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Effects on Family Members

Addiction: The Silent Family Member

Most substance abuse treatment professionals have an expression for the effect of addiction within the context of a family. They compare it to an elephant in a living room. It’s a huge, obvious, object, right? Possibly it’s smelly, it eats a lot of food, and it makes a huge mess regularly. But the thing is, although everybody spends time taking care of it, nobody ever mentions it. Everyone pretends it’s not there. This elephant named Addiction becomes a silent member of the family.

How does all this affect the various everybody who lives in the household? The addict stands in the middle of the living room, at the center of a network, affecting each and every person in the world around him. Whether he’s the young parent of children, the older parent living in his adult child’s home, the child of parents, the teen sibling of other children in the family, or an adult sibling, his behaviors create an impact felt by others. If he works, his coworkers have noticed his addiction. His friends are addicts like he is, or if not they have minimized contact with him. Even the neighbors most likely have an awareness of some problem going on.

The Addict Lives With a Spouse/Partner. If you and a significant other live alone, don’t fool yourself that your substance abuse doesn’t affect the relationship. The effects of your addiction will be both economic and emotional. You are spending money on your alcohol or drugs that you are not putting into your shared home. Your partner assumes some of your responsibilities in maintaining the home. He or she might initially deny that you have a problem, and then when it can no longer avoided this denial turns into anger. Your shared sexuality and social life will diminish.

The Addict and Spouse Live With Their Children. Your addictive behavior will have the same effects on your spouse as above, but the impact felt by your children makes things even worse. Children naturally take the credit for everything that goes on in the world around them—good or bad—and so as they see signs of your struggle with addiction, including anger between their parents, they assume they are the cause. If you wake up every day feeling poorly from a hangover the children will think they did something to make you feel bad.

Even worse, many parents neglect their parenting responsibilities. Older children become the caretakers of younger children. The children assume responsibilities for completing household chores. Because almost half of all addicts suffer from emotional disorders, they often burden their children with their worries, and the children then have to provide emotional support for the adults. The children will grow, without nurturing, to become untrusting and to emulate the parent-addict’s negative behaviors.

The Addict Lives With Adult Child. Many people succumb to addiction issues later in life stemming from use of opiate pain medication, or they may self-medicate to allay depression from life changes. If you are an elder parent residing with your adult child’s family you may become both a financial and emotional burden on the others. There will be miscarried expressions of anger, because everybody hesitates to express anger at grandma or grandpa.

In all cases, the negativity that spreads throughout a family can overwhelm its dynamics and culture. The lifestyle that everybody took for granted becomes topsy-turvy. The family’s involvement in the substance abuse treatment process will be important, but not until the addict establishes himself in treatment. Only then can effective communication be re-established within the family. Education is a must for everybody, to learn about addiction and also for managing conflicts that will arise from time to time. The family will learn that there is no hero responsible for saving everybody and no villain, either—except for that darn elephant. And Addiction, at least, can be managed. 

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