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A Stranger in the House: The True Impact of Addiction on the Family

Picture of family torn in half.

Ohio-based overdose prevention organization Project DAWN[1] (Death Avoidance with Narcan) has begun hosting a class that teaches families of those vulnerable to opioid overdose to use the potentially life-saving drug Narcan. 

Narcan itself is a pure opioid antagonist, meaning that it weakens or prevents the agonist (opioid) from continuing to affect the body. It is known to prevent or reverse opioid effects such as reduced breathing (respiratory depression), drug-induced calm or sleep (sedation), and abnormally blood pressure (hypotension)[2]. Project Dawn teaches families more about how this drug can be used if and when a loved one is suffering from an opioid overdose.

The initiative reminds us that both short and long-term family involvement are important in helping addicts travel the path to recovery, as well as that addiction is very much a disease that affects the entire family. As we attempt to recover from chemical dependency, we realize the true importance of the support of our loved ones and how integral our relationship with our family is in maintaining sobriety in everyday life.

We always hear about how families of addicts suffer as much, if not more, than the addicts themselves. We’re subject to horrifying and dramatic accounts of addiction-related theft, deception and domestic violence that tears families apart; and in many cases this is true. Perhaps, however, the most tragic part of dealing with an addicted loved one is watching them slowly transform into someone (or something) else and feeling as though there is little we can do about it. 

It’s an unfortunate reality that, while treatment and the recovery process can help repair families, many of our loved ones fail to find their way back from addiction despite their best efforts. Family and friends of those battling addiction need to remember that it’s not their fault, and that there is help for this traumatic experience that they’re going through.

Tearing through American Families

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 23 million Americans struggle with substance abuse and addiction[3]. In an overwhelming majority of these cases, there is a whole group of family and friends that suffers right alongside each addict. Whether it’s watching a parent drink themselves to death or watching a child develop an addiction to opioids, we’ve seen an alarming increase in heroin addiction among the under-18 population over the past five years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[4], fatal heroin-related overdoses rose to 8,260 in 2013 (latest data available) and a significant portion of those deaths included high school students. Heroin has come to dominate middle-class suburban neighborhoods all across the country. 

Origins and Effects 

In their Treatment Improvement Protocol[5] overview of examining substance abuse and family therapy, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration names several factors that contribute to substance abuse in the home. These include: communication among family members that constantly consist of complaints, criticism, and other expressions of displeasure (negativism); parental inconsistency; parental denial; miscarried expressions of anger, self-medication and unrealistic paternal expectations. For parents and spouses, the pressure of raising a family combined with a genetic predisposition toward substance abuse is a leading factor. For children, it could be any number of sociological factors, such as peer pressure, depression and sheer curiosity.

Beyond Narcan: What Family Involvement Needs to Look Like

If a patient is to realistically embark on recovery, they will need the support of their family on a continued basis. The ability to effectively recover largely depends upon educating the recovering addict's family about the disease of addiction, and on the family developing an understanding of its role in the recovery process. In other words, it’s one thing to say to an addicted love one that you will give “whatever you need,” and quite another to say “I know what you need and why you need it.” Setting behavioral expectations and boundaries, as well as gaining a clear understanding of positive family interactions in a post-treatment dynamic, can be crucial in repairing your family and restoring harmony to your home. This is something to which the family needs to fully commit.

The Process Begins in Treatment

One of the most common (and preventable) causes of relapse[6] is the lack of preparation in helping patients and their families understand what they need to do after their loved one completes treatment. Blurred lines and grey areas can lead to household tension and further emotional distress among all involved. These episodes can very easily trigger the destructive emotions that cause a patient to start using drugs again. Treatment centers need to be mindful of their role in preparing patients and their families to successfully interact, and should work with them to form a plan while the patient is actually is still in treatment. This plan must fit with their overall relapse-guidelines that patients have worked out with their therapist prior to discharge.

Assessing Your Readiness

While we may genuinely want to help our loved one overcome drug and alcohol abuse, the fact is that some people don’t have the emotional strength to actually commit. This is an endeavor that requires an inordinate amount of maturity and understanding, and nobody should be faulted for their inability to react to such an unnatural situation. Before making the commitment to be there for a family member or friend struggling with addiction, be sure to perform an in-depth self-diagnostic to see if you have what it takes.

Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches offers a comprehensive family program that provides education and support to our patients’ families. Call us now so we can give you the tools you need to successfully integrate your recovering loved one back into your home.