Substance Use Disorder- A Family Disease

– Chris Cox, STM, LPC, NCC, MAC, Fellow AAPC, Family Program Coordinator

She rolled over and looked at the clock; it read 3:11AM.  She hadn’t been able to sleep because he still wasn’t home.  Worry, her life had been filled with worry.  She couldn’t remember her last night of good sleep, her last day without feeling like she was treading through a minefield, trying to avoid the next emotional explosion with her husband.  The days of happiness between them were long gone.

He’d been a heavy drinker when they married, but she was confident he’d “out grow it” when they settled into “adult life.”  Adulthood gradually arrived with the development of their careers, the purchase of a home and the births of their three children.

Over those years his drinking got worse, but it had really taken off in the last two years.  He drank almost every night after work.  On the weekends he spent more time being drunk than being sober.  Home life had become a miserable wreck.  The children had less and less to do with their father, because he simply wasn’t able to engage with them as a parent.  Instead he would often fight with them when he was intoxicated, leaving her to feel as though she had a fourth child at times. He did less and less around the house; often leaving her with what seemed like everything to do.

She had tried in so many ways to get him to stop drinking.  She pleaded, ignored, got angry, even withheld affection.  Nothing seemed to work.  Sometimes things got better . . . but only for short periods and then the family would slide back into chaos.  Her oldest, a 15 year old, became increasing frustrated with his mother’s lack of ability to “Do something about Dad!”

She increasingly blamed herself for what was happening to her family, for her lack of ability to control the situation and protect her children.  She would often say to herself, “I manage people at work.  Why the hell can’t I manage my husband’s drinking?”  Her stomach seemed to hurt all the time and she was always so tired.  She was depressed, anxious, feeling as though the stress was draining away her life.

She began to notice that she hardly spoke to her friends anymore.  She was torn between wanting to tell people and fearing what they might think of her family if the secret got out.  The shame and embarrassment she felt about what was happening drew her ever deeper into isolation.

Suddenly, the sound of her husband’s car pulling into the driveway shook her out of her thoughts.  All at once she felt relief, anger and resentment.  “Thank God the SOB is home safe,” she whispered under her breath.  She listened to him fumble through the door, the noises he made as he stumbled through the house.  She thought to herself, “Please let the children sleep through this.”  Then she heard him making his way up the stairs, “Here we go again.”  She dreaded what she knew was coming . . . another confrontation filled with anger, excuses, apologies and meaningless promises.

Approximately 10-12% of the population in the United States has Substance Use Disorder (SUD).  Those who have the disease directly affect the lives of at least three to four other people.  Imagine walking into a room of 100 people; approximately 50 of those in the room have their lives in some way impacted by SUD either because they have the disease themselves or they are close to someone who does.

We call SUD a family disease because it has a reach far beyond those who suffer from it directly.  If someone close to you has SUD you are probably aware of the stress in your life.  Perhaps you resonated with the woman described above. Unfortunately people in such a situation are not often fully aware of how strongly they are being affected.  Over time they can become physically ill, often experiencing significant anxiety and or depression due to the constant pressure of living in those circumstances.

It is extremely important for those close to an addict or alcoholic to seek help not just for their loved one, but themselves as well.  Pavillon’s Family Program offers education and support to the loved ones of addicts and alcoholics.  We provide information regarding several topics including SUD, codependence, boundaries and family communication.  One of our goals is to help family members and significant others become aware of the considerable effects the disease has on their lives and encourage them to seek support and receive care for themselves.  We also provide an environment in which they learn they are not alone in their struggles, there are many families in which SUD is present.

If you are close to someone who has SUD, try to embrace the “three C’s.”  You didn’t Cause the disease, you can’t Control the disease, and you can’t Cure the disease.  If you can embrace these facts and live them, you will be able to begin stepping away from behaviors and circumstances that have been harmful to you.  You will then be free to find a place of serenity.

Allow yourself to admit how much you’ve been affected, then seek help through Al-anon, Nar-anon, a therapist, spiritual resources, supportive friends.  One of the most powerful things you can do for yourself is to allow others who have a similar experience walk with you to a place of healing and hope.