Story 11

Addiction is a “Family Disease”

We used to have such a close and special relationship and now we don’t talk … we don’t have a relationship at all … I am so sad.”
– Stevie’s Sister

When my son went away to residential treatment, a central part of the treatment protocol was to educate the family about the disease and try to engaged them in the recovery process. Our son’s four older siblings dropped everything and our entire family attended the Family Education Program spending a weekend in a very remote town in Pennsylvania. None of us had any idea what to expect.

The first session seemed like a simple gathering of all the visiting family members of the eight “graduating” patients to introduce ourselves to each other. In our family, I went first: “Hi everyone, I am Stevie’s dad and I am very proud of my son and happy to be here today.” Next went my daughter. “Hi everyone, I am Stevie’s older sister, Emma …… I feel like I lost my baby brother, forever …… We used to have such a close and special relationship and now we don’t talk …. we don’t have a relationship at all …. I am so sad.” The entire room broke down and cried. She hit a raw nerve.

As the weekend progressed, many things stood out about addiction and family relationships. In a session called “The Family Tree”, the eight patients listed their family members and rated their relationships before and after using drugs and alcohol. In every instance, the relationships prior to using drugs and alcohol were very good or incredibly close relationships. In every instance, after the patient became addicted to drugs and alcohol, the relationships deteriorated significantly or were broken entirely.

As the discussions continued, there were many other themes that emerged among family members such as: fear about the patient’s health, anger and trauma about the patient’s unacceptable behaviors and all the fighting, sibling guilt about supplying the patient with drugs or alcohol, sibling anger about the patient taking up so much of their parent’s time and energy, etc. The sharing and disclosures among both patients and family members was exceptionally open, brave and enlightening. It was an incredibly important two days for our family. But, it was clear that addiction had impacted the entire family and taken its toll on everyone, not just Stevie.

As parents and caregivers, it is critical to be hyper-aware that the siblings can be very negatively impacted by another family member’s addiction. The siblings may not want to engage in education or support to help them manage through the difficulties. They have their own lives. But, as best as you can, it is important to try to be aware that there is negative impact and give them as much support, access to counseling, and love as possible.

Today, most of the wounds have healed in our family and the five siblings are once again very close. They have even vacationed together multiple times, without us parents, and had fantastic fun with a lot of laughs and great memories. Stevie’s four siblings are so proud of what he has accomplished and who he has become.