Addiction is a Family Disease
Around treatment centers and places of recovery, like AA meetings and Al-Anon, the term Family Disease can be heard with frequency. The people around the addict or alcoholic sometimes take offense to this vernacular; after all, it's not their own using or drinking that is destroying the family. Nonetheless, addiction is a disease that affects the entire family, and treatment is most effective when applied holistically, which means treating the family.
Prior to getting sober, I remember a particular night I didn't come home until 2:00 am; when I walked through the front door my wife was waiting for me, and she was stark-raving mad. The fight that ensued culminated in her screaming and breaking pictures off the walls. She was neither a drinker nor a drug user, but my addict behavior had provoked such a negative reaction from her; even by her own admission, she had become sick. I left for treatment a few days after my daughter's second birthday and she has no recollection of me in active addiction, but my disease has still affected her.
It's not uncommon for me to hear a man getting sober say his wife's father is an alcoholic, or his father is an alcoholic or his grandfather was an alcoholic, or that alcoholism has pervaded his entire family system, going back generations. I frequently ask men during an intervention if they want their daughter marrying an alcoholic, or your son becoming an alcoholic. The answer, of course, is always no, to which I respond, then you better get sober, because that's exactly what's going to happen if you don't break the cycle.
Several years after getting sober I was at the annual Betty Ford Center alumni reunion speaking with Jerry Moe the director of the Center's renown children's program, and he asked me if my daughter attended the children's program; I said no, she was only two years old when I was here as a patient, she effectively has never seen me drunk. Jerry's immediate response was, so she doesn't live with an alcoholic now? I knew exactly what he was getting at, just because my daughter never saw me drink doesn't mean she hasn't been exposed to the disease. Children of addicts inherit a genetic predisposition of becoming addicts themselves whether their parent continued drinking until they left home for college or got sober years before they were born. This is predisposition is compounded in families where both parents are addicts; in recovery or not.
Because addiction is a family disease, good treatment programs have a family program and insist on the participation of the immediate family or anyone living under the same roof as the addict. Sometimes this extends to the parents and siblings of adult patients who have their own family. Who participates in the family program is determined upon individual circumstances. At the time I went to treatment, my daughter was too young to attend the family program or the children's program, now at 16 she would attend family with the adults if I were getting sober today. These programs are intended to help family members work through the chaos they may have experienced, learn to set healthy boundaries, and rebuild trusting relationships. Some programs are 2 to 5 days long depending on the treatment center, and attendance is during your addict's inpatient stay. Part of the program is just family members followed by some interaction between the family and the addict. Family members can find a lot of comfort meeting others with similar experiences; it makes you realize you're not alone. At the same time, a family program can be scary as you may be coming face to face with your addict since they left home. This can bring up emotions that have been suppressed or emotions you have not processed. Sometimes secrets are revealed, like the unknown, criminal charges, issues with money, situations involving other people, although the treatment center counselors caution against dropping any bombs on either family member or the patient. If something threatening has to be admitted, the counselor will arrange a private meeting and support.
Now that you're thinking there's no way I am doing this, try to remember, these programs wouldn't exist if they did more harm than good. Everybody is fearful of what's going to happen; the addict and family alike. Quite honestly, my experience with my wife in a family program wasn't good, but it was needed, and who would have of guessed that one year later, it was my wife who brought a cake to AA so we could celebrate my one year anniversary. That one year made a remarkable difference in both our lives. If you are struggling with addiction in your family, I hope knowing my story gives you some comfort.