more helpful. If therapy only involves patients, everyone else should respect their privacy.

How Addiction Affects the Family

It’s easy to think of substance use disorder as an individual problem, but it has devastating effects on the entire family. Although consequences may involve short-term legal, medical, or financial difficulties, it also changes the way families function and leads to long-lasting emotional issues.

Regardless of the relationship, everyone suffers when there is an addict in the home. If it’s a parent, children don’t get the support and mentoring they need. If it’s a sibling, home life is chaotic, and there’s not enough time for the “easy” child. If it’s a spouse, the other partner spends so much time putting out fires there’s no time for self-care or mutual support.

Families deal with challenges in various ways. Some live in denial, some try to force the addict to stop, and others try to minimize disruptions and maintain a balance. It’s especially hard for children with single parents because there’s no one to turn to for help. They learn to live with unpredictability, secrecy, and too much responsibility. Abuse occurs more often, and factors like self-esteem, health, and social skills are likely to suffer.

When a child uses drugs or alcohol, parents may feel guilty, struggle to help, or worry about safety issues. Some enable the child and hope things will change, some try to control, and others turn a blind eye and pretend nothing is wrong. Siblings may become invisible or take on extra responsibility, and everybody experiences shame, anger, and resentment. The cycle extends beyond childhood and affects the entire family unit.

Uncertainty over medical, financial, and legal problems looms, and everyone feels insecure. As substance use grows worse, the possibility of violence or emotional abuse grows. Having alcohol or drugs in the home also increases the chances of other family members using them to make themselves feel better.

What Is Family Therapy?

One-on-one therapy focuses on the emotions, actions, and thoughts of a single person. Because addiction affects the entire family, professionals often recommend family therapy. The goal is to help family members better understand relationships, learn ways to communicate more effectively, and build stronger bonds with each other.

In family therapy, counselors help parents and siblings see how substance use has created dysfunctional patterns in the family and the environment. Imagine a mother who tries to keep a troubled child safe by monitoring every activity. The harder she searches for evidence, the more secretive the child becomes. It causes conflict in the family, and stress becomes even more intolerable.

Have you ever watched a mobile that hangs over a baby’s bed? If you shake one part, the entire mobile moves. The way you touch it and the strength you use determine the reaction. If you touch and then move away, it gets quiet again, but the movement continues as long as you sway a single piece. That’s how families react to disruptions.

After treatment, relapse is more likely to occur if family members don’t participate in therapy. If there is domestic abuse, however, the first priority is making sure everyone is safe.

Get Help Now

If you have questions about substance use disorder, talking to friends and relatives may be difficult. If you call The National Rehab Hotline at 866-210-1303, you can remain anonymous. We won’t judge you or betray your confidence. If we can’t help, we’ll refer you to someone who can. Addiction can be treated.