Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease” because it affects the entire family. When one person in a family suffers from addiction and engages in compulsive or harmful behaviors, the other members of the family (including partners and close friends) — who are all part of the same interdependent social and emotional system — make unconscious shifts to try to restore balance to that system.
The entire family will question what is happening and why. Family members often feel they are riding an emotional rollercoaster and experience difficult emotions, including guilt, shame, anger, blame, sadness, fear, anxiety and depression.
Research shows that addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving the brain’s reward, motivation and memory circuitry. Symptoms of addiction include an increased desire for a substance or a behavior despite harmful consequences. Addiction can harm relationships; finances; and the sense of emotional and physical safety within a family unit.
No one is born knowing how to handle addiction in a family member, but fortunately, there is a way forward. The path to healing starts with the awareness — and nonjudgmental acceptance — of the fact that the only thing one can change is oneself.
Recovery from addiction is a lifelong process that involves learning, growing and healing. Family members are on a parallel journey. Most inpatient treatment centers will offer family sessions with the person who is suffering from the addiction.
Whether or not a loved one struggling with addiction can recover, families can regain their own equilibrium and well-being with the support of peers and mental health professionals.
The UFT’s Member Assistance Program offers short-term counseling, outside referrals and presentations on addictive behaviors to UFT members struggling with addiction. The program can also provide referrals for the families of UFT members who are suffering from addictive behaviors.
There are free, confidential and anonymous support groups for the families of loved ones experiencing addiction. These include Al-Anon for alcohol addiction, Nar-Anon for addiction to narcotics and Gam-Anon for problem gambling.