Family with Addiction?

Family with Addiction?

A Split Brain

The advice I am about to give is very counterintuitive. The reason? Your loved one has two brains. That’s right, they have an addicted brain and a sober brain.

This understanding is crucial to the family of an addict. Not fully comprehending this is where most go wrong.

The fact that you’re reading this tells me you are dealing with their addicted brain and you’ve been going about it all wrong.

The reason?

You cannot reason with the addicted brain. Explaining that their drug use is causing them harm does not make sense to the addicted brain. The only logic the addicted brain understands is to continue the drug use and avoid anything that interrupts this goal. It is convinced that the drug is beneficial and absence of the drug is painful.

If you say something hurtful, the addicted brain will try to resolve their pain with their drug.

If they say something hurtful or irrational, it is their addicted brain talking.

The addicted part is NOT them. It is not the wonderful person you knew before, that person is in the sober brain and just hidden by the addicted brain.

The way to help them is to allow the sober brain to take over again. You cannot stop the addicted brain, but you may be able to weaken it. The same is true for the sober brain, you can help strengthen it again.

The addicted side is obsessed with one thing only. Anything that gets in the way of more drug use will be seen as the “enemy.” You cannot force it to stop using. You cannot reason with this side of their brain. The only logic it understands is the shortest pathway to more drug use. It will lie and steal and hurt those in it’s path.

Will rehab help your family with their addiction?

No matter the tears you cry or how angry you get, you cannot force the addict to get sober. Forcing them to go to rehab will fail. They will go and just patiently wait until they get back home to their drug of choice.

The only way rehab will work is when they are ready and make the decision on their own.

The only way they will make this decision is if their addicted brain is weakened and their sober brain strengthened.

The Addicted brain causes your family member to withdraw. Isolation is like steroids to the addicted brain. It is vital to get them around family and friends and other people working through addiction for support. The problem is that family can cause “negative” feelings therefore we have to change how family interacts with them.

“Negative” feelings will cause the addicted brain to continue drug use to feel better. This causes shame and guilt which again causes further drug use. This process will continue to strengthen the addicted brain. The goal is to avoid “negative” feelings. A very difficult process for family is to approach the addict without judgement.

One of the ways to achieve this is to develop a better understanding of their addiction and where it came from.

Is Addiction A Family Disease?

Studies have shown that 40-60% of addiction is genetic. For many it grows rampant in their family tree. It transfers from one to the next. Hopefully you can help them break this cycle.

The addiction genes had to get activated which likely happened through psychological trauma.

Genetics is not required to form an addiction, it may develop through psychological trauma alone. See here for an in depth explanation on how addiction develops.

The underlying trauma is the reason that rehab alone is not sufficient. Absence of their drug does not help their addiction, it simply puts it on hold for a while.

Some blame the drug for the addiction but we now know that is wrong.

I hear this often; “My father was a severe alcoholic and I swore to never drink a drop of alcohol, but once I tried an opiate it was over.” This is a common misunderstanding.

The drug just becomes a solution to their trauma.

An alcoholic father can cause a degree of psychological stress in their child who later grow up to mimic their behavior.

Commonly known forms of trauma are physical, sexual or verbal abuse. For these your loved one will benefit from trauma counseling, but what if they didn’t suffer these?

There are more subtle forms of trauma that may also play a role in shaping their addiction. By recognizing these you can start helping them move toward acceptance, understanding and forgiveness which are vital to unlocking the sober brain.

The Subtle Trauma

This category of trauma is not always very obvious but often involves a form of low level stress over a long period of time that may have a lasting impact on a person’s psychology.

These forms of trauma include but are not limited to a parent who is emotionally or physically distant, families who move often, hyper-religious upbringing, parents with their own addictions, excessive school or extracurricular pressure or parents with psychological problems.

Parental Addiction

A parent’s addiction doesn’t always result in physical or sexual abuse but it will always cause stress in the child.

If a parent engage in their addictive substance, their behavior toward their children will be abnormal. They may not be emotionally present or they may be overly emotional.

Normally some childhood behavior will cause parental concern and they engage in corrective instruction. The parent who is under the influence may not help their child improve their behavior or may overreact.

The parent in withdrawal will be short tempered. They may snap at their child for the smallest things.

The parent may be so sedated that the kids are not getting the proper attention they deserve.

The fun inebriated parent is abnormal. When the child grows up with the impression that adults are always “happy” they develop a false impression of the real world.

All this lack of interaction, absence of emotional connection or abuse will cause a wound in the child’s heart. They will seek healing one day. Unfortunately they might find false healing in a substance.

I’ve heard my patients say this; “when I first used an opiate it felt like I found what has been missing my whole life.” What they were missing was the love and attention they needed when they were young.

Other Trauma that can cause addiction in children

Some parents may not have a history of substance abuse, but were emotionally or physically distant for other reasons. These may also cause long lasting psychological wounds.

Military families move often and children experience repeated loss as they leave their friends behind. They continuously face the difficulty of reestablishing friends in new schools.

Hyper-religious families may instill unreasonable fear in a child that may have lasting effects.

Parents with psychological problems may interact very differently with their children.

Too much pressure on a child to perform in school or sport or other activities can cause excess stress on them.

A typical picture I see is the parent who works long hours or sometimes even two jobs. Their children may carry an emotional and physical scar.

Forgive the Trauma

The first step is to acknowledge the trauma. Next is forgiveness, this will allow those wounds to start healing. Resentment on the other hand will continue to fester. After forgiveness, your loved one will be able to move to acceptance. The ultimate goal is to leave the trauma in the past to allow detachment and to live in the present without pain from the past.

How Addiction affects the Family

Addiction doesn’t affect just one person but the entire family. Families handle it very differently. Most have no idea what to do. Some enable the addict and some are even codependent on the addict.

The Codependent Family

I had a patient who was living with her mother. My patient was on disability and addicted to opiates. Every couple weeks she would receive a disability check from the government and her first action was to pick up her drug of choice. After returning home she would proceed to get high as a kite. At this moment her mother would swoop in ask for money knowing that her daughter became much more gregarious when she was high. This continued until my patient came to me for help. We worked together to heal her from her addiction. You would think her mother would have been elated but in fact the opposite occurred. My patient started saving her money to buy a vehicle. She had dreams of owning her own home. She wanted to save to buy her son a Christmas present. Her mother became toxic and resentful as she was no longer getting her regular allowance from her daughter. My patient’s sober mind was finally able to see her mother for who she was. It turned out her mother had caused years of emotional wounds to those around her, forcing her father to leave them and her siblings to abandon the family. My patient ultimately moved out and distanced herself from her mother. She bought her car and is still saving for a home. She has regained control of her life and found her happiness again.

Another patient of mine was living with his wife. A similar scenario occurred where both him and his wife were addicted. His addiction was alcohol and hers was shopping. He would get high and give his wife money to indulge. He finally tried cutting her off once he got sober but she started shopping compulsively online. He discovered multiple credit cards in his name and cut these off too. His wife became nasty, shaming him for his past, blaming him for their troubles. She even told him that she “wished he would stop seeing that doctor and start drinking again.” This was the final straw and he divorced her. He too has found his life and happiness again.

The Enabling Family

The love for your family can complicate their chances of recovery. The desire for them to get better is so strong that you will do anything to help them, but sometimes doing nothing may be more helpful, let’s see why. Out of concern for their safety you may provide a home for them, feed them and even give them spending money. Unfortunately this is a recipe for enabling the addiction.

Think about your pet, if a dog lives out in the wild, he will be lean, having to fend for himself and work for his food. If all his needs are met and from day to day just lounge in a comfortable home, what happens? He will get fat. The same thing happens to the addict, if their needs are met, they will simply resort to their addictive substance to self treat their underlying problem.

How to help family with addiction

Step 1: Disable the addicted brain.

The sober brain has one goal, to ensure survival. It does so by ensuring a person has food and safety. When these basic needs are met the addict will resort to their drug. When these basic needs are compromised the sober brain will start to wake up.

The problem with the addict is this: The longer they can comfortably continue their addiction, the longer they will do exactly that. The temporary pleasure they get from their drug completely overshadows any incentive to get sober. The drug overrides their logical thinking. With time they may experience some hardship but they get progressively numb to it. They have worsening problems yet they continue to use. They do not live in reality and cannot see what their addiction is doing to them. Their goals diminish, they accept mediocrity or even less.

You wish you can snap your fingers and they’ll snap out of it, but it’s not that easy.

You do not have to cut them off right away, instead set certain rules and if broken follow through with the consequences.


Consistency is vital. Parents or a spouse should agree on certain principles for their loved one and stick to them no matter what.

Here are the rules

  1. If you agree to these rules you can stay or I leave.
  2. You will agree to a weekly random drug screen.
  3. If you fail, you will lose a privilege. These include phone, internet, car keys or allowed to live here.

When I have this discussion with my patient and their family I say this. “If your son/daughter/spouse gets mad just blame me, their doctor. Their emotional outburst is their addicted brain, not them. If they try to manipulate or threaten, agin the addicted brain.” I had a patient who got her way by threatening suicide. I told her mom to not give in but call 911 if she does so again. The addicted brain will struggle with these rules and lash out but you cannot give in. If you stay strong and adhere to these rules the addicted brain will weaken and their sober brain will start working again.

These rules are tough to implement but necessary to give your child an idea of what happens in the real world. They will lose their job, their family, home and everything else. An addict will lose a sense of accountability and responsibility. Strict rules will help them regain this.

Step 2: Enable their recovery

Do not enable the addiction by giving them money, food or a bed. Only pay for them to go to rehab when they request it. Allow them in your home only if they are sober and willing to prove it.

Do not give them spending money. Protect your possessions and money. The younger child’s piggy bank will get emptied. Your signature may be faked on your check book. Keep valuables locked up.

“An alcoholic will steal your wallet and lie about it, a drug addict will steal your wallet and help you look for it” – unknown

Addiction is isolating, help them find connection. The sober brain thrives on this. Enable recovery by driving them to 12-step meetings and you should go to Al-anon meetings.

Help build up their self esteem. Get involved in activities, raising money for charity, helping out at soup kitchens etc. Encourage them to pursue a career, job or skill.

Stopping drug use is not recovery. A plant that’s infested by a pest needs the pest removed but also needs sunlight, food and water to grow. Recovery means to start growing again.

An addict will stagnate in their progress, ultimately they will regress. In recovery, encourage them to work towards new goals. The more they progress, the more they will fear to lose if they relapse.

Help them improve in all key areas of life. A plant that doesn’t grow is dying. Help them grow in their physical, mental, financial, relational, spiritual health.

Should They Go To Rehab?

Ask this about your loved one’s substance use.

  1. Does the substance use cause any problems (even small ones)?
  2. Despite these problems, do they continue to use?

If the answer is yes, offer for them to go to rehab (if it is affordable). Do Not force them.

Start a discussion with your child or teenager about drug use and what could potentially happen. Remind them you love them but don’t want to see them hurt themselves. Tell them that because of their drug use a few things will change. If they are living under your roof you are allowed to enforce certain rules. You are their parent, not their friend. In this situation they need a parent. (Someone who leads by example, by serving those with them and enforcing rules for their benefit).

Often times the lack of love and friendship is what worsens addiction, the addiction in turn continues to isolate the person. Family has a natural response to try and offer more love for the addict which in turn teaches the addict that the more they use the more love they get from their family. It could become a form of getting attention. Express your love by fighting their addiction, not with force but with consistent rules. Give them love and respect. Do not shame them or blame them.

Instead of holding them tighter you need to push them away. Look at it as pushing their addiction away and not them. It’s counter intuitive but provide love to the sober child and push the addicted child away.

Some children (maybe not yours) grew up in a household devoid of love. Their parents were divorcing or using drugs themselves. Those kids grow up with something missing that they themselves cannot fully identify. Ultimately they find that drugs fill this emptiness. Addicts also tend to isolate the farther they get in their addiction. The fix is the exact opposite: Love and human connection is vital to their recovery.

Do not shame, judge, express anger or belittle them. Ever. These actions will cause an addict to feel shame, guilt, self loathing, anger and pain. These feelings are fuel to the fire of addiction. Their response will most likely be to use their drug again.

Do everything you can to enable their recovery.

Remind them they are not alone.

Drive them to AA or NA meetings (that’s Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous). Take them to an addiction doctor. Sign them up for SMART recovery online.  Get them books on recovery, self help and improving their life. Pay for them to go to rehab (I don’t have the answer as to how many times, but at least once). 

You suffer just as much as the addict in your life, maybe even more as they get  temporary relief from their suffering. You can become addicted to your loved one’s addiction. The obsession can be consuming. Something you can do is to visit Al Anon meetings, they are 12 step based meetings for the family of addicts. There you will find support and guidance from other parents going through the same thing.

I’m so sorry if some of this advice sounds harsh but again let me remind you, you are fighting your child’s addiction and not your child. Be tough on their addiction and not them.

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Thank you for reading.


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