An addict often has no notion of how much their behavior has an effect on their family. They may be so deep in denial that they refuse to acknowledge that their addiction is hurting their loved ones.
The reality is that drug abuse has a significant impact on family members of the person addicted and it can continue to have an effect on them psychologically for years in the future. Family members who must live with addiction are put under unusual stress in their day to day lives often with emotions running high.
Their normal routines are often interrupted by unexpected and frightening experiences that can be traumatic especially for young children. The whole family must find their own way of coping with the addictive behavior and may even develop their own sense of denial about what is happening.
Coping Strategies and Dysfunction
Family members of a drug abuser may all begin to develop defenses to shield themselves from the pain they experience. They may become withdrawn or shut down their feelings through a fear of expressing emotion.
Others may cope with it by acting out or engaging in their own self-medication to control their inner chaos. Children may grow up with an inability to become attached to others because of their feelings of betrayal and abandonment by their addicted family member.
Homes where there is addiction present are often out of balance and very dysfunctional. There is very little sense of faith and trust as promises are broken often and the family has no order or predictability.
Both children and adults tend to lose their sense of who they can depend on when the addicted family member acts in irresponsible and untrustworthy ways. Most members of the family will either withdraw into their private worlds to escape what is happening or will compete for what little love and attention they are able to get.
Siblings may have to step up and take on a parental role for their younger brothers and sisters if there are no reliable adults in the family dynamic.
Disconnection and Avoiding the Subject
Because addiction has such a strong impact on family members it affects not only each person's relationship to the addicted person but the connections of the entire family unit. Family members may avoid sharing subjects that could be painful so they avoid genuine connection with one another and may be distant or argumentative.
With most families dealing with addiction there is the "elephant in the room" that is hardly discussed because there is too much guilt, shame, and painful feelings associated with a person's drug abuse. They might not address the person's drug problem or find ways to resolve the issue because it is easier to ignore or deny what is really going on.
When things are not discussed within the family, each person is left to try to make sense of everything themselves and they may end up dealing with a lot of confused and complex feelings they don't understand. In order for families of addicts to heal they need to talk about their emotions with each other and speak more openly about the addiction.
Families can improve their connection with each other and reduce dysfunction by opening discussions and processing their pain. The more they are able to talk to one another the more it will relieve some of their emotional distress and improve their ability to cope with the difficulties of the situation. If the family is not able to bring the addict into treatment, they will at least have one another to rely on for emotional support and stability.