There is a tendency in my mother’s family to blame everything on her father. He was a violent, angry man, whose entire adult life revolved around alcohol. My mother and her siblings blamed him for the family’s poverty, for several of them being raised in foster care, and for so many other struggles the family faced over the many years of his addiction.
Taking a Closer Look
I blamed him for the dysfunction that passed on to my generation: most of my mother’s siblings were still a wreck from their childhoods while they were trying to parent their own children.
I was an adult before it occurred to me to ask why my grandfather behaved this way. Once I finally knew that my grandfather was the child of an alcoholic who was also the child of an alcoholic, the pieces started to fall into place. Like many families that struggle with addiction, my family can trace substance abuse back through the generations.
Addiction as a Genetic Disease
In her Ted Talk entitled “What’s your Story? Family, Addiction and the Brain”, Dr. Melissa Vayda, Founder of the Addiction Foundation, a program that provides education and support for loved ones of people who suffer from addiction, describes addiction as hereditary. She explains it this way: “Like water flowing through a cavern, creating a river, the longer it goes, the deeper the river gets and the harder it is for the river to change course. That’s exactly how the addiction pathways in your brain are created from the neurons. They get deeper and deeper, and […] the longer [the addiction] goes untreated, the more likelihood that it’s going to get passed on from generation to generation.”
Dr. Vayda describes addiction as a disease that can be inherited, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. The good news is that addiction can be managed to allow for a full and healthy life.
Addiction as a Result of Conditioning
The nature v. nurture debate applies to addiction as well. Yes, there is a genetic component, but addiction can also result from environmental factors, including how we are raised. According to Psychology Today, active addiction destabilizes the family and muddles relationships. In response, family members develop unhealthy patterns of behavior, which can become chronic and long-term. We learn what we live. This can include using substances to ignore unpleasant realities and avoid unwanted responsibilities or compensating for someone who does.
The article goes on to promote healing for those who face addiction and for their loved ones, a process that requires education about addiction and family dynamics and training in skills like communication.
Recovery for Families
My great-great-grandfather was an alcoholic, who passed on his unhealthy choices to my great-grandfather, who passed them on to my grandfather, who passed them along to several members of my mother’s generation and then my own. Breaking an addiction cycle like this one involves a lot of hard work, education, and introspection.
Families can take a number of steps to better understand addiction and get the tools needed to move forward. These include:
- Educating themselves about addiction and the impact it can have on families. Children whose parents have faced addiction should learn the traits that are common among children raised in households with addiction.
- Finding support via online or in-person support groups designed for family members who are coping with the addiction of a loved one.
- Seeking out therapy, either as an individual or as a family.
- Practicing good self-care and boundary setting.
- Recognizing any codependent behaviors that exist in their relationships and addressing these.
- Utilizing the opportunity to engage with their loved one’s treatment program via family events.
At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we work with our guests and their support system to build a strong network for recovery. Our family education program teaches families to rebuild trust, engage in healthy communication, avoid enabling, and manage stress.