I have never met a person, who purposely set out to become addicted, create chaos in their lives and hurt the people closest to them. People get hooked on lots of things, alcohol, prescription drugs, street drugs, gambling, porn sites, video games, even sex and love. As the world evolves, so do new addictive behavours. People are curious, they want to experience things, they want to change the way they feel and get some relief from the stressors in their lives. No one expects to fall into a trap even if forewarned. Once trapped, it is difficult to escape and there are many reasons why.
One of the biggest reasons is that once hooked, the person’s brain changes, their central nervous system changes, their behaviour changes, and if they try to stop their body will physically and psychologically revolt. So it is not simply a matter of ‘just stopping’. When the addict hears “if you loved me and the family enough, you would stop’, they can’t.
Family members may be living with an addict for years, particularly with alcohol, prescription drugs and street drugs like marijuana and hash. If the problem is cocaine or crack it is likely a few years. However, families may be the last to know if the addiction is gambling, or video lottery terminals (VLT’s). They might find out when they get a call from the bank reporting that the account is empty, credit cards are maxed out and the family home is mortgaged to the hilt or gone.
Living with an addicted person or being a friend of one is very stressful. It’s very hard to have a relationship with someone who lies to you, minimizes the problem, or blames you when you bring up their addiction. When your partner or friend gets drunk at a party and is an embarrassment, you may not be invited back. If you are, it is easier to make an excuse not to go. Either way, the result is you start losing friends and become more and more isolated.
Spouses and kids can have trouble focusing at work or school because they are preoccupied. Will dad be coming home tonight, what state will he be in, will there be another fight. While at work, will there be a phone call from your child that says “Daddy, mommy is asleep on the kitchen floor, what do I do. I haven’t had anything to eat”?
Inside the home, promises are broken over and over again. Family members are disappointed and hurt over and over again. Grocery money has already been spent on the addiction. Friends are not invited over because no one knows what to expect.
Each family member may react differently to the stress of living with an addict. A partner may cover-up the problem, make excuses and even call into work to say the addict has the flu when the addict is actually still at the casino, lying on the floor hung over or sitting at the computer play video games. Protecting the job is important.
One child may be the scholar or the athlete; trying to bring something into the family to be proud of. Another may criticize the addict and get into confrontations that can be scary for everyone. One may become the clown or jokester, trying to deflect the problem and lighten things up. Another may start acting out and getting into trouble at school, skipping classes, failing, hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Every family member is affected when there is an addiction in the family. They will react to the addict and to one another. Families become trapped too. Life can go on for years covering-up, trying to cope, living in fear and eventually another family member becomes sick or breaks down.
There is help for families. You do not have to live this way. It is possible to break the pattern.
If even one family member begins to change and acts differently, all the other family members will start to respond in a new way. Things can start to get better. When family members and friends come together and share their concerns about the addicted person, they can become a powerful force in getting the addict help. It is called Intervention. It is scary to do, but it is effective.
M. Linda Bell
Chief Executive Officer – Bellwood Health Services