February 24th is International Family Drug Support Day. My blog posts this month are in recognition and support of this day and its intended purpose of increasing public addiction awareness along with family knowledge and support.
Sadly, 2016 held the highest death tolls to date in preventable, accidental drug poisoning deaths (overdoses). This staggering number tallies over 64,070 deaths. This is a 21 percent increase over 2015, and the numbers projected for 2017 death tolls indicate that we’ll lose even more than 70,000 people to the disease. Death tolls related to overdose are higher than the COMBINED total deaths of individuals killed by guns, car crashes and HIV/AIDS in a single year in our nation, a higher death toll than all US military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined, a higher death toll than all forms of cancer combined, and a higher death toll per month than all those whom we lost on 9/11. And, 91 Americans will die today and everyday from accidental drug overdose and poisoning.
Let these statistics sink in as you read this… Pause, and really think about them. These numbers are disconcerting and disorienting at best and heartbreaking and devastating at worst for the families who lost and are losing their loved ones.
Clearly, we are in the midst of a national health crisis. On top of devastating loss of lives, the opioid epidemic in America has cost us $78.5 billion to date. As a nation, it is imperative that we step up and embrace multi-dimensional and realistic approaches for prevention, education and access to healthcare services for people suffering from a substance use disorder AND the family members also impacted by this devastating crisis. Our nation’s families desperately need help learning how to navigate, plan, support and process the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of the disease of addiction.
My passion and life’s work is to help family members and loved ones gain a perspective on why substance use disorder is called a “family” disease. One of the despairing factors in homes infected with addiction is that families, far more often than not—it was true for me—rely on their loved one to get “well,” believing that sobriety or medical management for the addicted individual is the “cure.” This ideology is not only false, but it is also dangerous for the sufferer of the disease, individual family members and the whole family system.
The danger lays in the false belief that sobriety or medical management will restore family balance and harmony. This belief contends that the only member of the family in need of healing and restoration is the substance abuser. However, complete healing and restoration can only occur when every member of the family is afforded the opportunity and ability to examine and address the harmful effects of substance abuse and the impact it has on the family system, family narrative and family motto.
The deceptive nature of addiction and the compulsive behaviors that accompany it, along with the overwhelming tendency for denial by both the substance user and the family, leave the family system vulnerable and exposed. By the time the family becomes aware of the denial and severity of the problem and seeks answers or asks for help, they are plagued by frustration, fear or hopelessness, and are desperate for answers and solutions. Because addictive behaviors often result in broken trust, betrayal, gaslighting and other severe relationship violations, families seeking help are often emotionally vulnerable, spiritually depleted, mentally exhausted and, more often than not, financially compromised. Addiction never develops or exists in a vacuum. It always impacts the relational systems of those it engages, and the primary familial system will always be the hardest impacted.
Family structures in our nation are varied and diverse and the effects on the family will vary based on the family system. However, what does not vary is the fact that every family is impacted when a family member abuses substances.
Today, I ask that you join us on International Family Drug Support Day to spread the word on the dangers of addiction and its impact on families. As a community of citizens, we must push for education, addiction awareness, support and viable treatment options for everyone affected by the disease. People’s lives and wellbeing depend on it.
For more detailed information on how the disease impacts families, check out the National Center for Biotechnology’s chapter on Impact of Substance Abuse on Families.