photo credit: mfi-miami.com
In part one of this two part blog (click here to read part one), I shared my struggle in accepting and understanding the implication of addiction as a family disease. I did not feel I had been impacted by my daughter’s addiction. I had not changed; I was simply responding in a normal way when faced with an unexpected situation. Addiction was her problem—not mine. I was the sane, rational, reasonable one who was taking care of the wreckage that her addiction was leaving in its wake. But, as she continued to spiral downward, the destructive vortex of her addiction tornado widened, engulfing me and extinguishing my ability to think, behave or respond rationally. She was addicted to her drugs, and I was addicted to stopping her use.
Addiction is a family disease because its impact on cognitive patterns and behavioral actions is not limited to the addict. It extends to family members and loved ones as well.
In part one, I explained how the amygdala, our storehouse of emotional memory, is “hijacked” and how, without intervention, repeated instances of emotional trauma produce an alteration in brain chemistry. This is why addiction is classified as a "family disease." The toll it takes on family members and loved ones is traumatic and requires complex post traumatic stress disorder C-PTSD intervention and therapeutic guidance.
Continuing from part one: When trauma happens, the amygdala signals the nervous system to panic. Repetitive panicking results in a continuous altered physical and mental state. Panic becomes the normalized state, commandeering a person’s ability to return to or respond from a balanced or neutral emotional state. The newly normalized emotional panic state is called traumatization. Family members and loved ones are traumatized mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually by the behaviors, consequences and struggles that arise when addiction occurs in a fellow family member or loved one.
Traumatization is defined as a “lasting shock resulting from an emotionally disturbing experience or physical injury.” In this chronic state of panic and alarm, a person will begin to experience an imperative, irrational and uncontrollable need for action—any action.
These actions/responses are usually impulsive and reactionary, serving as a way of self-medicating without medicine. The compulsion to act is triggered by our brain’s inability to tolerate the continuous, constant and chaotic stimulation it is receiving—often day after day—as a result of loving and living with an addict and their addictive behaviors. In an attempt to protect itself, the brain will take aggressive action to regain homeostasis (balance).
Human emotions, such as panic, anxiety, stress or fear, can cause our bodies to go into an overreactive state. Our bodies respond to this overactive state with rapid heartbeat, cortisol and adrenaline production and increased respiration and blood pressure. When this overactive state continually persists, it weakens our bodies.
Our cognitive effectiveness declines, as does our brain's ability to regulate impulse control, and discern and perceive accurate responses to danger. At this point, we have become conditioned to view emotional threats—of any sort—as dangerous, and our brain will take whatever precautions necessary to avoid the supposed danger. This is the point at which our compulsion to stop the addict from using begin to match the addict’s compulsion to use. They are addicted to the substance and we are addicted to them. We are as lost in the malady of addiction as they are. Addiction has become the master of everyone, answerable to no one. The family is affected and infected, which is demonstrated through our behavior, attitudes and actions. The addict will cheat, lie, steal and manipulate to get the drink or the drug, and we will cheat, lie, steal and manipulate to keep it from him or her.
Dr. Vincent, leading psychiatrist in the field of addiction and author of Diagnosing
and Treating Addictions: An Integrated Approach to Substance Use Disorders
and Concurrent Disorders, says, “There is absolutely no question in my mind that
family members are traumatized through their intimate relationship with an
addicted family member.”
The trauma that Dr. Vincent and other doctors, psychologist, neurologist and trauma experts refer to is wide ranging. A short list of trauma inducing factors for family members and loved ones includes physical abuse, verbal abuse, observing suicide attempts and/or accidental overdoses, various extreme forms of intimidation and emotional abuse, experiencing of extra marital affairs, awareness of participation in gangs, involvement in prostitution, or other illegal or illicit activities. The list is extensive.
These sustained traumatic events leave family members in a constant state of worry and fear. This continually, over-stressed state activates the brain’s response mechanism. The loved one will experience an imperative, obsessive irrational need to take action—sometimes desperate action—to remedy the fearful and/or dangerous situation. When this continues day after day, the brain cannot tolerate it. In response to constant overstimulation, the brain, realizing it cannot handle the new stress load, will begin taking action.
This is when the insanity of being a loved one really takes off.
At this point the loved one is no longer chemically balanced. Things that used to signal danger no longer feel so dangerous. As Lori Pate says, “There simply aren't enough 'danger' chemicals or receptors to accurately convey the appropriate feelings. This is when family members, friends, and loved ones of the addict will begin to accept dangerous and harmful situations as okay. For example, they may feel it is a good idea to track down a loved one at a dealer's house, or accept a loved one who is violent and abusive in their home. They may make a choice to allow a dangerous person to be around their children. This is not because the loved one just isn't making good choices. More accurately, it is because their brain chemistry has been altered by the constant chaos, and they no longer have the right feelings that would initiate safe choices. Unacceptable behavior doesn't feel as truly dangerous as it is.”
Of course, there will be exceptions. Some loved ones will go in the opposite direction and simply refuse to engage the addict. Those who have engaged in dangerous or irrational behaviors regarding their addict may experience a “close call” or have a situation arise that jars them into consciousness concerning the insanity of their behavior. If this happens and they stop engaging in these dangerous situations, it may fracture the relationship with the addict. If/when this happens, a whole new problem is created: Withdrawal.
Drawing again from Lori Pate’s article, “Withdrawal occurs when the brain is accustomed to a particular level of chemical activity, and that level is suddenly reduced.” Again, the same “hijacking” of responses that occur in the addict can occur in family members’ brains. Just like the addict experiences withdrawal from the substance, the family member or loved one will experience withdrawal from the addict. For family members, our most common drug of choice is the addict.
As the “brain disease” of the family member progresses, a “chaotic state of being” becomes their new “normal” and the traumatization increases. Their brain chemicals have changed as a result of the constant stimulation from fear, worry, anger, resentment and all that accompanies living with and being in relationship with an addict/alcoholic. Like the addict who finds themselves frantic, disturbed, irritable, restless and desperate without a fix, so, too, are the loved ones without their fix—the addict and the confusion, chaos and worry that accompany him or her. Loved ones can no longer achieve or maintain a sense of peace and balance in safe, serene and calm environments. Like the addict, their bodies will crave the higher levels (bigger doses) of adrenaline, and they will do what it takes to get it, which usually includes reengaging the addict and the chaos, stress, etc. that accompanies that relationship. Without that engagement, their bodies go into withdrawal and craving, just like the alcoholic/addict who is denied the drink or the drug. Again, like the addict whose altered brain chemistry leaves him or her needing increased levels of the drink or the drug to maintain the same “high,” family member will begin to require more and more of the chaos and confusion to maintain their altered condition—aka, their new “normal.”
Family members' withdrawal symptoms manifest in ways similar to that of the addict/alcoholic. They experience depression, physical and mental uncomfortableness, agitation, problems with sleep patterns, shame, anger, self-pity and self-loathing. These feelings create a “craving,” to re-engage the addict. And, inn doing so, the loved one is attempting to self-regulate by stopping the pain and angst. These cravings manifest as a compulsive and uncontrollable desire to contact, engage or check-up on the addict—their drug. When they do, the game is on and the adrenaline they crave is released. They might as well have loaded a syringe, swallowed a pill or taken a swig. It is the exact same cycle that an active drug addict goes through:
If you are reading this and identify as a traumatized family member or believe you may be suffering from “addictive” co-dependency with a family member or loved one, you are likely experiencing the effects of chemical changes I described above. Your relationship with addiction and the influence it has had in your family may have lowered the normal adrenaline activity in your brain, creating craving sensations.
Feel an overwhelming desire to check up on the addict—where he or she is, what he or she is doing, who he or she is with, search pockets/purse, drawers, rooms, etc.?
Feel an uncontrollable urge to call your addict even when you know that the phone call will cause you anxiety and possibly grief?
Feel compelled to answer the phone if the addict calls—unable to let the phone ring without being answered or feel extreme panic if you miss the call?
The urgency to engage the addict is so great that you will attempt to have a rational conversation with your addict even though you know he or she is under the influence of a mind-altering substance.
The uncomfortableness is so intense when you cannot locate or contact your loved one that you will get in your car and drive around aimlessly hoping to find him or her, or you will call repetitively, over and over, when he or she does not answer.
The desperation to be heard is so consuming that you will repeat the same phrase, wish or desire over and over hoping that “this time” the addict will hear and understand/agree with/accept/acknowledge you.
The compulsion to engage the addict is more powerful than the fear and angst that you experience when engaged.
The need to know is so powerful that it overrides the pain or danger that you escaped the last time you were with or around the addict.
If the above questions and statements resonate with you, you have likely been affected and infected by the family disease of addiction.
These are signs that you are as sick as your addict. Addiction has manifested as a dependence on a substance or behavior by your loved one. It has manifested as a dependence on a person and a routine of stress and chaos. The addict is compelled to control his or her surroundings so that he or she can acquire, obtain and use their substance or engage their process. You have become compelled to control the addict so that you can acquire, obtain and use this person for your own self-regulation. You are both victims of a chronic brain disease that is progressive. However, it can be arrested. Repair can be made. But, healing will take intervention, work and a willingness to pursue and commit to a healthy lifestyle. There are vital changes that must be made in order for you to recover, rebuild and be restored. Are these changes easy? No! The process can be agonizingly slow and mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually painful. But, the results are priceless.
My hope is that the content of this article settles into your heart, mind and soul. I hope that you will take seriously what doctors, scientists and other experts in the fields of psychology, neurology, trauma and addictionology are saying about what it means to be in relationship with addiction. Whether you marry it, give birth to it, were conceived by it or succumb to it yourself, addiction was written into your story, and it has left an indelible imprint on your brain as well as your heart, mind and soul. This imprint cannot be erased, but it can be reshaped, reformed and rewired.
The concluding chapter of your story with addiction is left for you to write. The final inscription of addiction on your life can be one that is signed with the pen strokes of hope, healing and restoration. The choice is yours. I pray that you choose wisely and that you choose YOU! For in-depth assistance on your journey, please contact Jamie at: email@example.com