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How Alcohol Addiction Affects Families


An addiction to alcohol has devastating consequences not only for the affected individual but also for those closest to the addict. In fact, addiction is often referred to as a family illness because of the impact that it can have on every single member of the unit. It is not very difficult to see how alcohol addiction affects families. When you think of the way that this illness changes the behaviour of the alcoholic, it is easy to understand how other family members can be affected.

Living with someone and caring deeply for them means that you would undoubtedly not want to see that person suffering needlessly. When illness affects a family member, everyone else will be upset and will want to do all they can to help that person. But when that illness is an addiction, it can be trickier.

Most people find it hard to comprehend addiction and the way that it affects the brain of the individual. For those who have never been addicted to a chemical substance, it is difficult to understand why anyone would continue to abuse drugs or alcohol when there are so many negative consequences associated with doing so.

Why Continue Abusing Alcohol When It Causes Negative Consequences?

To understand the reasons why alcoholics continue to abuse this substance when it is obviously causing harm to their own life and the lives of those around them, it is important to consider the changes that occur in the brain.

Family members who live with alcoholics may not realise that their loved one’s continued abuse of alcohol has resulted in structural changes to his or her brain. The billions of neurons in the brain are responsible for everything that we do from eating to breathing to thinking. Neurons are sent to various parts of the body via pathways (synapses), but when alcohol is thrown into the mix, some of the pathways can be damaged or altered, resulting in changes to the person’s behaviour.

The individual may find that his or her alcohol-seeking urges get stronger, to the point where these longings begin to take over and blot out everything else, including family members. The person with the addiction will be powerless to resist the urge to use alcohol and every family member will be relegated to second place.

Family members can find it distressing to see their addicted loved one place alcohol above everything else. They cannot understand why this person is unable to see the damage that his or her actions are causing. From the outside looking in, everything seems so simple; all the addict needs to do is stop drinking and then everything will go back to normal. Unfortunately, it is not so simple for the addict. He or she cannot quit, even when they know that this is the only way to get their lives back on track.

Understanding How Alcohol Addiction Affects Families

It is important to get an understanding of how alcohol addiction affects families to really get a clear picture of the damage that this illness can do. Many people assume that addicts hurt themselves only, and some go so far as to say that those who abuse chemical substances such as alcohol should be left to get on with their addictive behaviour.

Family members know that this is not the case. The actions of an addicted loved one can be devastating for every other member of the family. Most will react in response to the addict’s behaviour in their own way. Some will become angry or frustrated with the affected person while others will feel it is their duty to do all they can to help their addicted loved one overcome this issue. They may even feel guilty or blame themselves for the fact that this individual is addicted.

Relationships between addicts and their family often become very strained. Parents, siblings, spouses, and children are often profoundly affected by a loved one’s addiction, with children often being referred to as the forgotten victims.

It is often the case that young children are left to wonder why their addicted parent is acting in such an unpredictable manner. They are often deemed too young to understand, and non-addicted adults may forget that these kids will be upset as well. Some children will be left feeling confused, alone, and unhappy. Others will blame themselves and believe that they have done something wrong to warrant their addicted parent’s addiction.

Older children often do understand why their parent is acting in the way he or she is and may feel embarrassed or ashamed about it. This can affect their relationships with their peers as some children of alcoholics do not want to make friendships that entail inviting others over to their home. It is common for these kids to become withdrawn and isolated as they try to protect their secret and keep their home life separate from everything else they do.

Younger children who are neglected by an alcoholic parent might end up going to school looking unkempt and dirty, which can result in them being targeted by bullies. These children often suffer lasting emotional issues while some may even go on to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs themselves in later life; after all, it is all they know.

What Is Co-Dependency?

The impact on the wellbeing of family members, and with children in particular, is one that must be discussed when trying to understand how alcohol addiction affects families. But there are other ways in which family members can be negatively affected by this illness. Co-dependency is a frequent problem.

Co-dependency is a common side-effect of addiction that affects the loved ones of the person with the illness. These loved ones frequently become so wrapped up in the person with the addiction that they will change their own behaviour and actions. Their entire life begins to revolve around the addict and they end up being classed as having a dependency of their own – but they are dependent on the addict and not a chemical substance.

Those with co-dependency could start to rationalise the behaviour or the addict or cover up for him or her. They will lie to others about what the addict is doing or why he or she has not arrived for work, for example. They will try to explain away the illness either to protect the addict or because they are trying to hide their own shame and embarrassment.

Some co-dependent spouses might stop socialising with friends and extended family members for fear that their loved one’s addiction will be discovered. Others are afraid that the addict will cause a scene when out and under the influence of alcohol.

Whatever form co-dependency takes, it usually results in a dramatic change of behaviour on the part of the family member. Many will not realise how their actions or life has changed until being forced to take a good look at it. Some will only realise that they are not actually helping their addicted loved one when they really take the time to think about how their own actions have been enabling the addict to continue with their addictive behaviour without being held to account.

How to Get Help for an Addicted Loved One?

If you are a family member or friend of an alcoholic, you will no doubt have a great understanding of how alcohol addiction affects family units. You have already probably tried to get your loved one to seek help for his or her problem to no avail. This is very common. Most addicts will take some time before they are prepared to accept how serious their situation is. Many will need to be issued with an ultimatum before becoming ready to admit to having a problem.

If your loved one is in denial about his or her alcohol problem, it could feel to you that there is not much else that can be done to help. It is true that for an addict to overcome his or her illness he or she will need to want to do it themselves. Family members or friends will be wasting their time trying to force the individual to seek help if he or she is not ready to admit to having a problem, but there is a way to encourage this person to get to that point. This is with a family intervention.

An intervention could well be your best option if your loved one is refusing to admit that he or she is in trouble and needs professional help. This is a process that is designed to help the alcoholic realise that the illness exists and to persuade him or her to accept help.

The process of intervention involves the coming together of a group of individuals who are close to the addict. This may include family members, close friends and even professionals such as a family doctor or clergyman. These members will meet with the addict to explain how the illness has been negatively affecting their lives with the hope that doing so will spur the addict into treatment.

A family intervention is a good idea when an addict has repeatedly refused to accept that the problem exists. If he or she is resistant to the suggestion of help and all other attempts at encouraging him or her to get treatment have failed, this may be viewed as a last resort. The good news is that most family interventions end in a successful outcome.

How to Stage an Intervention?

If you are at the point where you feel your options are running out in terms of getting an addicted loved one into treatment, you should definitely consider an intervention. You can hold this meeting yourself or you can ask a professional interventionist to attend so that he or she can assist with the running of the intervention. A professional interventionist is usually required where there is a fear that the addict may become angry or disruptive during the process.

The participants attending the intervention is an important consideration. You may be tempted to invite all family members and friends, but the best thing to do is think carefully about who the addict is more likely to listen to. For example, there may be some family members who do not get on well with the addict. Having them in attendance could be counterproductive because the addict might be unwilling to listen to anything these individuals have to say.

Only invite those who the addict respects and is close to. Older children could be invited, which, in many ways, could prove to be highly motivational in terms of getting the addict to see how alcohol addiction affects the family. Nevertheless, it might not be a good idea to have young children in attendance.

The meeting can take place in the home of the addict or another family member or even at a neutral venue such as a doctor’s surgery or parish hall. During the meeting, everyone should have an opportunity to tell the addict how he or she feels and how the illness has impacted on his or her life. This is a time to help the addict understand the need for treatment and not an opportunity to berate or judge the person.

If you would like more information on family interventions and how to stage one, please contact us here at Addiction.org.uk. We can also answer any queries you have on all types of addiction and provide advice and information on the treatments available in and around your area.

We are a free referral service that works with various providers of detox and rehabilitation programmes. Please call today for more information about who we are and what we do.

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