Addiction in the Family - Part 1
Updated: Jun 23
While the world was tuned into the deadly COVID 19 virus, my world was dialed in on the destructive opioid crisis.
The devastation of drug addiction is vast, not only for the addict, but also for their loved ones. When family members are thrown into a dark world they didn't know about or want to be part of, they experience severe depression, anxiety, isolation, and fear.
What happens to a family when someone relapses?
When I met the person I thought was my soulmate, he was sober and wanted a clean life, but he had a long battle with opioids. I was unaware of the high rate of relapses associated with this particular drug (85-95%). I believed our fairytale-like love would be enough to save him. I forgot that all fairytales have a darkness that tries to steal the light. I fought fiercely when the darkness clouded our beautiful life, and I refused to accept that my story didn't end happily ever after.
When a family member relapses, it is confusing for the other family members, who seek to make sense of the changed behaviour. Research shows an addict becomes secretive, withdraws from the family, usually lying and evading out of their own shame and guilt. This breakdown of communication and disrespect to the family unit creates anger, tension, and frustration.
How a spouse's relapse affects women
Women with a spouse who relapses experience intense pressure to keep their family together. They end up with a heavy burden and begin to suffer with depression. They bear intense and complicated fears of the future for their family and the changes they cannot avoid.
When suddenly running a household depends on one person, that person is expected to accomplish every adult duty, with additional responsibilities related to financial matters, parenting children and house maintenance. There are usually disruptions in day-to-day management, changes/loss of intimacy and communication, as well as a fallout from job loss and unruly kids.
How social stigma affects families of drug addicts
Addicts have a hard time dealing with pressure, and people tend to avoid feeling inadequate. Covid brought a new level of stress and seclusion that intensified as time went on. The obvious solution for someone who struggled with sudden unemployment, the responsibility to feed 5 kids, and the overwhelming energy with so many people constantly under one roof, was to turn to an old way of coping. A familiar respite that blurred reality and gave an escape from the daily grind a large family like ours goes through.
Because of the social stigma, I felt confined in my options on who to turn to for help when I noticed signs of him slipping back into old patterns. There had been some ups and downs with his sobriety over the period we had been together, and every time I confided in someone, I regretted it later. Because of their judgment, inadequate addiction training, and distressing lack of compassion, I lost friends and was estranged from some family members. Being accused of being a drug addict myself created a lot of embarrassment, which became a source of contention between me and what felt like the world.
I felt under a microscope, people judged every decision I made.
The watchful gossips in my neighborhood began calling bylaw for ridiculous reasons, like my front door being open (with stifling heat and no first floor windows that opened besides the bedrooms, it was open for air flow in the summer). I was told my kids were playing outside unsupervised (although I could clearly observe them from anywhere upstairs, and let's be real, at 8 and 5, they can play without me standing over them constantly) and various other petty issues.
A neighbor's security camera caught an argument we had when I was afraid he was going to buy drugs and tried to stop him. This neighbor figured it would be helpful to circulate the video among people I expected to be my friends, which led to someone forwarding it to some of my family members. The footage was taken out of context by everyone who saw it, without sound to narrate the situation. I continuously heard rumors, and a person admitted to having people follow me. Who can live like that? When it became too much, we decided to pick up our life and move to Ontario.
We had everything planned and were ready to go when the job he expected fell through. The idea of moving out of province abruptly stopped, and I had a small window of time to find a place suitable for my family size and budget. The only option was to rent an Airbnb, then a hotel, before moving again into a small, cramped townhouse.
Mental health for family members living with an addict
My feelings of embarrassment, sorrow, depression, grief, anxiety and profound fear were the result of the tension and breakdown of the relationship. This ushered in other mental health issues. There were times when I longed for the peacefulness death would bring me. The sadness and grief blanketed my every waking moment, and I began to comprehend how real this disease is for everyone involved.
I used to be a strong, independent woman, but suddenly I found myself broken and weak. Once social and friendly, I became an introverted hermit, afraid to answer the door to a delivery man.
With crushed shoulders, I struggled as the family structure continued to deteriorate. The kids noticed the cracks in partnered parenting and used those opportunities to test their boundaries. Chores were neglected, and it became solely my responsibility to discipline the children. I juggled 5 kids in various stages of neediness while continuing full time school. I tried to manage a family budget reduced to pennies, and spent many sleepless nights researching and brainstorming ways to get my life back to normal.
Between a rock and a hard place
When every decision I made didn't have the outcome I wanted, it took on a new meaning. . Everyone gave me one option, and it intensified the fear I carried about my family's future: If I did not end the relationship, my kids would be taken from me. I developed a violent anxiety that gave me severe migraines and ate at my stomach.
I tried to communicate this to my partner, and was even more concerned, frustrated and stressed by the way this drug affects the brain's ability to process information. I found my boundaries ignored when I tried to manipulate things back into place, and I didn't come across as nurturing or encouraging.
The foundation of my family had crumbled, and in an attempt to numb the shame and guilt, my partner fell deeper into the dark hell of addiction. I felt like I was falling apart. I had an absurd amount of pressure to keep it all together and still be there for the person I loved.
I could only imagine what he felt after my own experience of segregation and panic attacks from judgment. My empathetic soul felt his emotions crowding mine. My spirit ached to see him hurt so badly, and I only wanted to help him. I did not realize that in this process, I would lose myself to a toxic co-dependency that actually allowed his reasoning to get high, rather than giving him a reason not to use it.
Deep inside, I knew the minute he was in a full-blown relapse that the possibilities of us making it out of this together in the same state that we began were almost impossible. I fought that intuition and tried my best to manifest a different outcome.
Society needs to change how drug addicts and their families are treated.
What happened to me and my family is not okay.
If I have learned anything from this situation, it is that things have to change. People need to be educated and learn empathy and compassion. They need to leave their judgment at the door. We need to create better info and make it more available so people have hope rather than despair.
People who had the opportunity to help me failed me.
How can I fault them when they are simply acting as society has taught them? When I had one foot in both worlds, I felt despondent when I realized the deep cavern of differences between the way each side thinks and feels. Both sides have misconceptions that create a divide that shouldn't be there.
Drug addicts are more than drug addicts - they are people who need help
As I got to know some of the people who live in this underground world of addiction, my heart was moved by the damage. I witnessed people struggling to live being treated like trash and disrespected. They were put into a category of social hierarchy, where their survival choices were shunned.
They got to this point through different reasons, from growing up that way, experiencing trauma that nobody helped them through, and a lack of resources for them to utilize. Most wanted to be clean, but almost nobody knew how to make that happen and succeed. Even with good intentions and a strong will, the amount of road blocks set up to discourage an addict from getting clean is grossly misrepresented without proper aftercare. People are exceptionally negligent in researching facts if they believe:
If they wanted to stop, they would just stop
There are rehabs everywhere, just go to one.
They shouldn't have started in the first place
It is a choice
They enjoy getting high, party on!
I was shocked at the amount of continuous trauma I watched people go through in the short time I was involved with this community. Every time something happened, I thought,
This is a community of people in extraordinary pain. My empathetic sensibilities were constantly berated with genuine compassion and sympathy. I was so overwhelmed by a soul-wrenching sadness that these people carried in their bones. If someone came to my door needing a meal, a drink, or a place to sleep for the night, I brought them in and hoped my generosity and kindness would give them a moment of relief before they went back into the big bad world.
We need to change the way society perceives drug addiction.
The government run systems are broken. We know this. This is what we vote for, this is what people talk about in frustration when nothing comes to pass.
I know I am only one person. I can't change the world. I couldn't even change the one person I tried to help the most. But I can use my voice, and perhaps I can be part of a movement for change and bring understanding and enlightenment to people who have no idea what is going on in the world of substance dependency. These people shouldn't be labelled or judged as the black sheep of society.
Surprisingly, I met some of the worst people, and some of the best people. Regardless, they are worthy people trapped in this underground lifestyle and deserve someone standing up for them.
If I can take my little piece of the internet that I claimed for myself and get up on my soapbox for any cause, it would be this one.
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I hope by the time I am done writing each part, I will have met my happily ever after. This chapter of my life has been the most challenging, the most disastrous, and the most traumatic. I am eager to close it. But before I can do that, I need to tell it.