The Tornado of Addiction: Destruction of the Family System
photo credit: mfi-miami.com
Family members and loved ones of addicts often feel like we are going insane. The chaos, worry, regret, fear, anger and confusion that come with caring for someone who is in active drug addiction or alcoholism is too much for most. The insanity is not imagined, but rather all too real.
Most of us find it reasonable to believe that if our alcoholic/addict loved one would just stop drinking or drugging that everything would return to normal. Everything would be fine.
The truth is, once addiction has bloomed into fruition, the whole family is infected with the disease and everyone is showing symptoms. If a family hopes to return (or maybe for some, create for the first time) a healthy state, everyone will have a part to play in the families restoration. Expecting the addict/alcoholic to get healthy and thinking that his or her recovery alone will return/create order and balance to the family system is unrealistic and naive.
Over the years, it has been well documented that addiction causes chemical changes in the brain of the addict. New research studies indicate that these same types of chemical changes happen in the brains of family members and loved ones of alcoholics and addicts too.
"What? I'm not the crazy one!
The addict in my life is the only one going crazy, not me!"
I said the same thing when I was first told to seek recovery for myself.
I was furious and offended that the treatment center counselor
would suggest such a thing.
How dare she! Hadn’t she heard me in the family sessions
when I told her about my daughter’s behaviors?
My daughter was the one with the problem!
My behavior was normal. I was simply fearful, angry and resentful.
All typical feelings given the circumstances.
My conduct was justified.
Today, I know without a doubt that my daughter’s addiction was affecting and infecting me just as surely as it was her. I now realize that her treatment counselor had understood addiction while I had not. She hadn’t been implying that there was something wrong with me. Rather, she simply trying to offer me help for what she knew would come. And come it did.
To say that my understanding of addiction was limited when my daughter entered her first treatment center is an understatement. All I knew was she was “broken” and she needed help. She needed to be “fixed. I trusted the doctors, clinicians, counselors and staff at the rehab she and her dad had chosen. to fix her. It was expensive. It was lovely. It was comprised of lush grounds with beautiful vistas overlooking the surrounding hill country, near the beautiful Comal and Guadalupe rivers. The center’s personnel consisted of a renowned addiction specialist and two doctors well known for their work in the field of addictionology. The center had an excellent reputation in success rates for its clientele. In addition, it had a large and active alumnus, offered a multitude of treatment modalities and encouraged family participation. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t or couldn't “fix” her—that they would return her to me still “broken.”
When I realized that my daughter had been returned to me still “damaged,” I was shocked. Looking back now, I realize I had likened the concept of rehab to that of an automotive garage, with my daughter being the car. When I bring my car to the garage, they work on it and fix it, and then return it good as new, ready to drive again. This “garage” had kept my daughter for a month. They had run her through a full and complete series of diagnostic testing and declared her good to go. So when she came home was she not “working,” I was furious. At them. At her. At the “condition” that had a hold of my daughter and would not let her go.
As furious as I was, I was also desperate. So desperate, in fact, that remembering the words of her rehab counselor, I sought help. Begrudgingly, I set about to learn about the disease of addiction. The more I learned, the more I realized that what the counselor had recommended was true. I needed help—urgently.
As my daughter continued her downward spiral of addiction, I found myself engulfed in the whirlwind of chaos, confusion, resentment, anger and fear that the malady of addiction creates. My daughter’s addiction was like a tornado roaring her way through our family’s life, destroying everything in its path, including me and my sanity. I was rendered useless to do anything but watch it annihilate all hopes I had of stopping it.
I had a hard time understanding and accepting the concept that addiction was anything other than an absence of moral fortitude and self when I began this journey. I had an even harder time comprehending why it was called a “family disease.” Here is what I have since learned.
Please note that I am not implying or promoting the idea that an addict’s success or failure lies solely on the willingness and active participation of the family and their involvement in a recovery program. Nor am I proposing or suggesting that a family or individual who practices recovery can be guaranteed that their addicted loved one will want, seek or practice recovery of their own.
However, what I can guarantee is a family member or loved one who seeks their own personal recovery can experience personal relief, cultivate the ability to cope whether the loved one seeks recovery or not, foster a pathway back to sanity and develop an ability to restore the love that may have been lost along the way for the addict.
Numerous studies show that families who seek recovery as a unit have a greater chance of long-term recovery than those in which only the addict works a recovery program. I cannot confirm or deny these studies so I will just mention that they exist and allow you to explore those on your own.
[endif]--The chemical changes which occur in the brain of a loved one or family member are crucial to know and understand as they play a significant role in the process of the family's recovery. FAMILY RECOVERY IS CRITICAL because it can be one of the primary factors in successful, long-term recovery. Click this link to watch an impactful video that will help drive this home for you. https://youtu.be/eNhEbulIeuY![endif]--
Chemical changes occur in the brain of family members and loved ones of addicts, similar to the way they do in the addict themselves. This change in brain chemistry is one reason why experts refer to addiction as a “brain disease.” When someone is in a constant state of stress, fear, anxiety and anger, the person’s brain responses are “hijacked,” causing their brain to become hyper-responsive. This “hijacking” of responses is significant enough that it is often accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, mimicking those that an addict experiences when denied their substance of choice or when they stop using.
The portion of the brain that is “hijacked” is the amygdala, the small, almond-shaped sector of the brain that serves as the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior and motivation.
The amygdala is the storehouse of our emotional memory. Prolonged fear responses, common in the lives of family members and loved ones of addicts, "hijack" this region of the brain, producing a continual hyper-reactive state in the affected person’s emotions, behaviors and reasoning. The insanity, chaos, drama and fear associated with our loved one’s addiction causes repetitive occurrences of this “hijacking” of the amygdala. Without intervention, these repeated instances of emotional trauma produce an alteration in brain chemistry.
Please come back to read part II on how addiction not only hijacks family members and loved ones of the addict, but also traumatizes them. This understanding can lead you to reshape, reform and rewire that imprint in your life.