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Addiction - A Family Illness

Addiction is a complex issue that not only affects the addict but also has a profound and prolific impact on the people closest to them. Viewing addiction in the context of the family systems acknowledges that the addiction is not an isolated problem. Rather, it is a systemic one that permeates and influences the entire family. The associated dynamics are intricate and complex and it seems worthwhile to explore that given that it can feel SO confusing and perplexing when trying to navigate your way to recovery.

Addiction throws the equilibrium on a family out of balance. This almost always leads to strained relationships, communication breakdowns, and emotional turmoil. Not just the addict, but everyone close by experiences feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness as they live their loved one's struggle with addiction. Trust is damaged because no one feels they can trust the addict or the reality of addiction. Roles within the family may also shift, often maladaptively, as individuals take up the mantle to enable, caretake, or to become scapegoats as they try to adapt and cope with the chaos caused by addiction.

A prevalent dynamic in addicted family systems is Codependency. Codependent family members often prioritize the needs of the individual struggling with addiction over their own well-being, or that of the system. It is an instinctual reaction to a chaotic problem. Unfortunately, this only ends up enabling the destructive behavior to persist cyclically. This behavior comes from the felt sense of need to maintain harmony within the family and, unfortunately, this is the stuff families get stuck in. Understanding the roles of codependency and enabling is of paramount importance top recovery.

Recognizing the impact of addiction on family systems is a worthwhile step towards cultivating healing and recovery. Seeking help through therapy or support groups can provide a safe space for family members to express their emotions, gain insights into addiction dynamics, and develop healthy coping strategies. Family therapy can help improve communication, redesign systemic goals, rebuild trust, and establish boundaries – all of which are components of meaningful recovery.

For people in families who are in support roles, engaging in self-care activities is non-negotiable. This means giving yourself permission to be your own top priority when you can. Simple things like exercise, therapy, 12 step groups like ALANON, and other self nurturing activities can change the game. By prioritizing self-care, family members can strengthen their resilience and better support their loved one through the recovery journey.

Addiction is not just a disease of the addict – it is a disease of the family. So, doesn’t it make sense to treat the whole family and not just the addict? If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction in any way and needs support or information, don’t hesitate to reach out! No matter how bad it has gotten, remember: Recovery is Possible!


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2018). A family guide to substance abuse and mental health services. Retrieved from

Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: From theory to practice. Social work in public health, 28(3-4), 194-205. doi: 10.1080/19371918.2013.759005

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