Facing Addiction in America, the first-ever “Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health” issued in April, placed addiction alongside smoking and AIDS as a major public health crisis in our country.
The report called the addiction epidemic “a moral test for America:”
“Most Americans know someone with a substance use disorder, and many know someone who has lost or nearly lost a family member as a consequence of substance misuse. Yet, at the same time, few other medical conditions are surrounded by as much shame and misunderstanding as substance use disorders.”
The substance abuse epidemic rages on, leaving countless victims in its wake. In fact, the Surgeon General’s report estimates there were 27 million addicted patients in 2015.
“That’s more than cancer … more than diabetes,” said Dr. Michael Genovese, a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in behavioral health and the Chief Medical Officer at Acadia Healthcare, who sees daily the toll the crisis is taking. “Everyone is a victim, families are changed. This is a disease that affects so many people.”
In fact, the loved ones of addicted patients deserve as much attention. That’s because the repercussions of addiction resonate far beyond the addicted patient, also affecting family members. They include:
- Legal issues
- Financial stress
- Healthcare concerns
- Emotional trauma and strain, and more
Addiction is a Medical Condition
Dr. Genovese believes addiction is a medical condition – the neurobiology of the disease involves two co-occurring ways to become addicted: a genetic predisposition and an environmental component. Importantly, he believes addiction should be treated with the same respect as other conditions.
“The behaviors of an addicted patient — manipulation, betrayal, theft — are so different from other health issues,” said Dr. Genovese. “That’s because the addicted patient’s brain has become wired differently.”
“No one enjoys being addicted to anything,” Dr. Genovese explained. “Withdrawal is awful. Your bones hurt, you vomit, you have no bowel control. The addicted patient is not searching for a high as much as they are trying to just not feel that way. It’s like needing to eat breakfast because you are hungry.”
“Addiction is not a moral failing or weakness. It is a disease of the brain,” Dr. Genovese continued. “We would never tell someone with diabetes simply to pull themselves together.”
Yet, that is often the exact message heard by addicted patients and their families. And that can take a toll as well.
Caregivers Suffer Too
It is not uncommon for family members to feel somewhat responsible for their loved one’s addictions. They could have a sense of guilt or feel regret, thinking they could have done more to prevent the addiction. Many feel alone in their struggles, as if the only ones who understand are fellow caregivers of addicted patients. Finally, they may feel embarrassed as the stigma against addicted patients is very real.
According to drugabuse.com, a listing of resources to connect treatment seekers with certified treatment providers, having an addicted loved one is a huge cause of stress, which negatively impacts mental and physical health. Some indications of that stress can include:
- Poor or inconsistent relationships with people, including the addicted person
- Feelings of depression, sadness, and hopelessness
- Feelings of anger and rage
- Increased physical health complaints
- Reduced concentration and attention
- Overeating or eating too little
Caregivers may become so overwhelmed by the needs and concerns of others that they forget to take care of themselves. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation refers to this as compassion fatigue. The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) calls caregivers the “overlooked victims of addiction.”
That’s why it’s so important for caregivers to take care as well.
Self-Care Is Important
Dr. Genovese uses the analogy of an airline’s safety message: Put your own mask on first.
Family is an addicted patient’s primary support. But if family members are burnt out, they cannot be helpful, essentially leaving the addicted patient without a support system. Dr. Genovese believes that in an addicted patient’s family, everyone has to take care of each other and must recognize that the addicted patient cannot take care of themselves.
Dr. Genovese recommends this mantra for families: No shaming, no blaming. He said family members should live by this credo, and demand that others follow the same rule. He tells families: “it is not your fault, it is not the addict’s fault. I hope you have people around to help you and your loved one get the care (s)he needs. Recovery is hard and there is no guarantee of a good outcome.”
Where to Go for Help for Opioid Addictions
Many medical and mental healthcare professionals suggest reaching out to caregiver support groups like Al Anon or Nar Anon. These organizations can provide a much-needed lifeline for those struggling to meet the needs of their loved one, while offering suggestions on how to safeguard their own health and well-being.
“Lots of places offer care,” Dr. Genovese said. “Really good entities should offer addiction treatment that also includes family work – whatever ‘family’ means to you.”
Dr. Genovese added the following organizations which offer in his opinion, “unbiased resources for services or good information for getting help”:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- The American Psychiatric Association (APA)
- The American Medical Association (AMA)
- American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (AAAP)
- The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
If you are interested in learning more about the science of addiction, read how researchers have identified where anxiety and addiction live in the brain.