When you learn that someone you love is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it can be devastating and overwhelming. It can sometimes feel like the person you used to know has died and in their place is a stranger. You may feel that you don’t recognize this person anymore. Whether it is your child or a spouse who drinks until they pass out, your loved one is not who they used to be. You may wonder where your loved one has gone.
Although there are those who come from families where there has been addiction to substances, there are many families where there hasn’t been direct firsthand experience with addiction. Lots of families feel blindsided by a child or spouse who has become addicted to substances.
Many people dealing with addiction in their family don’t fully understand the disease of addiction.
Addiction impacts not only the person suffering from substance use disorder, but everyone else in their life. You may find yourself wondering “Why Don’t They Just Quit?” which is also the title of a helpful book by Joe Herzanek.
Why does addiction cause grief?
Watching a loved one who succumbs to addiction can resemble a major loss, which can bring up lots of feelings. These feelings may include the Stages of Grief which were first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
Denial and Isolation
Just like grieving the death of a loved one, we can feel a similar loss when a loved one becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Often the first reaction is denial, which is a defense mechanism designed to protect us. To face and acknowledge the addiction can feel frightening and overwhelming. Denying what is going on is tempting, because if we address it, now we have to do something about it, and we don’t know how our loved one will react.
When we’re experiencing denial, we don’t know how to engage our loved one so they will consider treatment. We shut down and deny the reality of what’s going on. We may overlook certain behaviors and make excuses for our loved one.
Denial can feel comfortable because it is easier than facing the problem of addiction.
What does denial about addiction look like?
- Rationalizing the behavior of a loved one (“She has a stressful job.”)
- Making excuses (“It isn’t that bad.”)
- Accepting excuses (“He overslept.”)
- Never believing they have a serious problem (“They’re still working.”)
Anger and Guilt
It’s not uncommon to hear questions like these from families dealing with addiction:
- “Why my son?”
- “Why my wife?”
- “Why us?”
- “Why me?”
When a family finally acknowledges the reality of a loved one’s addiction and moves past denial, the feelings of anger and guilt can become unmanageable.
Some family members more readily move into anger, which can then become aimed at the person experiencing addiction. When we feel angry about a loved one’s addiction, we may feel resentful or have trouble controlling our temper. We might resent how the addiction impacts us and the entire family. While anger is understandable, angry outbursts can often leave us feeling guilty. Feeling guilty can start a vicious cycle that leads to us getting angry all over again.
Addiction brings chaos. Lots of times, the way people react to addiction is them trying desperately to regain a sense of control.
Just like a family member might try to provide support to a loved one suffering from a chronic illness, some folks react from a place of love and commitment to help. Unfortunately, sometimes family members’ behaviors can be misconstrued as loving too much, or not in the right way, or for selfish reasons, as outlined in Robert Weiss’ book Prodependence.
Addiction can create a sense of helplessness and a loss for what to do. Family members can resort to desperate attempts to maintain control without realizing that there aren’t any real changes occurring.
Instead of admitting our loved one needs true professional help, we bargain by looking for ways to avoid the problem and feel trapped by our sense of guilt.
Guilt around addiction keeps family members held hostage with thoughts like these:
- “If only I had been a better wife.”
- “If only I had been a better mom.”
- “I should have given my child a better childhood.”
Family members can try to make deals with their loved one to stop their using behavior. The problem with bargaining, unfortunately, is that it doesn’t work.
Sadness and hopelessness can overtake family members of a loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol. In our grief, we can stay focused on how we have neglected to care for our loved one in the way they needed us. We may also worry that we have neglected others who need and depend on us.
The depression that folks feel about their family member’s addiction is often made worse by the fear of the possibility of the death of the person they love.
While the stage of depression can be extremely painful, it can mark a turning point of truly surrendering to reality. We understand that we didn’t cause this addiction. We know that we cannot control this addiction, and we cannot cure it. We no longer blame ourselves, others or our loved one for what’s going on. We come to understand the nature of the disease of addiction and what it means.
Once family members can reach a place of acceptance, they are able to more readily address the problem. Every family is different however, and not everyone is able to reach this point. Drug and alcohol addiction can be so blinding to family members that they may never reach a point where they can see beyond their anger or denial.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that everything is okay and we feel happy. Rather, it means that we have the opportunity to make our peace and learn to engage in self-care. This might seem counterintuitive for those who love a family member addicted to substances. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you approve of what’s going on. Acceptance just means that you’re no longer struggling against reality. It’s about making things easier for yourself as much as possible.
Grieving over a loved one who is in active addiction is a process that takes time, support, and self-acceptance for you. It is critical to take care of yourself during times of emotional distress, and cultivating acceptance can help give you some sense of peace.
It is possible for things to change. Family members can learn how to positively engage their loved one into treatment. They can learn how to reinforce the non-using behaviors as well as learn to stop reinforcing the addictive behaviors.
Remember, there are many who do recover from drug and alcohol addiction. There is help available for you and your loved one.
Loving someone through addiction can be a painful process.
Though the experience is different for every family, you may experience the stages of grief as you acknowledge the problem head on. Something to keep in mind is that the stages of grief aren’t always experienced in order. You may feel you’ve moved through one stage, and then experience a setback that leaves you feeling that same way again. You might go back and forth between stages, or feel more than one stage at a time. Whatever you’re feeling, try to give yourself lots of compassion. What you’re dealing with is incredibly difficult, and you’re doing the best you can.
If you or someone you love is dealing with addiction, it’s okay to ask for help. Our Centennial counselors can be a source of support for you as you navigate life with addiction.