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substance use disorder is diagnosed in individuals – but every diagnosis touches multiple different lives and how addiction affects families. Families, like other systems, rely on a unique balance between individuals working together to keep the peace. Everyone has a role to play, and as those roles evolve – for example, as kids age, or as young parents become parents to adults – so do the personalities, responsibilities, and actions of each individual family member.

Something like an addiction throws a monkey wrench into the family system. It’s an ongoing and severe health condition, an illness that develops and spreads throughout a person’s life, changing their decision-making process, their cognition, their personality. They become secretive or irritable.

When confronted, they can become angry or emotionally compromised. They begin to feel resentment towards themselves and even their loved ones. On some days, they feel cursed and bear great guilt for the burden they feel they are placing on those around them.

These complex mental and emotional changes are harrowing for the person struggling with addiction, but they are also difficult to adjust to for everyone else. An addiction can turn a happy and responsible family member into someone who is dependent and hates it and makes that hate feel involuntary, or with purpose.

Understanding addiction and the road it takes someone on can help family members develop greater patience for the process of recovery and learn to cope with the hardship of caring for a loved one struggling with this problem.

It can also help those affected by addiction learn to embrace the long process of recovery, not just for themselves and their chance at life, but for a better life for everyone around them.

Addiction and the Brain

Long-term substance use affects a person biologically, psychologically, and socially. Yet the most immediate and dramatic effects are typically mental, as the addiction hits the brain.

Central to the mechanism behind addiction is the release of neurotransmitters, chemicals that our neurons use to communicate nearly everything. A key neurotransmitter in motivation and reward is dopamine, which is released upon doing things like satiating an empty stomach, hugging a loved one, and achieving a goal.

Addictive drugs exploit the dopaminergic pathways in the brain to achieve an incredibly potent and unnatural release of the stuff, overshadowing other, conventional methods of achieving a dopamine surge.

Because the brain doesn’t like when things are too effective, it begins to develop a resistance to an addictive drug’s dopamine surge – at the cost of dulling the effects of dopamine when released via other means.

Meanwhile, most addictive substances begin to create other problems for the brain. Drugs like alcohol, for example, are actively toxic and can attack the myelin sheathing of our nerves, leading to alcohol-related nerve pain and brain damage.

Drugs like cocaine can permanently damage the brain and heart, while overuse of other stimulants can lead to an increased risk of stroke and cognitive effects. Depressants like Xanax and barbiturates mimic the effects of alcohol on the brain, while opiate use can lead to an increased risk of accidental overdose, and hypoxia.

Addiction and the Body

Alcohol famously tears through the liver. Cocaine and other stimulants attack the heart. Most drugs affect the kidneys.

Heroin and other street drugs are often laced with dangerous or unsanitary products, or injected through shared needles, leading to skin conditions, hepatitis C, and other transmitted diseases.

Tobacco massively increases the risk of lung cancer and throat cancer, while vaping can cause respiratory distress and vape-related health problems.

While the effects of addiction on a person’s psyche are dramatic, the long-term effects on their body can be just as dangerous. Many drugs affect appetite, causing extreme weight loss or weight gain, and an increased risk for metabolic illnesses.

These health conditions put a massive strain on a family’s finances and wellbeing, in addition to cutting lives short.

Addiction and the Home

On the surface level, addiction can lead to dulled or changed decision making, increased irritability, marked changes in personality, lack of focus, hours or days of lost memory, and other forms of cognitive decline. A family member can become lost to the effects of addiction, turning into someone unrecognizable to their loved ones.

Children who see their parents struggle with a substance use disorder are three times more likely to struggle with addiction as they grow up. They are also more likely to suffer physical or emotional abuse as a result of their parent’s addiction. Addiction can affect a child’s mental and emotional development, causing them to struggle to learn and thrive during the most developmentally important years of their life.

Drug use has severe social consequences. Legal troubles, productivity problems at work or school, job instability, expulsion, and even jail time can affect not only one person’s wellbeing and career, but the entire family’s trajectory.

Losing a parent or a child to addiction can weigh heavily on the rest of the family and make it difficult to cope. This can breed strife, resentment, estrangement or abandonment, poisoning the well and collapsing the critical trust between family members.

This is why tackling addiction as a family is crucial.

Tackling Addiction Together

Family therapy is an undervalued and critically important part of the recovery process. While one person is diagnosed with an illness, it’s the whole family who must work together to treat it – even if it’s an adoptive family of close friends and partners, rather than your parents and siblings.

Family therapy can help individuals better understand addiction, learn how to cope with the stress that comes from caring for a loved one with a destructive disorder, and help everyone readjust to a new and complex dynamic.

Psychoeducation, or a learning program revolving around a loved one’s condition, can help individual family members and the patient themselves anticipate the effects of addiction on family ties, and react preemptively.

Addiction tears into trust, rips into a family’s financial stability, and can lead to codependency. Family therapy and psychoeducation help you and your loved ones stick together in recovery, find alternatives, discover healthier ways to cope, and minimize the effects of addiction on your family’s long-term health.