The impact of addiction on family and relationships

Witnessing a loved one succumb to alcohol or drug addiction can be an immensely distressing experience. While you deeply care for the person affected, their behavior can leave you grappling with emotions like anger, helplessness, guilt, fear, loneliness, exhaustion, and disappointment. Often, individuals battling addiction are oblivious to the havoc they’re wreaking, which makes seeking help a formidable challenge.

Addiction leaves no one untouched. It affects partners, parents, children, and siblings alike. The persistent worry and stress stemming from a loved one’s addiction can exact a toll on the mental and physical well-being of friends and family members. Tensions escalate, and conflicts become the norm. Without appropriate intervention, addiction has the potential to dismantle homes, disrupt work, and shatter family bonds.

How Alcohol and Drug Addiction Impacts South African Families

The repercussions of addiction on South African families extend far and wide, encompassing financial strife, neglect, marital discord, and even physical abuse. No one is immune, from vulnerable young children to deeply committed partners, as everyone’s fundamental needs may go unmet.

Neglect and Attachment Disorders

Children living with parents struggling with substance abuse often experience fear and vulnerability. They may unjustly blame themselves and carry the weight of their parent’s addiction on their shoulders. For young children, this could lead to attachment disorders, resulting in lifelong difficulties in forming connections and displaying affection.

When drugs or alcohol take precedence in a parent’s life, children may be left to fend for themselves, going without proper care, hygiene, or nourishment. This neglect can extend to other areas, including their education and social life, depriving them of the essential elements of a happy childhood.

Anxiety and Stress

Family members caring for someone with addiction bear an immense burden. The constant exposure to highly stressful situations places them at risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Frequent tense exchanges and challenging conversations keep their brains in a perpetual fight-or-flight mode, exerting a detrimental impact on their mental and physical health.

Financial Hardships

The costs associated with sustaining a drug or alcohol habit can strain an individual’s finances, leading to mounting debts, missed mortgage payments, and even theft from loved ones. This financial turmoil intensifies stress within the entire family, affecting their ability to afford necessities like food and clothing. Enabling family members may inadvertently fund their loved one’s substance abuse, plunging them into dire financial straits.

Physical and Emotional Abuse

A person grappling with substance use disorder becomes a ticking time bomb, with erratic behavior and irrational decisions triggering frequent clashes with family members. With their focus firmly fixated on alcohol or drugs, addicted individuals may employ guilt trips and emotionally abuse those around them. The influence of substances on the brain makes them more prone to angry outbursts or even physical violence against their loved ones. The only viable means of breaking this seemingly unending cycle of addiction is seeking professional help.

The Roles of Family Members in Addiction

The family system theory characterizes the family unit as a complex system of social interactions. Humans possess an inherent drive to maintain balance or homeostasis within this system, where each family member plays a role in sustaining the overall equilibrium. Understanding an individual’s position within the family dynamic is crucial for effective treatment. Altering the behavior of one family member can affect the entire family.

Playing the Victim

Addicted individuals often become so consumed by substances that they resort to manipulation and deception to sustain their addiction. They frequently make excuses for their actions, shift blame onto others, and even fabricate health issues to evade confrontation. Coping with a child with substance use disorder can be especially challenging for parents, as their natural instinct is to perceive the child as the vulnerable party in need of assistance.

Enabling and Codependency

Those living with an addicted person, while attempting to help, may unintentionally enable their behavior. For example, a child may clean up after their alcoholic father to protect their mother from the effects of his drinking. This situation becomes even more destructive when both parties are codependent. For instance, a widow might rely on her alcoholic son to prevent loneliness, and they may even engage in substance use together, perpetuating the addiction.

The Role of Siblings

Every family comprises members with varying personalities, abilities, and attitudes. Within the family system, each member has their role and responsibilities, each with different degrees of involvement. This complexity can make mediating the situation confusing for the addicted individual, as one family member may attempt to micromanage, while another may minimize the issue. Younger siblings might unintentionally become scapegoats and bear the brunt of blame. Presenting a united front, regardless of whether you cohabit with the person needing support, ensures a consistent message is conveyed.

Dealing with Addiction in South African Families

Empower yourself with knowledge about how a specific substance affects an individual physically, mentally, and emotionally. This understanding can foster empathy and provide a scientific basis for explaining their behavior. Recognize that addiction is a disease, not a choice. Approaching the problem from a medical perspective enables you to view addiction as an illness requiring treatment, rather than a personal vendetta.

Prioritize Your Own Needs

Just as in a flight safety briefing, where you’re advised to assist others before yourself, the same principle applies when dealing with addiction. If you’re fatigued, stressed, and undernourished, you’re not in the best position to support someone in overcoming their challenges. Your well-being is of utmost importance.

Practice Daily Self-Care

You may find yourself continually preoccupied with your family member’s addiction, neglecting your own basic care needs, such as eating and personal hygiene. Allocating regular breaks from the situation and emphasizing sleep, nutrition, exercise, hobbies, and passions can help alleviate the stress of dealing with destructive behavior.

Seek Support, Reach Out, and Talk to Others

It’s essential for all family members to receive counseling, not just the individual struggling with addiction. This offers the best chance of repairing fractured relationships and charting a path forward together. You can opt for individual family therapy or attend sessions collectively to gain insights into each other’s emotions.

Set Clear Boundaries

Individuals grappling with addiction often resort to manipulation and coercion. These actions aren’t a genuine reflection of their character but rather the result of substances tricking their brains into thinking they need alcohol or drugs at any cost. Establish unequivocal boundaries to safeguard both yourself and your loved one from harm. This may involve withholding funds or refusing to facilitate their access to alcohol or drugs.

Arrange Professional Help

Encourage your loved one to seek support, but approach the conversation with compassion and devoid of judgment, preferably when they are sober. Irrespective of the strained relationship, convey how their addiction affects the entire family and how a rehabilitation program could benefit everyone involved.