If a family member is struggling with addiction to a substance, it can seem like they are choosing drugs or alcohol over their family. Understandably, you may feel frustrated, confused, and angry.
It’s difficult to understand why your loved one chooses to isolate rather than get support from the family members who only want the best for them. And it’s tempting to want to stop trying to help when the individual seems to choose drugs over family.
Addiction is a Disease – Not a Choice of Drugs Over Family
Rather than give up, it’s vital to learn more about addiction and why it is not a choice. Then discover practical ways to reach out and bring that person back into your life
Addiction’s Effect on the Brain Creates the Perception That a Person is Choosing Drugs Over Family
It might seem like your loved one is choosing a pattern of destruction, but drugs and alcohol can change brain chemistry in a way that limits the ability to control behavior.
Neurotransmitters in the brain are responsible for sending messages to neurons. We’re able to think, speak, breathe, learn, and feel emotions because of the messages sent to neurons through a complex array of interconnected circuits. Drugs and alcohol can mimic neurotransmitters and send abnormal messages throughout these circuits.1
Although we’re not entirely sure how drugs produce a high, it’s thought that they’re able to send messages that cause a surge in chemical signaling, thereby amplifying feelings of pleasure. Drugs and alcohol are also responsible for surges of dopamine – a neurotransmitter that plays a role in getting us to repeat activities that cause pleasure.1
Someone whose brain chemistry has changed due to long-term use of drugs or alcohol has lost the ability to control substance use behaviors. It may appear that the individual has chosen alcohol or drugs over family, but science and physiology prove otherwise.
How to Support a Family Member Who’s Struggling with a Substance Use Disorder
Because alcohol and drug addiction interfere with healthy brain functioning, issuing ultimatums that force an individual to choose between family and substances will not be effective. It may even cause further damage to the relationship and give the person more reason to pull away. The family member with a substance use disorder will likely feel misunderstood and rejected and choose to spend even more time with others who also use drugs or alcohol.
Several scientific journals have documented the effect of drug and alcohol addiction on the immediate and extended family unit.2 Family members cannot blame themselves for their feelings of abandonment, anger, and even embarrassment. They have trouble fully empathizing with a loved one whose choices are hard to understand. To remedy the problem, family members must put aside their emotions and focus on providing much-needed love and support to their loved ones.
Best Practices for Providing Support To Your Loved One
It’s not easy to manage negative emotions, so consider seeking support through an organization that helps family members cope, such as Al-Anon or Nar Anon. Then, use these suggestions to help support your loved one:
- Acknowledge that the person is not trying to hurt you or other family members.
- Refrain from name-calling, labeling, criticizing, or threatening. Instead, let the person know that you’re open to listening without judgment.
- Recognize that recovery will take time and that there will be challenges.
- Respect your loved one’s privacy – this is a crucial step toward building trust.
- Remind them how much you care. Be vocal about this and do it often.
- Don’t try to protect your loved one from the consequences of drug or alcohol use. There’s a fine line between being supportive and becoming an enabler.
Remember that everyone makes choices that impact family dynamics, and all parties need to feel safe and free to communicate. Respect and honesty go a long way toward developing trust. For further reading, learn how addiction is a family disease, and why a whole family recovery approach is valuable.
Get More Help with an Intervention Specialist
Now that you’ve learned how addiction makes it only seem like your loved one is choosing drugs over your family, are you ready to take the next step in supporting their recovery? An intervention specialist can carefully facilitate an honest and productive dialogue between family members and individuals who need help. Ocean Hills Recovery offers intervention services moderated by trained specialists who have experience with managing this sensitive process. Get in touch with us to find out how an intervention works and to learn about scheduling one.
Sources: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64258/
About the author:
Nicole earned her doctoral degree in Psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at California School of Professional Psychology. Her doctoral thesis was a grounded theory study exploring the role of alienation and connectedness in the life course of addiction. She specializes in treating addiction and trauma. She is certified in DBT and EMDR, two of the most highly regarded evidence-based methods in psychotherapy. Dr. Doss is a strong LGBT advocate and provides open and affirming support to her LGBT clients.
Dr. Doss’s earlier education included graduating cum laude from the University of California, Irvine in June of 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. While there, she received honors recognition by Psi Chi and Golden Key honor societies.
Nicole has been working with alcoholics and addicts in our California drug and alcohol rehab center as an advisor and counselor for many years. She is passionate about providing quality counseling and care to her clients. Her main focus is on integrating the 12 Step and disease models of addiction with experiential therapeutic theory. She is married to Greg; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.