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Published on December 31, 2018

young woman with her head in her hands

How to Face “The Family Disease” of Addiction

This is the first part of two stories on the warning signs, as well as coping strategies, that often accompany addiction.

The complex difficulty of facing the disease of addiction becomes more complicated because it not only affects the person facing the compulsion for alcohol or drugs, but also their loved ones.

Recognizing how addiction happens and why professionals who treat it call it the “Family Disease” can help anyone better understand their own use of alcohol or drugs and how a family member who drinks or uses have a problem, not just a habit or craving.

“Addiction is a family disease, because the emotional issues the addict faces are reflected in the family around him or her,” said Malia Holbeck, LCSW, LAC, outpatient manager with Avera’s Addiction Recovery Program. “There are many parallels between the addict’s actions and those of the family.”

Some of these common parallels:

  • Addicts will try to hide their alcohol or drug abuse from everyone; families also will try to hide this problem, once they know about it, from the outside world.
  • Addicts may isolate themselves to avoid someone catching them use, or because of the shame of their behaviors; families will do the same thing, as they see themselves as partially responsible for the family member who faces the disease.
  • Long-term users of drugs and alcohol will develop a tolerance and need more of their addictive substance in order to reach the same level of intoxication; their families will develop a form of tolerance as well, drawing lines and seeing them crossed time after time.
  • Addicts will rationalize their drug use or drinking, in some cases lying to themselves about its impact on their life; families will also minimize the consequences, as they feel they need to go along with the addict.

“Like many diseases, education can go a long way toward helping not only the patient but their support system as well,” Holbeck said. “Anger and resentment toward the addict is common, along with sadness. That’s why an assessment and treatment can be so effective.”

When a loved one is ready to involve a professional, the outcome is likely to improve. 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. “Realize, if you have an addict in your family, that you cannot change them. Even we as professionals cannot change a person – but we can find methods to motivate them to seek their own changes. That’s how we can address this family disease and help not only those supporting a person who faces addiction, but those individuals as well.”

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