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Addiction Is a Family Disease

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Why is addiction a family disease? How can a behavioral health concern that one person develops be described as a condition that applies to an entire group of people? In today’s post, we discuss how the impact of addiction can extend far beyond the individual who struggles with compulsive substance abuse.

Why Is Addiction a Family Disease?

The question “Why is addiction a family disease?” can be answered in two ways:

  • Substance use disorders (which is the clinical term for addictions) often run in families. A family history of substance abuse and addiction can raise a person’s risk of having similar struggles. Research has not yet definitively determined if this elevated risk is due to genetics, environment, or a combination of both. 
  • When someone develops an addiction, their behaviors can have a profound negative impact on their immediate family members and other close loved ones. The effect may be strongest when the person with the addiction is a parent, but there can also be repercussions for siblings and parents when an adolescent or young adult has a substance abuse problem.

In the next section, we’ll focus on the second of the two scenarios described above.   

How Addiction Affects Families

In addition to understanding why addiction is often described as a family disease, it can also be valuable to explore how relatives can be affected when a family member becomes dependent on alcohol or another drug.

In many cases, what happens is that other family members alter their behaviors in response to how the person with the addiction has been acting. Sometimes these adaptations are intentional, but often family members don’t initially realize how they’ve changed.

Though the impact of addiction can vary considerably from one family to the next, it’s not uncommon for family members to take on roles such as the following:

  • The enabler: This person makes excuses for the person with the addiction, tries to cover up their maladaptive behaviors, and otherwise works to protect them from the consequences of their actions. They also attempt to maintain the façade that the family is happy, healthy, and unified.
  • The hero: This person tries to bring positive attention to the family by becoming an overachiever. They may exceed academically, do well in sports, and assume leadership roles in other extracurricular responsibilities. They also place an immense amount of pressure on themselves to be perfect. 
  • The problem child: This family member may react to the chaos within the family by acting out in unacceptable ways. Their school experience may include poor grades and frequent disciplinary actions. Often, their problematic behaviors involve alcohol or other drugs.
  • The scapegoat: The family can’t criticize the individual who has the addiction, because that will only cause further disruption within the household. So they focus their negative emotions on the person who becomes known as the scapegoat. This can include blaming them for causing or not stopping the addicted person’s actions.
  • The mascot: This person becomes the class clown of the family. They use humor or other forms of entertainment to deflect attention from the person with the addiction and ease the stress that other family members are feeling. The mascot can develop the sense that their only value is their ability to defuse tension or provide comic relief.
  • The lost child: This person basically disappears. They withdraw from their family, often spending considerable times alone in their room. They make a concerted effort to not cause additional distress within the family, but this often results in them being overlooked or forgotten. Understandably, the lost child may struggle with their self-image and harbor deep resentment toward the other family members.

Signs That a Family Member Has Developed an Addiction

The signs that someone has developed a substance use disorder can vary widely from one person to the next. Factors that can influence the warning signs of addiction can include which drug the person has been abusing, how frequently they use the drug, and how much of an effort they put into hiding their behaviors from family and friends.

Having said all that, if you suspect that someone in your family has become addicted to alcohol or another drug, here are some signs to be on the lookout for:

  • They exhibit dramatic changes in mood, attitude, motivation, and energy. 
  • They frequently miss work, school, or family gatherings, and they don’t offer a good reason for these absences.
  • They have become secretive about how they’ve been spending their time and who they’ve been associated with.
  • They have started to have unexplained financial problems, which may have prompted them to try to borrow or steal money from loved ones.
  • They seem to no longer care about their appearance or hygiene.
  • They have unintentionally lost or gained a considerable amount of weight.
  • They have been acting with uncharacteristic recklessness, aggression, or even violence.
  • They claim that they function better after they’ve had a drink or two, or when they’ve been using another substance.
  • When they’re in a situation where they can’t use substances, they become agitated or irritated.

On their own, none of these signs are definitive proof that your family member has developed an addiction. But if they exhibit several or all of them, there’s a good chance that they’re having some type of mental or behavioral health crisis. 

The best way to determine what’s going on is to have your loved one evaluated by a qualified professional. The individual who conducts there assessment can provide an accurate diagnosis and, if necessary, recommend appropriate treatment options.

Resources for Family Members

Here are a few resources that can be valuable to family members of people who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs:

Find Addiction Treatment for a Family Member in Nashville

If someone in your family has become addicted to alcohol or another drug, Nashville Treatment Solutions is here to help. Our addiction treatment center offers personalized outpatient care for adults who have substance use disorders and certain co-occurring mental health concerns.

Addiction treatment options at our center in Nashville, Tennessee, include detoxification (detox), a partial hospitalization program (PHP), an intensive outpatient program (IOP), an evening IOP, an outpatient program (OP), and sober living support.

To learn more about our programs and services or to schedule a free assessment for your family member, please visit our Admissions page or call our center today.