Whose Life Is it Anyway? The Impact of Addiction on the Family

addiction hurts the whole family

By Carolyn Hughes

Addiction is an overpowering and potentially life-threatening disease, so naturally the individual concerned will be the focus of intervention and treatment. But the reality is that addiction can have a physical, emotional and financial impact on us all. From increased crime and health care costs to lost productivity in the workplace, substance abuse costs the economy hundreds of billions of dollars. The cost for those who love and care for the addict is even higher.

It’s my life and I can stop when I want to

During my time of active addiction I justified my dependency on the basis that I had a right to self-medicate because of the traumas of my childhood. As a functioning alcoholic I felt that as long as I got through my working day that it was acceptable to drink excessively.

I completely denied the impact my alcoholism could be having on my friends and colleagues and because I had no immediate family at the time, I believed that the only person I was harming was myself. I was wrong.

Substance abuse traps you in a selfish cycle of self-destruct, and denial becomes a primary method to avoid taking responsibility for your thoughts, words and actions. You convince yourself that it’s your life, that you have control and that you can stop when you want to.

But the truth is that when you cross from occasional use into dependency and then into the depths of addiction, your life is no longer your own. Without intervention, effective treatment and a commitment to recovery, you may end up losing your life altogether.

There are two sides to every story

If you’re already struggling to manage the physical and mental damage that substance abuse causes, the last thing you want to confront is the devastation you have inflicted on others. Similarly, if you are on the receiving end of the manipulating and overwhelming power of addiction, it may be difficult to understand the complexity and seriousness of the situation.

Lisa Frederiksen states that “there are two sides to the drinking equation – the person doing the drinking that causes drinking behaviors and the person on the receiving end of the drinking behaviors – that is, the person experiencing secondhand drinking (SHD).”

Anyone who has lived with or cared for an addict will be aware of the destructive social, physical, financial and emotional issues caused by secondhand drinking. These can include covering for or colluding with the user, isolating and avoiding friends and family, suffering from low moods and anxiety, worrying about money difficulties, and even becoming dependent on substances. Clearly then the impact of addiction stretches far beyond the physical and mental state of the individual user.

Helping or hindering?

While the addict may use justification and denial to remain in dependency, those who seek to help them may in fact be hindering their ability to recognize their problems or to recover.

If you are a family member or partner who is supporting and caring for an addict then be mindful of the possibility that you could be enabling.

If you are allowing someone to avoid being accountable, if you are rescuing them from self-inflicted chaos, if you are ignoring or overlooking unacceptable behaviors, then you are enabling. Ultimately, enabling can also mean putting the life of the addict before your own.


Just like any other serious illness, without treatment, addiction can have devastating consequences. But unlike many illnesses, there are many positive steps that can be life-saving and life-changing for everyone concerned.

Finding an effective program with specialized support is the first step to long-term recovery. This was the route I took to turn my own life around. After 20 years of abusing I couldn’t imagine living life without a drink and I didn’t want to carry on life with a drink. An alcohol-induced suicide attempt marked my turning point, but with the encouragement and support of dedicated professionals I was able to reclaim my life. Now 16 years on I celebrate each day as the person I was meant to be.

The disease of addiction makes no distinction between the user and carer. So while the number-one priority remains getting treatment for the addict, it is just as essential that loved ones obtain support and guidance. Don’t minimize the importance of your own life by thinking it’s really about them. It’s not. It’s not just their life that is at risk. It’s yours too.