Addiction is a Family Disease

Addiction does not just affect the person who uses the drug or alcohol but can cause upheaval and chaos in lives of their loved ones. Family and friends can experience depression and anxiety, anger and powerlessness as they face what appears to be an ongoing crisis of health versus illness. This can be an all-consuming issue in this support person’s life, decreasing their quality of life.

Family and friends may try to “fix” their loved one in order to prevent continued use, increasingly bigger problems and to end their own misery. Fixing behaviors includes:

  • forcing someone into treatment when they are not ready
  • allowing them to violate your boundaries in order to keep them safe
  • policing their actions to enforce sobriety

Family and friends can get stuck in a cycle of fixing … and then feeling resentful when this fixing doesn’t work or is not appreciated.


Practicing good self-care is just as essential for a loved one’s recovery as it is for the addicted person.

Self-care can include talking to friends, seeing a therapist or attending a support group. Below are ways to practice good self-care, overcoming common barriers so you can move towards healthiness.

Get help for yourself!

Though this disorder initially only affected your loved one, it has become a problem in your life now and we must address how to best help you cope. Like anyone facing adversarial circumstances, we can grow from these intense experiences. However, shame associated with addiction, can act as a barrier to letting others assist in desperate times. This is a barrier to both the addicted person and the family.

It’s not your fault!

Your response may be one of anger or intense sadness as you ask yourself questions such as “What could I have done to prevent this?” and “Why don’t they love me more than the drug?” Family members may resist help or connection with others if they fear hearing that they caused this problem. As Al-Anon Family Groups (a support group for loved ones of those with addiction) counsels, remember that addiction is a disease and is not caused, controlled or cured by love or involvement from the family.

Connect with others.

You are not alone. This is a common disease that affects people regardless of status, race or gender. Twelve step support groups, such as Al-Anon Family Groups, are able to provide information and guidance for family and friends of those with addiction. Pine Rest Addiction Services also offers a Family Recovery Group, designed to assist family and friends of addicts in connecting with others going through similar circumstances while learning more about the disease.


There is hope!

Fear of this disease can lead people to assume that they or their loved one cannot get better; however, those struggling with addiction and their families can recover from the effects of substance use disorders. Hard won sobriety can be maintained by prioritizing recovery activities (such as therapy, support groups and strong relationships with healthy, sober individuals) for both the addicted person and the family.

The rewards—which include a better understanding on chronic illness and a renewed sense of well-being, renewed connection and self-confidence—are worth the work.

Addiction is a disease that cannot be cured by a family member’s love or attention.

Just as we treat cancer or diabetes, we must begin to see addiction as a medical disorder that affects thinking, behavior and, consequently, relationships and overall life health. With any other disease we seek help, connection and answers to gain understanding and to manage our emotions. The disease of addiction can be treated in the same way, allowing both the addicted person and their loved ones relief and hope.


Stacey Williamson Nichols, LMSW, CAADC is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) and is also a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CAADC) with more than 10 years of experience in the social work field. She received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Grand Valley State University.

Stacey’s experience includes working in the areas of domestic violence, childhood abuse and neglect and its effect in adulthood, chronic mental illness, substance use and dual diagnosis. Areas of expertise include work with several disorders – mood, anxiety, co-occurring, trauma and personality.

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