When a person has an addiction, the reality is that it is not only that person who is affected – partners, parents, siblings, friends and neighbours can all find their lives upturned and decimated by someone else’s addictive behaviour.

Unfortunately it is easy for those around the addict to lose their sense of themselves as they struggle to do everything they can to control or fix the problem. “Very often you will find yourselves juggling heavy burdens …. financial, social and emotional. ”Addictive behaviour is blaming and unreasonable. Friends and family may learn to “walk on eggshells” in an attempt to avoid potential conflict or for fear of making the situation escalate even more if they “say the wrong thing”!

Everyone does their best to cope with the very difficult situation but eventually the addiction becomes the organising principle around which the family revolves and indeed lives. The addiction almost becomes a family member and the elephant in the room …. everybody can see it but no one is talking about it or naming it for fear things will get worse!

For family members a pre-occupation with the addiction in question can quickly become over-involvement. This often leads to an increased tolerance of unacceptable behaviour. “You can then be drawn into situations where you may lie or even cover up illegal activities such as drink driving or possession of illegal substances.”

Family members can cope with the shame and embarrassment of addiction by ignoring it, covering it up, denying the reality of what is actually happening or stopping serious consequences occurring for the addict. This can all lead to loneliness and isolation. Feeling judged and blaming self can keep families trapped in this isolation.

To put it bluntly, the experience of being in a relationship with a person who has an addiction is exhausting, traumatic and stressful. The constant worry of what is going to happen next, being hyper-vigilant and fearful can all take its toll on your psychological and physical health.  Having an addict in the family means you can find yourself never being able to switch off from the situations created by addiction!

Over the Christmas period difficulties in families could intensify and toxicity levels at home may increase, potentially beyond breaking point. Some people will struggle terribly as unreasonable and unpredictable behaviour escalates to new and frightening heights. In terms of substance misuse the reality is that over the festive period it increases substantially as a kind of green light is given for overindulgence and people are pushed together.

It’s important to remember…. you are not alone. Addiction affects so many people right across the world in all sorts of families in many different communities. Some believe the figures are as high as 1 in 3 people will be affected by some form of addiction in their lives. You really are not alone!

One of the most critical areas to consider when you have an addict in your life is how you can cope with the physical and psychological trauma …. this is especially relevant during the festive period. If you can find what is helpful and importantly what is healthy for you to do when things are difficult, the quality of your life can be improved considerably. For example, a good way forward might be to look at the support networks that are available to you. Also think about communication within the family and each family member’s needs. I know this is potentially a very big ask, especially if your family is deep in the grip of addiction …….. but this will help and it is interrelated to everybody’s self-esteem and your ability to be able to cope in the long term.  You might need to think about “what to do and when” if you are really struggling and things are getting on top of you. For example, you may need to find a safe space to go to or have a list of people you can call for support. It could be talking to a professional or a friend ….. having a chat about what you are going through can make a real difference …. ”You don’t have to keep it all to yourself”!  Also try and focus on something you enjoy doing. That could be reading, listening to music, exercise etc. but do something for you.

Now, you have a right to be safe. If you feel you are in danger, call the police. That’s very important and essential!

You may be awash with conflicting feelings …. hate, love, fear, despair, responsibility, just to name a few. That is all completely normal and natural. You may not even feel anymore …. and that’s normal and natural too …. it’s just a way to cope and a good way to cope in the very short term, and I emphasise in the very short term! Feelings are the body’s way of telling you what you need to do in different situations …. a problem usually occurs when you are being bombarded with those feelings 24/7 and stress and anxiety kicks in. Moving forward it’s about what you do with those feelings that can make the difference between just “hanging on” or “living your life”. For example, if you are feeling angry and let down, find a healthy way to let it out before it turns into rage. Find something healthy that works for you. Once again it may be doing something that you enjoy but …… and this is the important thing … don’t keep those feelings in …. find a healthy way to let them out …. express them in some way. It’s about taking care of yourself.

Now, what we think affects how we feel and how we feel affects how we act ……. so it’s all interlinked. If you can change the way you think about an issue, that will begin to change how you feel about it …. and this in turn can ultimately change how you behave around it. I’ve probably made this sound very simple or really complex …. either way it might take a bit of practice to get your head around the idea. An example to illustrate the thinking, feeling and behaviour concept in the context of Christmas could be: if you think that Christmas should be perfect with everyone coming together, having fun and all getting on as one; then, when this doesn’t happen, you may feel sad, let down and depressed. These feelings may then drive your behaviour to keep trying to make it work and be perfect, only to be left feeling the same after each year passes. However, if the belief of a ‘perfect Christmas’ is challenged and altered in some way to perhaps be “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to look like the Christmases portrayed in adverts or in glossy magazines” and expectations are lowered a little to more realistic levels, then that change in thinking could change how you feel and therefore ultimately change how you behave around the festive season?

Families & Addiction

There is no getting away from the fact that Christmas can raise lots of complex issues for many different people …. it is a time of year that has many strands and ideals. To sum up though “you may have to let go of the pressure of doing a perfect Christmas for everyone and do a Christmas that fits your needs and is right for you”!   Have a think about what that may look like …. talk it through and get a plan together!

The truth is, people don’t live their life thinking “I am going to become an addict so I hurt all the people around me and I lose everything” ….. and remember addiction is a treatable condition.

Changing the way we deal with the situation by setting personal boundaries can also make a positive difference and improve the quality of our lives. Boundaries are the limits that we set in relationships to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed or manipulated by others.  Our emotional health and wellbeing is related to the strength of our boundaries. Some boundaries are rigid and need to be ….. other boundaries may change with different situations. For example, boundaries vary between loved ones, friends, work colleagues and strangers. Setting boundaries means communicating clearly what you want and need and what the consequences will be if the other person continues to behave in an unacceptable way around you.  If you are thinking about setting up some boundaries, the following could really help you:

When you………………..(the behaviour)

I Feel……………………….(let down/angry/frightened?)

If You………………………(the behaviour)

I Will……………………….(the consequence) – it’s very important to go through with what you say ….. so keep it realistic!

It’s imperative to remember we can’t change other people but we can change how we respond to their behaviour to get an improved outcome. The truth is that people have an opportunity to learn, change and grow from experiencing the consequences of their behaviours.

As I’m coming to the end of this article I will finish on what I think is a pertinent quote. I believe it gives a way forward on what can be a predicament for many who are living with addiction and feeling stuck, trapped and indeed paralyzed.

‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got’ ― Albert Einstein

The reality for you might be that if you want to change an outcome you may need to change the way you are doing things …. just a little to start with!  This is not a criticism in any shape or form on what you have been doing up to now. You probably have been dealing with impossible and extreme situations with a drive to protect and make things better out of love or duty, as most people do …… but I guess you need to ask yourself a question: “Are things improving…….for you?”.

I really hope something I’ve gone over has made sense to you or even helped in some way.

Take care and stay safe.

Matt Serlin

Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor

Specialising in Working with Families affected by Addiction

December 2020