Addiction and Family Members Heath: Research shows that the link between an addict's or alcoholic's behavior and the negative impact it has on the family members can result in devastating health issues. I have my own experience with this issue as I am in family recovery as well as being in recovery from my own alcoholism.
I have also met and worked with hundreds of families over the years working in the field of addiction as a counselor and being involved in the recovery advocacy movement. It doesn't affect every family member's health the same. There can be various levels of impact based on a family member's framework and their own history. For some, being caught in a loved one's web of addiction is a very debilitating experience and even life threatening.
It is a very difficult process to determine what to do to, how much to do and when to take action or be a support to a loved one when they suffer from addiction. Finding out what the difference between helping and enabling is can be a daunting task. Helping someone is doing something for them that they cannot do for themselves, while enabling someone is doing something for them that they should be doing for themselves.
Because the nature of addiction is characterized by dysfunctional thinking and behavior it can play on our emotions and as family members we might react out of guilt, pity or fear. Anger is also a major emotion that can plague family members while they try to work with the person suffering from dependency. We, in turn, can become 'addicted to the addict' in a self-destructive pattern of reacting and neglecting our other family members and ourselves. It can consume us.
One of ways addiction can wreak such havoc on a family member's health is that it causes tremendous stress. When the body is under stress it produces cortisol, often referred to as the 'stress hormone'. It is one of the main hormones released by the adrenal gland in response to stress which can elevate blood pressure and prepare the body for a fight or flight response. This is normal and even vital to our well-being and functioning. The problem occurs when the stress is constant and the body does not return to normal and balanced levels of functioning. When the body signals ongoing stress and continually pumps cortisol throughout our system it can be detrimental to our health.
In Dr. Shawn Talbott's book The Coritsol Connection, he states "that because our bodies were meant to deal only with immediate short-term exposure to stress hormones, this chronic long-term exposure to cortisol can quickly lead to breakdowns in the body's metabolic control systems. Most of the problems associated with elevated cortisol levels have their origins in a disrupted metabolism, causing elevations in blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, reduced sex drive, severe fatigue and body-fat levels which can result in accelerated weight gain. Left untreated, these conditions can lead to truly 'ugly' problems such as muscle and bone loss, immune-system breakdown, and brain shrinkage."
Many family members, most notably parents or spouses, who are directly engaged with an addict/alcoholic over an extended period can end up physically deteriorating in much the same way the addict is affected by their usage. I have worked with family members who suffer from insomnia, depression, stomach problems, many aches and pains throughout the body, preoccupation with the loved one's life leading to enmeshment and a profound sense of hopelessness.
When I was about 3 years sober when it was recommended that I take a 'leave of absence' from my job because I was unable to concentrate and maintain my focus due to my preoccupation of a family member's addiction. I was angry and fearful most days and spent countless hours dwelling on the problem. A sense of impending doom always seemed to be on the horizon.
Getting into family recovery and discovering that I had codependency and was responsible for dealing with it was no easy task. I needed to learn where the lines where between myself and the other person were and how to manage my emotions. I began the painful and difficult process of pulling the focus off of them and putting it onto myself. Joining a support group that helped me sort out this out was very helpful. One of the first questions they asked me was "How will YOU be if this person never decides to quit?" In the beginning, I could not answer that question.
I still have concerns about the health of family members who are in active addiction, but today I can answer that question... I will be just fine! I can love them, offer support and have clear boundaries which I maintain. The disease of addiction not only affects the addict, but many people around them. I am grateful today I know how to take responsibility for my life and do what I need to do in order to be healthy and enjoy my life. There is hope and there is help.
Angie Carter, CRADC, SAP is a certified reciprocal alcohol and drug counselor and DOT certified Substance Abuse Professional. She is in private practice at Carter Counseling and Consulting Services. Angie is available for telephone coaching and/or consultation. Click here to contact Angie with appointment requests, questions, or feedback.