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Published on July 19, 2022

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How to Face “The Family Disease” of Addiction

Facing the disease of addiction is, put simply, complicated.

Facing it is difficult because the condition affects two parties at once:

  • The person facing a compulsion for alcohol or drugs is certainly affected, but
  • So too are the loved ones who want the person to overcome addiction

Professionals call it the “family disease” because of addiction has this intricacy of connections and impacts. When we all recognize how addiction happens, we can better understand the use of alcohol or drugs.

“Addiction is a family disease because its symptoms impact and are reflected in the family around the person facing it,” said Malia Holbeck, LCSW-PIP, LAC, manager with Avera’s Addiction Recovery Program.

If we empathize with a family member who drinks or uses, we can understand it’s not just a habit or craving. It’s a real health problem. Addiction – like cancer or diabetes – is a disease.

How Addiction Issues Affect Whole Families

“There are many parallels between the affected person’s actions and those of the family,” Holbeck said.

  • People with substance abuse disorders will try to hide their alcohol or drug abuse; when families learn of the secret, they’ll also try to hide it.
  • People who drink or use may isolate themselves to avoid being caught or because of their shame; families will do the same thing. They feel partially responsible for the family member.
  • Long-term users of drugs and alcohol will develop tolerances. They need more to reach the same level of intoxication; their loved ones do it by drawing lines, seeing them crossed and continuing this cycle.
  • Substance abusers will rationalize their drug use or drinking, in some cases lying to themselves about its impact on their life; families will often feel they need to go along with the ruse.

“Like many diseases, education helps patients, family and friends,” Holbeck said. “Anger and resentment toward the person facing addiction is common, along with sadness.”

She said that’s why a professional assessment followed by treatment can lead to improvement.

How to Help Your Loved One Who Drinks or Uses

There are several warning signs of addiction. But the outcome is not likely to improve until a loved one is ready to involve a professional. Family members of an addict can express their concern honestly, especially when the person facing this challenge is sober, and steer the conversation to the impact drugs or alcohol are having in the life they share.

“Recovery is difficult, and the social nature of alcohol abuse can make it especially challenging,” said Holbeck.

She said families who have a member who faces substance abuse must take stock.

“You cannot change them. Even we as professionals cannot change a person,” Holbeck said. “Yet we can motivate them to seek their own changes.”

This approach is how Avera addiction care specialists address this “family disease.” Counselors help the family and friends as well as the individual.

Learn more about help for those who face addiction and substance abuse disorders.

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