Drugs and alcohol are incredibly powerful substances, and they have the potential to turn a person’s life upside down. Someone wrestling with chronic or escalating substance abuse is likely to see huge changes in their life as a direct result of their compulsion to seek and use harmful intoxicants. For instance, their job performance might become inconsistent to the point of termination, or their grades might slip beyond repair. They may see less and less of their friends to the point they lose those relationships altogether.
Someone with an established set of hobbies might also drop those completely in order to focus on finding and using drugs or alcohol. All in all, addiction transforms unique and vibrant individuals into people motivated by one thing: substance abuse.
Unfortunately, the effects of addiction aren’t merely personal — though many addicted individuals insist that their problem doesn’t affect anyone else. Families are especially susceptible to the chaos that comes with addiction, no matter the role of the addicted member in the family unit.
Everyone’s role in a family is important, and when one or more members are struggling with addiction, the stability necessary for a healthy family dynamic is placed in serious jeopardy. However, deciding to get addiction treatment can be the factor that keeps a family from falling apart — and it can help each other to heal.
Addiction as a Disease
To understand how addiction treatment can positively affect your family, you have to understand why it’s so necessary. Although some people think that addiction is the result of something as simple as weak character, the truth is it’s a chronic disease like any other. There are three simple reasons to treat addiction as a medical condition:
- It is characterized by the possibility of relapse over a lifetime.
- It is accompanied by a common set of behavioral changes.
- Its severity and course are determined at least partially by genetics.
These facts make it quite clear that addiction needs to be treated by medical professionals in an appropriate setting, like a treatment facility.
It’s common for addicted individuals to deny they have a problem or to say they can stop any time they want to. Therefore, acknowledging that addiction has a physiological component as well as a medical solution is one of the biggest steps you can take toward healing.
If family members can see you’re taking your addiction and your health seriously by attending a treatment center rather than insisting you can do it on your own, they may feel safer trying to take the first steps toward rebuilding trust.
How Addiction Changes the Brain
The changes that come with addiction can be extreme and varied depending on each person. In some cases, an addicted person can seem to lose their original personality completely, only to become consumed by the need to use and abuse drugs or alcohol.
Family members watching you sink into addiction may initially fail to notice the small changes in behavior and demeanor until those changes accumulate too much to ignore. They may also feel personally victimized by the particular behaviors that accompany substance abuse, such as:
- Increasing social withdrawal/isolation
- Mood swings and shortening temper
- Irritability or anxiety
- Uncharacteristic secrecy
They may assume these new behaviors are completely your choice — and this can lead to feelings of betrayal, guilt, anger, and defensiveness. These feelings on the part of your family members are not unjustified, but they are the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of how addiction affects brain chemistry.
Intoxicating substances all function in similar ways inside the brain: by overstimulating and overloading the brain’s reward system. To understand how the brain’s reward pathway works, we need to know some key terms:
- Limbic System: Also known as the reward system, this set of brain structures forms the brain’s gratification network. This is one of the oldest brain systems, pre-dating the structures that govern memory. For this reason, much of the activity in the reward pathway is unconscious — that’s why it’s so hard to reverse the patterns of addiction.
- Neurotransmitter: These widely varied chemicals act as the “messengers” of the brain, transmitting information between neurons. Without these, brain function and cognition would be impossible.
- Dopamine: This neurotransmitter is one of the key players in the pathology of addiction. Whenever the brain receives a burst of dopamine, it translates as pleasure and reward. Drugs and alcohol function by triggering dopamine release, leading to the initial euphoria of intoxication.
- Neocortex: This is a large part of the brain with several sub-structures that work together to govern memory, learning processes and operant conditioning — which is how we use remembered stimuli to reinforce certain behaviors.
In terms of addiction, the neocortex is responsible for translating the reward received from drug and alcohol use into positive reinforcement for future abuse.
In a natural setting, the reward system reinforces vital behaviors such as eating and sleeping, by providing pleasurable associations with these necessary tasks. When drugs and alcohol are introduced, though, the frequent, small dopamine spikes experienced by the brain are disrupted by huge, artificially triggered dopamine floods. The way your brain responds to a drug usually follows a pattern like this.
- The drug or alcohol is consumed and is absorbed into the bloodstream. Once it reaches the brain, the intoxicant mimics certain natural neurotransmitters that trigger dopamine release, but it triggers an abnormally large amount of dopamine to flood the limbic system.
- This produces extreme euphoria, and the neocortex takes note of this, storing the memory of getting drunk or high in the “pleasurable stimuli” section. Next time you are faced with an opportunity to use drugs or alcohol, your neocortex will produce extra motivation to do so.
- The problem here is that because intoxicants produce such abnormally large waves of unnatural dopamine release, natural stimuli become unappealing in comparison. Someone who may have experienced positive reinforcement from dropping their kids off at school may now see it as a bothersome task compared to drug use — which stimulates their brain much more.
- Eventually, natural stimuli stop working altogether. If the brain is provided with a larger-than-normal burst of dopamine from intoxication, responses to things like eating, sleeping and socializing continue to diminish until a person’s sole goal in life is to obtain more dopamine spikes through drugs and alcohol.
- At this point, addicted individuals are using drugs to keep negative symptoms at bay, rather than as a vehicle for actual pleasure. Drugs become on par with eating if addiction is left unchecked for too long, and almost all self-control is ceded to substance abuse.
What most families of addicted individuals don’t understand is that addiction happens by this specific, physiological process. It might be slower or faster in certain people, but all addiction takes hold through the manipulation of the limbic system’s natural — and necessary — motivation system. That’s why going “cold-turkey” just doesn’t work. Even if a person has all the will in the world, their brain is still telling them they need drugs or alcohol.
Choosing addiction treatment means learning about addiction, and not just beating it. Excellent treatment centers also know the importance of education for the whole family, not just the addicted individual.
Learning the specifics about what happens in the brain during addiction can help all family members part with any personal or character judgments they may have about chronic substance abuse. Understanding the physical pathology of this disease is important in supporting the addicted individual as a person and not just an addict —which is vital for the healing process of the whole family.
Healing Your Family Dynamic
Unfortunately, there are many different ways addiction negatively affects all the members of a family — and more families struggle with addiction than you might realize. For example, more than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics, and 11 million of those are under the age of 18.
One classic study found six specific patterns of interaction that commonly occur in families where either parents or children are abusing drugs or alcohol. When families are able to identify these patterns of interaction, their ability to resolve them in treatment and family counseling skyrockets. See if any of these look familiar to you:
Families dealing with addiction on the part of parents or kids often slide very quickly toward the negative and stay there. It can seem like every interaction is tense, angry or overall undesirable. The household mood will tend toward the depressive, and any positive behavior that does occur is ignored or even punished.
When negativism becomes a pattern, the only way for family members to get the attention they crave may be to act out by creating a crisis that must be attended to. Negativism is also a strong driver to maintain or increase substance abuse in an attempt to escape the hostile atmosphere.
In counseling, families with negativism problems can learn to unpack their feelings and analyze them in a safe, supportive space. Many, if not all family members, will get the chance to be heard on topics they feel are important but that might not get listened to in the home environment. The neutral environment of therapy will help your family to stop dwelling solely on the dark things in life and to handle negativity healthily when it inevitably arises in the recovery process.
- Parental Inconsistency
When either a parent or child is struggling with substance abuse, rules and stability tend to go out the window. Whether it’s failing to enforce rules or schedules due to the parent’s own intoxication or allowing an addicted child to test and break boundaries, inconsistency on the part of parents is extremely common in addiction-affected families. A child who is unable to get a consistent response from parents will have a hard time discerning right from wrong and may act out in undesirable ways in an effort to push the parent to create useful boundaries.
Part of an effective treatment program is learning how to set and maintain healthy boundaries. These boundaries vary depending on the structure of the family, the age of the children and the severity of the parent or child’s addiction. It is a highly individualized process, and only a qualified family counselor can help you figure out the right way to reintroduce healthy structure into your family’s life.
- Parental Denial
Once again, this behavior pattern can go both ways on the part of the parent. Whether the drug problem is their own or their child’s, they may have a strong reaction against all claims of addiction.
If the child is the substance abuser, parents may adamantly deny there is a real or pressing substance abuse problem, even when school or law enforcement authorities bring it to attention. This opens the door for the parent to be an enabler.
If the parent is the abuser and is in denial of their own addiction, it leads to distrust and often feelings of betrayal from other family members.
It’s difficult to face the reality of addiction, especially if the subject is your own child. Oftentimes, people need the help of an addiction professional to safely examine and dismantle their denial. Family counseling helps everyone in the family unit to identify and accept their role (or lack thereof) in enabling or combatting addiction.
- Miscarried Expression of Anger
This behavior pattern most widely affects children and their emotional development. In homes where addiction runs rife, the expression of emotion is often discouraged. This emotional inhibition often leads to bottled-up feelings of anger or rage, and children of all developmental stages have trouble dealing with these emotions alone. This can result in violence against others or self-harm in extreme cases. Adults with anger issues might lash out at their spouse or children at unexpected moments for seemingly little reason.
Addiction treatment focuses closely on emotional regulation — something that addicted individuals and their family members often have serious trouble with. If an adult feels angry, they may try to quash that emotion with further drug or alcohol abuse, and kids may pick up on that as well.
Choosing addiction treatment means placing an important emphasis on the emotional health of yourself as well as your family, and it can help turn around any negative behavioral and emotional patterns that have arisen through the course of addiction.
- Unrealistic Parental Expectations
Addicted parents may create unrealistic expectations on two fronts. One parent might place extreme pressure on a child to over-achieve or to cope easily with new and unfair responsibilities conferred on them by their parent’s addiction. These children may react by doing as little as possible since they feel that nothing they do is good enough to please their addicted parent. They may suffer long-lasting feelings of inadequacy throughout their life.
At the other extreme, an addicted parent might withdraw from their child’s life so much that their expectations are much lower than is normal. These parents might not care that their child got straight A’s for the semester or won a prize at the science fair. Kids might respond by trying even harder to no avail.
One of the best things about treatment is its clarifying effect. Receiving treatment and counseling away from your normal home environment allows you to look at your actions and expectations more clearly than you could otherwise. A qualified therapist can help you establish reasonable, responsible expectations for the other members in your family. This will help reinforce healthy boundaries and foster the growth of respect that is often lost in families struggling with addiction.
The worst outcome for family members exposed to chronic substance abuse is that they turn to self-medication. Addiction is often born out of a desire to alter one’s perception and experience or to “escape” the unpleasantness of certain circumstances. Stress at work or school can contribute, but a living in a consistently negative home environment with an addicted adult is a strong predictor of future substance abuse.
Addiction treatment will give you the tools to cope with life without drugs or alcohol — but it can also help prevent your family members from going down the same road. Family counseling gives both yourself and your loved ones the opportunity to build a foundation for healthy mindsets and behaviors.
The effects of addiction on a family can be devastating. If a family spends too long dealing with addiction, relationships are strained, and emotional health deteriorates.
Luckily, enrolling in a treatment center doesn’t just help the person receiving treatment directly. It helps the family heal together. Professional and effective family counseling is the surest way to take the first steps toward sobriety and family cohesion.
The JourneyPure Promise
If you’re ready to see just how much addiction treatment can help you and your family, JourneyPure Emerald Coast can help. Our staff of compassionate professionals understands the complexities of addiction and the effect addiction can have on families.
The two primary forms of treatment offered each have unique benefits for you and your family — find out which is right for you:
Inpatient addiction treatment programs are designed to provide personalized care 24/7 for those with intensive drug or alcohol dependency and for those who simply want the most focused treatment possible. It involves the client packing up and leaving home for a stay of at least 30 days in a residential treatment facility. It offers these advantages:
- Round-the-clock care
- Medically-assisted detoxification
- Freedom to experience situations, triggers, and temptations in a therapeutically monitored atmosphere.
When it comes to families, inpatient treatment can be effective for a number of reasons. If addiction is severe or has been in place for a long time, it may be very helpful for the addicted family member to be separated from the rest of the family unit. This can give all parties time to “cool off,” and begin to adjust behaviors without the looming threat of confrontation.
Outpatient treatment is most effective for those who don’t have a long history of addiction or relapse. It involves attending therapy and classes — like you would with inpatient treatment — but only on a part-time basis. This could mean attending treatment during the day and having weekends and evenings to yourself. This is often a great choice for people who can’t quit their jobs or take extended leave. It also offers benefits like:
- Maintaining a large degree of independence
- Maintaining family contact
- Practicing new skills in real time
When you enroll in outpatient rehab treatment, the greatest advantage is that you and your family get the chance to work through your issues together during your time at home. While this isn’t ideal for families with very strained relationships, it can be an excellent solution for others.
Still not convinced about addiction treatment? You’re not alone. There are 23.5 million people in America who need help treating addiction to drugs or alcohol — but only 11% of them ever receive the treatment they require to lead healthy and productive lives. Don’t become another statistic. Contact JourneyPure Emerald Coast today to find out more about the quality of care and compassion you can use to jump-start your life of health and sobriety.