The great American novelist, Alex Haley once wrote,

In every conceivable manner, the family is the link to our past, and the bridge to our future.

For many of us, the family connection can be one of the most important elements of our lives. However, for those of us who struggle or have struggled with addiction, the importance of family often gets muted. As the “Big Book” of 12-Step recovery states, “[We are] like a tornado roaring [our] way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted.” However, recovery offers an opportunity to change that, but it must start with educating the family about addiction.

The Reality of Addiction as a Disease

Most people in the professional addiction and mental health care arena now agree that addiction is a disease. It is no longer considered a “moral failing,” “lack of character or will,” or a “behavioral choice.” This misinformation has fallen away to the consensus that addiction is a disease.

According to the article by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Addiction is a chronic relapsing disease that we must treat as we do other such diseases. We do not expect the hearts of patients with heart failure to behave normally — we understand that their function has been altered by disease. Why, then, do we expect the brains of substance abusers to behave normally, since we know that their function has also been altered by disease?” The answer is, of course, that we should not.

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Understanding Addiction as a Chronic Disease

One of the key terms in the aforenoted article is the term “chronic.” Chronic is an important descriptor of addiction because it denotes that it is a progressive disease. Just like those individuals who struggle with physical ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, addiction will almost always only worsen without some type of intervention. 

This intervention may be initiated by a family member, but only if they have some knowledge about what addiction is. Also, this is why educating the family about addiction is so critical.

Educating the Family About Addiction as a “Family Disease”

While not as prominent, there is also a growing consensus in the professional addiction and recovery realm that addiction is also a “family disease.” What this means is that the entire family is negatively affected by one member’s addictive behaviors. These effects can be mental, emotional, and at times even physical.

How Does Culture Play a Role in Recovery Treatment Programs?

The concept of a “family disease” is alluded to in the aforementioned primary text of Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”). In fact, the book is an entire chapter dedicated to the effects that addiction has on the family and acts as a tool to educate both the individual and the family on the strain that addiction inflicts upon them. The chapter is even titled, “The Family Afterwards.”

This chapter reads, “A doctor said to us, ‘Years of living with an alcoholic is almost sure to make any wife or child neurotic. The entire family is, to some extent, ill.’ Let families realize, as they start their journey, that all will not be fair weather. Each in his turn may be footsore and may straggle.” Understanding that the journey will not always be smooth is a big component of educating the family on the challenges of addiction.

Tools for Educating the Family About Addiction: The Importance of a Family Solution

The challenges of addiction for the family may be broken down into three parts:

#1. The sole challenges of the individual.

#2. The challenges that will be exclusively directed at the family.

#3. The challenge of the individual and the family healing from the disease of addiction together.

The individual must first get well before they can have any hope of enlightening the family on their ailment. Now, while this may seem obvious, “well” does not simply mean free from alcohol or substances. “Well” means practicing an active plan in recovery, which has a lot more to do with emotional stability and the actions of reconciliation. Once an individual is ready to work a program of action, then they may be ready to involve the family.

Because addiction is a family disease, it must then be addressed with a “family solution.” A big part of this solution is getting the family help in tandem with the individual. This may include family counseling, therapy, or attendance of family support groups such as Al-Anon. Only when the family and the individual heals separately can there exist any opportunity of effectively healing together. 

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Healing for All at Hawaii Island Recovery

“The Family Afterwards” ends with three maxims that are aimed as guideposts for the family journey in recovery. They are “First things first,” “Live and let live,” and “Easy does it.”

Here at Hawaii Island Recovery, we understand the family nature of addiction, which is why we focus on healing everyone involved, not just the individual. Yes, addiction is a family disease, but overcoming it is also an amazing family accomplishment.

The fact of the matter is that addiction is not only a disease, but it is also a family disease. When managing addiction, there may be certain emotions and beliefs about loved ones managing substance use disorder (SUD). Such emotions can derive from past actions or stigma about addiction. It is crucial to understand the importance of family education and to continue learning about addiction as a disease. There are many effective group family programs that can aid in helping families communicate in a healthier way to learn how to rebuild relationships and work together to manage the challenges of recovery from SUD. For more information about healing the entire family, reach out to Hawaii Island Recovery at (866) 390-5070.