According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
“Our nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic.”
Opioid abuse and dependency and opioid overdose death rates are skyrocketing. This latest spike in opioid addiction and deaths are the next evolution of the widespread chronic disease of addiction. It’s scary.
Addiction, including this opioid epidemic, is ripping the hearts out of families all across the nation. Why? Because when someone we love suffers, we suffer right along with them. This is the nature of love, particularly as it relates to those who we consider our ‘family’. This rule of familial love is always true no matter what the disease is or which family member suffers.
The effects of substance abuse frequently extend beyond the nuclear family. Extended family members may experience feelings of abandonment, anxiety, fear, anger, concern, embarrassment, or guilt; they may wish to ignore or cut ties with the person abusing substances. Some family members even may feel the need for legal protection from the person abusing substances. Moreover, the effects on families may continue for generations.
Researchers have also identified patterns of interaction that are prevalent in families where the disease of addiction has manifested. Patterns include negativity, parental inconsistency, denial, expressions of anger, and self-medication. These patterns are highly understandable given the fear generated when someone we love suffers and we don’t know what to do or how to respond.
The research and information in this area sometimes perpetuate the myth that those who suffer from addiction come from ‘bad’ families—this is simply not true. The truth is individuals who manifest with the disease of addiction come from all types of families. In my work with many families over many years, I have found that it is incredibly unproductive to try to figure out how and why someone suffers from the chronic brain disease of addiction. The factors contributing to why one person manifests and another does not are complicated and highly individual. However, what is productive is to discuss what family members can do once they realize there is a concern.
3 key points to dealing with addiction
If you have a family member who has an addiction, these 3 points can help you.
Understand that addiction is not your fault and you are not alone
Many of us understand what it is like to love someone who suffers. We also have asked ourselves if it is our fault. These are natural feelings that are part of the process of understanding what is happening to our family. All of us know what it is like to feel afraid and overwhelmed—these are universal feelings. When you begin to understand that you are not alone and this disease is not your fault, you are better positioned to move forward and reach out for help.
Reach out for help for yourself
Family members need to find the courage to reach out for help for themselves and learn how to offer recovery support to their loved one. Without you being well and having a plan of self-care and/or recovery, it will be difficult to know how to help your family member. There may be many extended family members and friends who can and will give you needed comfort and support. There are recovery fellowships, church communities, and therapeutic groups who can offer needed direction. These professionally trained counselors and therapists have worked with hundreds of families, and they can help you calm the fear and chaos so you can determine the best choices and best steps to make.
Learn to be proactive instead of reactive
If you can understand you are not alone and addiction is not your fault, as you reach out for help, you will learn to be proactive instead of reactive. We react when we feel stressed, emotionally upset, and afraid. It takes time and energy to learn to stay in the moment, to be present in the now, and to engage in good self-care. As you acquire these new coping skills, you will be more proactive in dealing with the addiction that your loved one is fighting and you will be able to understand the position your loved is in as well. To be proactive means to be emotionally prepared in order to anticipate problems and ready to adapt and adjust to change.
Nothing about loving someone who suffers from addiction is easy. The above suggestions can certainly help. As far as the opioid epidemic is concerned, we, as a nation, need to recognize we are not alone.
The help needs to come from community and governmental agencies being proactive and making Naloxone, the life-saving opioid analgesic, more readily available for all emergency overdose situations. We also need to provide access to treatment for all those who need and desire it. We need to remember, we are in this together.
Thomas G. Kimball, PhD
Thomas G. Kimball, Ph.D., LMFT, is the George C. Miller Family Regents Professor at Texas Tech University and the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities. Dr. Kimball has been part of the MAP team since 2012 and serves as Clinical Director, where he oversees and consults on the implementation of extended recovery modalities, techniques, and practices on individuals who undergo treatment for Substance Use Disorder (SUD).
He has received numerous teaching awards for his courses on families, addiction, & recovery. He is the author of several peer-reviewed articles on addiction and recovery in respected medical journals, a frequent contributor to leading addiction and recovery publications online, and co-authored the book,
Six Essentials to Achieve Lasting Recovery, by Hazelden Press.
In addition to consulting and presenting on recovery-related issues across the U.S. and internationally, he frequently writes articles pertaining to emerging addiction recovery data, recovery techniques and modalities, the science behind addiction, the addiction crisis, and long term treatment for the chronic disease of addiction.
Dr. Kimball has made the focus of his career studying collegiate and long term addiction recovery by focusing on factors that enhance long term recovery and improve the treatment industry at a local, national, and international level. Follow him @drtomkimball