What is addiction and how should the relatives of an addict act?

Addiction is a treatable chronic medical disease that involves complex interactions between brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. It is a multifactorial disease, which implies that it must be treated from different angles, for the treatment to be successful. This treatment should include all the people with a close relationship with the addict, especially their family members.

What is addiction and what kinds of treatments are there?

What is addiction and what kinds of treatments are there?

According to the DSM-5, (a standardized manual that details and classifies mental disorders for the improvement of diagnosis, treatment, and research in the field of psychology and psychiatry) to diagnose substance use disorder should meet two of the following criteria, for 12 months:

  • Dangerous use.
  • Social or interpersonal problems related to consumption.
  • Breach of the main roles due to its consumption.

Not all people who use drugs become addicted. Each person’s brain and body are different, and each organism reacts to drugs differently. If there is a genetic predisposition, there is a greater probability of generating an addiction. There is not a rule of thumb that says how long it will take for a person to become addicted: it can happen quickly or it can take time.

When a person tries an addictive substance for the first time, they may like the way it makes them feel. They also likely think that they can control how much they consume and how often they do it. When it becomes a need to feel good and consumption becomes habitual and this begins to have a negative effect on their social relationships, there is emotional damage in the user or in the people around them, those are signs that an addiction exists.

Anyone can have an addiction, regardless of social class, gender, education, or the type of family in which they grew up. The belief that in dysfunctional families it is more likely that there are people with addiction problems, which implies that in functional families, there are no such problems, is very far from reality. Addiction is a disease that appears in anyone, at any time in their life, regardless of their education, their support system, or the family in which they grew up.

What should the relatives of addicted people do?

Family members of addicts generally feel very distressed, stigmatized, and excluded. It takes them a lot of work and time to understand that there is a problem and a lot more time to ask for help for the addict and for themselves.

We must understand that addiction is a chronic, degenerative and fatal disease, if it is not treated. As family members we must identify when there really is an addiction to any type of substance or behavior and be aware that our family member needs help. Addicts are not bad people, they do not want to hurt themselves or others, they have a disease and need treatment.

Addiction is a disease and as such must be diagnosed and treated. Generally, the focus of attention is on the addict and the family is left aside, so that they wait passively for the addict to recover and return everything to normal. We must bear in mind that addiction affects the whole family and they must also receive help to understand, accept, heal and forgive.

What kind of help should addicts’ families receive?

The families of addicts undergo major changes in all their relationships. Family roles change and are distorted, the tranquility of the home does not seem to exist and permanent conflicts are generated between all members related to addiction.

Family members of addicts should receive professional, individual and / or family counseling and attend support groups. There they will understand what addiction is, what types of addiction exist, how the brain of addicts works, how they relate to others and most importantly, what changes must be made to be able to accompany their relatives in a healthy and balanced way.

When we observe in our child / partner / siblings or parents, unusual behaviors, different from those they always have, such as aggressiveness or a lot of passivity, changes in their eating and sleeping habits prolonged and without explanation, non-compliance with social and /or and house rules, when we talk to them and nothing works, we must begin to ask ourselves if there is something else behind these behaviors.

We must get advice from a professional to clarify our doubts and receive some kind of guidance.

Once the problem is identified, what should we do?

The first thing is to talk to our family members and explain that they need help from a specialized person with experience in addictions. In some cases it is necessary to make an intervention with a specialist, this is the one who helps understand the situation and start a treatment.

An intervention is a carefully planned process that can be performed by family and friends, with the advice of a physician or a professional such as a certified drug and alcohol counselor, or led by an intervention professional.

During the intervention, these people come together to confront the addict about the consequences of the addiction and ask him or her to accept treatment.

There are several ways to treat addiction:

  • External accompaniment: Psychological therapy.
  • Assistance to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups. There are groups all over the world.
  • Semi-interned in a rehabilitation center.
  • A rehabilitation center.

Once the treatment has started, the relatives of the addicts must also carry out a therapeutic follow-up to understand the process that their family member is doing and thus understand this disease. This family process includes a broad learning about addiction, the different substances and their effects on the brain and at an emotional level; norms and limits in the relationships between other subjects.

Additionally, family members need help for themselves, to heal relationships, learn to set limits, reorganize roles within the family, heal guilt, and forgive.

Addiction generates codependency in many of the members of the family group; in the case of children, there is usually one or both of the parents who are codependent. In the case of an addicted husband or wife, there is codependency in the couple and in the case of the parents, some children create codependency with their addicted mother or father.

The codependent is the one who dedicates themselves to caring for and “saving” the person with addiction, becoming obsessively involved in the situations and problems of the addicted family member, frustrated by repeated failures (relapses), acquiring characteristics and behaviors as abnormal as that of the addict. The codependent can lose control of their own life and its limits, investing all their energy in the addict, leading to self-neglect and the weakening of their own identity, unbalancing in the personal, family, work and social areas and getting involved to the point of living for the addict.

In addition to individual and family therapy, some people in the family can benefit from codependent support groups.

This process is similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous process, it is called CoDA Codependents Anonymous, where relationships are worked in a 12-step process. CoDA is not only attended by relatives of addicts, CoDA is a program designed to learn how to have healthy relationships. There are CoDA groups around the world, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

In addiction there is hope. There are several success stories where addicts go into recovery. Being a chronic disease there is no cure, but with the right tools, constant support and family work, it is possible to lead an absolutely normal life, with healthy relationships and a full life.

If you have a family member with addiction problems, take the first step to receive guidance and support in the process, to begin to have a calmer life, with healthy relationships.

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Natalia Trujillo Pabón
Psicóloga, Terapeuta Sistémica, con más de 20 años de experiencia con pacientes con diferentes tipos de necesidades que se presentan a lo largo de la vida.
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