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Addiction: A Family Disease

Addiction: A Family Disease

Addiction can be a very lonely place to exist. People in the late stages of an alcohol or substance use disorder, or another addiction like sex or gambling, often find themselves isolated from the people that used to be close to them, as their addiction makes maintaining relationships more and more difficult. This is particularly devastating when people are estranged from their families, who often must make the hard choice between enabling their addictive behavior or cutting them off from support. That choice is all the more difficult when family members are grappling with guilt over their role in the development of the addictive behavior. Families are complex systems with many moving parts, and while addiction can disrupt these systems, it can also arise from these systems. In order to understand the state of addiction in the United States today, it is helpful to look not only at the way addiction impacts family life, but the way that family life affects addiction.

American Culture Blames Individuals for Addiction

While many cultures, particularly in Asia, value interdependence and family life above the needs of any single person, American culture, since its inception, has been marked by a major emphasis on individualism. Individualism largely gives people, not their family or culture, credit for their own successes and failures. But the idea that a person’s outcomes can largely be attributed to their own choices has problematic implications for people who don’t achieve the American dream, or who face difficulties in pursuing it. This is particularly evident in the way that families handle addiction. Families are frequently reluctant to accept responsibility for their role in contributing to the development of an addiction. The conversation around addiction has been defined for many years by a “blame-the-victim” mentality, in which sufferers of addiction are told that they are solely at fault for their disease. This is particularly true in the case of alcohol. Since some level of drinking is socially acceptable, people who cannot drink normally are often mocked for being unable to “hold their liquor,” and in a family where others drink heavily, the choice not to drink can be seen as a weakness. In fact, studies have found that young people who are highly individualistic are more likely to develop a “drinking identity” and abuse alcohol. Individualism also contributes to the deterioration of family relationships. A healthier way of dealing with addiction is to acknowledge the roles that family can play in the disease.

Family Conflict Increases Risk of Addiction

When we understand a family as an interconnected system, rather than a group of independent individuals, we can begin to grasp how addiction develops within this system. One profound example is in the case of a divorce. The fracturing of familial bonds that comes when a child’s parents divorce is stressful at best and traumatic at worst, and is correlated with increased substance abuse by the child. Interestingly, the increase in substance use often begins in the period leading up to the divorce, when the child is not yet fully aware that the parents are separating. This is a strong indication that children use substances in response to tension and conflict within their families. Parents may think they are doing a good job of insulating their children from the stress of parental conflict, but children are more intuitive than we give them credit for and can often detect tension even when it is not explicitly discussed. And once the divorce is out in the open, it may result in distracted parents, who are focused on legal and financial issues, and increased opportunities for the child to seek out and abuse substances. Even children of families that remain intact face increased risk for addiction if there is poor communication between parent and child or poor parental monitoring. This does not mean that parents are directly to blame for their children’s substance abuse, but it does mean that a child’s family environment plays a major role in determining their likelihood of becoming addicted to substances.

The Influence of Genetics

There is another sense in which addiction is a family disease. New research into the human genome has provided new evidence to demonstrate how heredity influences health. Although human beings are nearly genetically identical, tiny variations can predict characteristics like cholesterol levels, and addiction is no different. Scientists have found over 400 locations on the genome that influence smoking or alcohol use, and 566 variants within these locations. They estimate that genetics are responsible for half of the risk of alcohol use disorder. While some people of Asian descent carry a gene variant that causes them to flush and become nauseous when ingesting alcohol, making drinking unpleasant and lessening the likelihood of dependence, other people carry genes that drastically increase their likelihood of developing substance use dependence.

How Families Can Recover

In many cases, an individual’s addiction affects those around them in deep and lasting ways. This is why many families pursue their own path of recovery when a loved one is struggling with addiction. Programs like Al-Anon, Nar-anon, Alateen and Narateen help families recover from the pain that comes with watching a loved one harm themself through their addictive behavior, and help families recognize both their own role in perpetuating the behavior and their powerlessness over their loved one’s addiction. They provide a path to recovery for the family, regardless of whether the addicted individual recognizes that they have a problem.

Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987. If you need help or know someone who does, please contact our admissions department at (800) 397-3006 or admissions@tpoftampa.com.

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