The 4 Themes of Living With an Addict or Alcoholic
So often, addiction is discussed as an illness that causes difficulty for only the one addicted. Yet time has shown that addiction is a family disease, and the entire family is impacted by the addicted person’s thoughts and actions.
Living with an addict presents unusual circumstances and situations for the other family members in the home. Rarely do people expect to find themselves dealing with an addicted loved one, and they are therefore woefully unprepared to support them while protecting themselves and their family.
In this Article:
You Are Not Alone
If you are living with an addict, living with an addicted spouse, or an addicted child, please know that you are not alone. Survey data show that about 1 in 8 children in the U.S. lives in a home with a parent who uses illegal drugs and/or alcohol.1 In addition to adults misusing substances, within recent years, studies show an increasing rate of family members under the age of 18 also developing an addiction to drugs, alcohol, and especially the internet and cell phones.
Those statistics may then help to normalize your thoughts and feelings surrounding the one addicted in the home. At times you may feel as if you are misinterpreting, becoming overly suspicious, or overreacting to various situations. Yet, so many others are experiencing the same difficulties as you while living with someone who is addicted, therefore validating your experiences.
Four Themes of Living with an Addict
When there is addiction in the home, four themes develop among the family unit. These themes are a natural progression from initial awareness of the addiction to readiness for change. These four things are:
- Grieving the loss
- Living in dread and despair
- Living in perpetual crisis
- Mitigating the impact of addiction in the family2
Grieving the Loss
These four themes are a clear reflection of the pain experienced when living with a loved one who has an addiction. Grieving the loss of a loved one with an addiction is the first theme, as the addiction itself can cause such a drastic shift in the personality behaviors of your loved one, that it may feel as if they are completely gone.2
Living in Dread and Despair
Living in dread and despair is the next theme. As the awareness of the addiction takes hold, family members may live in constant fear that their loved one will die from their addiction, causing panic attacks and chronic anxiety.2
Living in Perpetual Crises
Family members of those struggling with addiction also experience perpetual crises. With this theme, family members report their constant struggle of maintaining some semblance of normalcy in the home, despite the rampant addictive behaviors.2
Mitigating the Impact of Addiction
The last theme is mitigating the impact of addiction in the family. Here, we begin to see a transition into full acceptance of the addiction and motivation for change. When the family unit has arrived at this point, we begin to see family members’ resiliency and determination to support their loved one and save them from their addiction.2
Addiction Impacts the Whole Family
Yes, addiction is a family disease in many ways. There is no way to be living in a home with an individual who is addicted without others becoming impacted.
Addiction can impact the entire family unit in the following ways:2
- Everyday life
- Physical health
- Social relationship
- Family relationships
- Family roles
- Family rituals
- Family routines
- Mental health
Anger and Violence
Family life is always impacted when living with those who have an addiction. As addiction progresses, the one addicted will show a marked difference in attitude, communication, and behavior.3 It is also not unusual for there to be an increased level of anger and violence in the home, possibly leading to emotional and physical abuse.2
Many children living in a home with an addicted parent will also experience maltreatment, neglect, and abuse. These experiences can contribute to psychological damage and make those children more vulnerable to their own substance use in the future.2
Marital distress may also result from addiction in the home, potentially leading to the separation of parents. Marital issues may stem from the above-mentioned misuse, as well as other behaviors that result from the addiction, such as lying, hiding, and stealing money and belongings. Legal issues are also common when dealing with an addiction, adding additional stress to the family unit and those attempting to help the one addicted.2
Behavioral and Mental Stress
All these things may cause other family members to suffer some behavioral changes. Chronic stress from dealing with a loved one who is addicted can also lead to unhealthy coping tools and harmful physical effects. Mental health issues may result from loving someone who is addicted and attempting to manage their addiction. Depression, anxiety, worry, guilt, and shame are common experiences for those family members living with someone who is addicted.2
It is here, then, that we see a great need to assist the family unit in living and working with the ones they love and helping them to seek recovery.
How to Cope When Living With an Addict
Family members are encouraged to seek out necessary self-care practices while coping with a loved one who has an addiction. These can include:
- Addiction education
- Emotional detachment
- Discontinuation of enabling
- Individual counseling sessions
- Family counseling sessions
- Community and social supports
Education around addiction is always recommended for family members when loving someone who is addicted. A better understanding of what causes addiction, understanding that addiction is a disease and not a choice,3 as well as ways to better manage your loved one’s addiction, can all help family members cope healthily.
Emotional detachment from the behavior of the one addicted is of prime importance when beginning to support your loved one. Please know that your loved one’s behavior is not who they are while they are active in their addiction. Those behaviors are the disease of addiction talking, not your loved one.3
Addiction has a powerful effect on the thoughts and actions of the one addicted. The behaviors you see are not coming from your beloved spouse or the child you raised and loved. Those behaviors are coming from the addiction.3
Addiction is the enemy, not your loved one.3
Once the separation of addiction behavior from your loved one is established, it is easier to accomplish emotional detachment and stop enabling.
Enabling is a common reaction of family members when attempting to help a loved one with an addiction. However, enabling does not help the one addicted, but actually furthers their addiction and the addictive behavior.
Enabling is anything that you may be doing that encourages and supports the addiction or the addicted behavior.4 This can include:
- Justifying their behaviors
- Lying for them
- Stealing for them
- Hiding their addiction
- Taking the blame for them
- Offering money and resources
- Rescuing them5
Enabling provides an unstable environment for the emotional growth of the family members and the one addicted. Rather than addressing the addiction at hand, family members tend to dismiss it and pretend as if it does not exist. Seeing this family response, the one addicted will begin to assume that their addiction is not a big deal and does not impact the family unit.6
Enabling a loved one with an addiction is an understandable reaction. It is difficult to believe that the one you love is suffering so greatly with such a strong disease. Still, it is crucial for their well-being and the family unit that the enabling behaviors are stopped and recovery support sought.
Recovery support is essential for your loved one with an addiction and the family unit as a whole. Part of the self-care component of living with and loving someone with an addiction is individual and family counseling sessions.
Individual counseling sessions are a wonderfully safe place for you to process your thoughts and feelings around your loved one’s addiction. If you find yourself struggling with grief, anxiety, or depression due to your loved one’s addiction, a professional counselor can help you process those feelings in a healthy way and possibly offer additional medication to help you manage symptoms.
Family counseling sessions are another excellent way to begin the healing process in the family. These family sessions can begin without the one struggling with addiction and simply be the others in the family unit.
This is a great step in healing so that everyone can speak about their experience of the loved one’s addiction. Boundaries around the addiction can be discussed and established in preparation for the return home.
When you feel ready and safe, the one struggling with addiction can be included in the family sessions. This is a crucial step in the recovery process, as the one struggling with an addiction should be aware of the impact they had on the others in the home. They should also be made aware of the proper boundaries that will be established, so they can prepare themselves and their life choices to respect and meet the needs of the other family members.
If your loved one with alcohol addiction is an intimate partner, consider couples therapy.
In addition to individual and family counseling sessions, please seek out community support. Some groups meet for the sole purpose of helping one another love and support an individual with an addiction. This community support can prove pivotal to you and your family’s healing.
Lean on the support of your community members who have also walked the same steps. They can offer you beautiful friendships so you don’t need to walk this journey alone.
If you find yourself struggling to find the right starting point for this support, please call 800-839-1686Who Answers? for additional guidance. We are here and eager to help you and your loved ones, so you can move from living with an addict to living with an addict in recovery.
- Lipari, R.N., & Van Horn, S.L. (2017). Children living with parents who have a substance use disorder. The CBHSQ Report. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.
- Maina, G., Ogenchuk, M., Phaneuf, T., & Kwame, A. (2021). “I can’t live like that”: the experience of caregiver stress of caring for a relative with substance use disorder. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy, 16(1), 11.
- Lüscher, C. (2016). The emergence of a circuit model for addiction. Annu Rev Neurosci, 8(39), 257-76.
- Rotunda, J., & Doman, K. (2001). Partner enabling of substance use disorders: Critical review and future directions. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 29(4), 257-270.
- Lancer, D. (2017). Living with an addict – alcoholic. Global Journal of Addiction & Rehabilitation Medicine, 2(2), 23-24.
- Seldin N. (1972). The family of the addict: A review of the literature, International Journal of the Addictions, 7(1), 97-107.