Effects of Substance Abuse on the Family

When one family member is afflicted with the disease of drug or alcohol addiction, the entire family is affected. Repercussions can take the form of spouse or child abuse, divorce, accidents and negligence, financial loss, stress, and many other effects not so readily apparent.

Family members may invest substantial efforts into keeping up appearances for the addicted individual. The pain of admitting that they cannot control what is happening to the family can be unbearable. Trying to control the substance abuser by removing the drugs or alcohol, eliciting promises of abstinence, and covering up the substance abuse are some of the ways families are drawn into the abuser’s sickness.

Although some family members may seem perfectly healthy, underlying attitudes and behaviors have been shaped by dealing with the substance abuse by the family member:

Linking of self esteem to the abstinence or relapse of the addict – many family members believe they can control the addict’s illness and blame themselves for relapses.

  • Excluding their own needs by assuming responsibility for the addict’s.
  • Anxiety about intimacy and separation.
  • Depression.
  • Ultra-sensitivity to subtle shifts in the addict’s behavior and mood.
  • Stress-related medical illnesses.

Ongoing Stress of Addiction

Those closest to the substance abuse patient are considerably affected by the drug or alcohol addiction behavior and require attention to their own suffering. Because the lives of all family members are inseparable, substance abuse is most effective when treated as a family disease.

Imagine if you will, here’s this condition where you have a loved one and every day you do your normal day-to-day living. When you add substance abuse into the picture, you add a question mark at every moment of every day.

So let’s pretend that you are a spouse and you come home from work. When substance abuse is in the picture, you have one question. I wonder if he’s gonna be sober when he walks in the door? I wonder when I walk in the house if I’m gonna find her sleeping from the prescription pills again? I wonder if . . . what is gonna happen, who’s gonna handle the kids tonight? … So you are in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

And then you add in the next day where they come in and they’re completely normal. They didn’t use that day, and they act as if they have no knowledge of what you’re talking about. Why are you so upset with me? I didn’t drink today. You should be happy. And they’re just carrying this stress with them and it just unloads and often there is an over-reaction.

Then you add in … how embarrassing it must be. My husband has an alcohol problem. Shouldn’t my love be good enough for him to not want to drink? I’m a nice, loving person. Why are they using drugs? What am I not giving them?

You add in another dimension. A person with a substance abuse or addiction problem will often pretend that it’s not really there. Oh, honey, you’re just over reacting. I had a few beers last night. I don’t know why you’re always making a big deal out of nothing. And often there’s anger in that.

So there’s such a mixture of feelings and stressors for a long period of time, that for me, the greatest sadness is how the treatment field has not developed a proper approach to truly support and be with the family during this terrible journey that often is years.

Find Support: for yourself.

Family members i.e. spouses, parents, children are susceptible to their own issues as a result of dealing with addiction in the family i.e. isolation, depression, behavior issues in children, work performance, financial impact. You also become a positive role model for others in your family by seeking help.

Suggested avenues of support:

  • Mutual support groups: Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Celebrate Recovery
  • Individual and family psychotherapy
  • Family groups: treatment, religious institution, community counseling centers
  • Get a sponsor/mentor: someone you can call, anytime to ‘bounce things around’ with before saying or doing something you may regret!


~Todd Barlow

Randy Haveson

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Randy Haveson
Randy Haveson is the Founder & CEO of HERO House, a sober living, recovery residence program for college students in early sobriety from addictions. Learn More

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