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The effect of addiction on families

A practical guide for anyone with a family member affected by addiction, with some helpful suggestions.

Video Transcript

Hi my name is Matt Serlin I’m a qualified psychotherapist and clinical supervisor. I’m going to go over the effects of addiction on families and hopefully I will be able give a few pointers on the things that can be done to help.

The reality is that when a person has an addiction it is not only that person who is affected…….partners, parents, siblings, friends and neighbours can all find their lives upturned by someone else’s addictive behaviour. In turn, communities and society also suffer.

It’s probably helpful at this stage if I give a definition of addiction before I carry on. Addiction is characterised by an all-consuming relationship with a substance or behaviour that is driven by a conscious or unconscious desire to feel something different which results in a range of harmful consequences. For me it’s all around whether there are negative consequences for that individual due to their behaviour and importantly negative consequences to those around them… like their family. If there is.then the behaviour could be considered to be an addiction.

It is easy for those around the addict to lose their sense of themselves as they struggle to do everything they can to control or fix the problem. Very often you will find yourself juggling heavy burdens; financial, social and emotional. Stress and anxiety can take place in secrecy for fear of making the problem worse by exposing it.

The more the family feels out of control due the unmanageability of the situation the more family members can become controlling in their behaviour, as a way to create some form of order and as a way to manage fear.

In relation to substance misuse…..substances disinhibit and can cause people to be volatile so issues of power, control and paranoia are never far away from the surface.

Again with a substance addiction, communication with someone who is using is hard! They may have transmit mode but not receive….so it’s frustrating and hard to be heard. Addictive behaviour is blaming and unreasonable. Friends and family may learn to “walk on eggshells” in an attempt to avoid potential conflict.

Many friends and families impacted by substance misuse struggle with significant loss….a death from overdose or the loss of a job or a home through substance misusing behaviour. Other losses can include the loss of childhood and the loss of a marriage.

Living with addiction involves chaos and manipulative behaviour, broken promises and deceit. This experience destroys trust and therefore relationships. From my clinical experience I have seen many clients struggle with coming to terms with not being able to regain a lost relationship and that is sad.

In an attempt to keep some sort of control over the situation family roles can become confused and age inappropriate behaviour is common. For example you can get children taking care of their parent or indeed parents.

For family members a pre-occupation with the addiction in question can quickly become over-involvement. This often leads to an increased tolerance of unacceptable behaviour such addict unreliability, angry outbursts and dishonesty. You can then be drawn into situations where you may lie or even cover up illegal activities such as drink-driving or possession of illegal substances. Ultimately what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for the family becomes blurred. So you get lots of ‘grey’ areas.

Family members can cope with the shame and embarrassment of addiction by ignoring it, covering it up, denying the reality of what is actually happening or stopping serious consequences occurring for the addict. This can all lead to loneliness and isolation which can last for many years. Feeling judged and blaming self can keep families trapped in that isolation.

The stigma and labelling experienced by families of someone struggling with an addiction can dramatically alter their day-to-day lives in a multitude of ways. For example social invitations may dry up, children can become targeted by bullies, friends and extended family may withdraw their trust particularly around money and colleagues at work may start to treat you differently. Every area of your life can be affected.

In terms of an addiction to substances…..the need to secure supply may drive the user into criminal activity or they may break the law while under the influence, again bringing more worry and fear to those around them.

Everyone does their best to cope with the very difficult situation but eventually the addiction becomes the organising principle around which the family revolves and lives. The addiction kind of becomes ‘a family member’….’the elephant in the room if you like’…..everybody can see it but no one is talking about it or naming it for fear things will get worse and that elephant just gets bigger and bigger.

To put it bluntly the experience of being in a relationship with a person who has an addiction is exhausting, traumatic and stressful. The constant worry of what is going to happen next, being hyper-vigilant and fearful can all take its toll on your psychological and physical health.

What I really want to say here is…. you are not alone! Addiction affects so many people right across the world in all sorts of families in many different communities. Some believe the figures are something like 1-3 people will be affected by some form of addiction in their lives….so huge numbers affecting all of society.

Many different people have lots of different ideas about why people become addicted. For example, some people think it’s a disease or an illness, others think it is behaviour that has been learnt. It doesn’t matter what the addiction is, whether it’s substance misuse, gambling, whatever, the effects on the family and individuals in that family are very similar There isn’t much agreement or definite answers to the problem…… except most people agree;

  • The behaviour of someone with an addiction effects everyone around them
  • People can change and get better
  • Talking to someone about what you are going through can really make a positive difference

Due to the global pandemic of Covid 19 difficulties in families are going to be intensified and the toxicity levels may increase potentially beyond breaking point. Some of you will be really struggling now as unreasonable and unpredictable behaviour escalates to new and frightening heights and worries and concerns within the whole family may be at an optimum.

It may be a good idea to focus on specific healthier coping strategies until you can engage in specific supportive interventions like counselling, attending support groups or taking part in an M-PACT programme. If you have not heard of M-PACT it’s an Intervention that was designed by Action on Addiction to meet the multiple and complex needs of children who have been affected by parental substance misuse. The programme is making a real difference to families across the country and in fact further afield.Have a look on the website to find out more.

Look at the support networks that are available to you, think about communication and each family member’s needs. I know this is potentially a very big ask especially if your family is deep in the grip of addiction but this will help and it is interrelated to everybody’s self-esteem and your ability to be able to cope.

You might need to think about what to do and when if you are really struggling and things are getting on top of you, if you are in desperate times. For example you may need to find a safe space to go to or have a list of people you can call for help and support. It could be talking to a professional or a friend. Having a chat about what you are going through can make a real difference. You don’t have to keep it all to yourself! Also try and focus on something you enjoy doing. That could be reading, listening to music, exercise – whatever! But do something for you!

Now you have a right to be safe. If you feel you are in danger call the police. That is really important!

Ok, you may be awash with conflicting feelings….hate, love, fear, despair, responsibility just to name a few. That is all completely normal and natural. You may not even feel anymore….and that’s normal and natural too, it’s just a way to cope and a good way to cope in the very short term and I emphasise in the very short term!

Now, feelings are the body’s way of telling you what you need to do in different situations. A problem usually occurs when you are being bombarded with those feelings 24/7. Going forward it’s what you do with those feelings that can make the difference between just surviving or living your life. For example if you are feeling angry and let down…..find a healthy way to let it out before it turns into rage. Find something healthy that works for you. Once again it may be doing something that you enjoy but, and this is the important thing, don’t keep those feelings in. Find a healthy way to let them out. Express them in some way. It’s about taking care of yourself!

Now what we think affects how we feel, and how we feel affects how we act, so it’s all interlinked. If you can change the way you think about an issue that will begin to change how you feel about it, ultimately changing how you behave around it.

I’ve probably made that sound oh so simple or really complex….either way it might take a bit of practice. Let’s have an example to illustrate it: If you think the addiction in your family is your fault that may make you have certain feelings for example feeling shame and guilt and those feelings will drive your behaviour….possibly in this example it would be trying to fix the problem or make it better! If this belief is challenged and altered in some way and that could be with different insights or evidence and it is altered to “It’s not your fault”.…see how that change in thinking could change how you feel and therefore ultimately change how you behave? Hope that has all made sense! The truth is people don’t live their life thinking “I am going to become an addict so I hurt all the people around me and I lose everything” and remember addiction is a treatable condition!

At Action on Addiction we understand what you are going through. There are also other people and other organisations out there who understand what you are going through too and we are here to help and support you. You might feel like you are alone, but you are not!

I hope I haven’t gone on too much and I really hope something I’ve gone over has made sense or even helped you in some way.

Take care and stay safe



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It was so helpful being able to talk about my addiction and mending my family with people who have gone through it themselves,

Katie J, Former Forward Client Read Katie’s story