To those who have lived and struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, it should come as no surprise that addiction is generally considered to be a family disease. It’s something that we’ve covered numerous times, whether discussing the family’s role in staging a successful intervention or questioning how the children who have grown up in households of addiction can receive the help they need. Alcoholism and addiction can even affect a child from birth. And those who succumb to addiction will often leave their parents in a state of tragedy.
In short, every member of the family is affected by this disease. Sometimes, the effects are related to the manner in which people stereotype their suffering loved one. Other times, the effects are more relevant to the core of the family dynamic itself. That is the aspect of addiction as a family disease upon which we would now like to cast our focus. After discussing the ways in which addiction manifests itself as a family disease, we will cover a story which provides an example of the worst-case scenarios faced by some families. Then, to show you that there is hope, we will provide two stories about families that have been able to recover.
The first half of this article is bleak. It will be difficult for some to read the description of addiction as a family disease and the story of those who have been affected by it in the worst ways possible. But should you suffer through it, the latter half of this article will show you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We hope that you will find your way to this light, and experience the wondrous joys that life in recovery can bring to both addicts and those who love them.
How Addiction Affects the Family
There is a great article on About.com which covers addiction as a family disease. While the article’s focus is on alcoholism, it manages to hit all of the major points about addiction in general. One of the first major points discussed by the author is how addiction becomes a family disease in the first place. The point in question is made through the following metaphor:
“If you put a frog into a pan of boiling water, it will jump out faster than the eye can see. But if you put the frog into a pan of water that is the frog’s body temperature and then slowly turn up the heat the frog will stay in the water—even to the point of boiling alive. Why? Because the frog does not notice the gradual change in temperature.”
We’ve actually talked about this before, in our list of signs of addiction to watch out for. The first sign we discussed was an increase in substance use, something which should be intuitive. But it can be so easy to grow accustomed to a loved one’s behavior that we do not always notice it at first. This means that those who live with an addict or alcoholic may unintentionally enable that person’s use. This is not to say that they know the person is in need of help and simply does not give it to them, but that they do not even recognize the disease from which their loved one is suffering. For a prime example of this, read our article on the death of Amy Winehouse. Her father felt as if he was lambasted by the press for saying that he felt she didn’t need rehab, but that was early in her addiction. The water had only just started to reach a boiling point, and he had not yet noticed the change in temperature.
But refusal to send a person to treatment is not the only sign of enabling. Some of the most common examples of enabling include making excuses for the addict, giving them money, and simply trying to solve problems for them that they should be able to solve on their own. Laurie Kesaris, a frequent contributor to our site who has first-hand experience with addiction as a family disease, wrote about her own experiences with enabling. It’s a fascinating and insightful read, which begins with a particularly chilling (and very true) observation: “You really can love them to death.”
Enabling usually arises from codependency. Psychology Today defines codependent relationships as “close relationships where much of the love and intimacy in the relationship is experienced in the context of one person’s distress and the other’s rescuing or enabling.” The problem is that it doesn’t help either party. The addict does not learn to care for themselves and handle their own problems, meaning that they may never seek treatment. They might find themselves racking up major legal issues, knowing that the enabler will always be there to bail them out and pay for their legal fees. The enabler, meanwhile, might suffer financially as a result of always trying to save the one they love. They might also find their other relationships neglected which, needless to say, will have a negative impact on the rest of the family.
Addict and enabler are only two of the roles exhibited by those who experience addiction as a family disease. There are four other commonly accepted roles that various family members might embody. The first is the “hero,” generally the oldest child (the enabler is usually a spouse or parent). They will do everything they can to keep the family above water, and will often be very financially stable as a result. It is not uncommon for the hero to hold deep resentment toward the addict. The same might be said of the “lost child” and the “scapegoat.” While the lost child is generally ignored as a result of the addict eating up so much attention, the scapegoat is actually chastised harshly for any mishaps for which they can be blamed. When a family is in denial of the addict’s habits, it is not uncommon for them to seek a scapegoat in order to vent their feelings. Finally, there is the “mascot.” The mascot, often the youngest of the family, receives the most positive attention. They either don’t know what is going on, or they try to keep everyone amused and happy because they do know what’s going on. Either way, they are more or less the opposite of the scapegoat.
Not every family will contain members fulfilling each of these roles. By contrast, some family members might experience multiple roles at once. The hero can also be the lost child, and some children might swing back and forth between scapegoat and mascot. These roles are not set in stone by any means. They simply help to paint a picture of addiction as a family disease. Nobody escapes the effects of addiction in any family. Whether it drives them to denial, emotional troubles, or the need to save everyone they can, everyone in the household will become a victim of the disease.
The Dangers of Family Disease
The Mirror tells one particularly harrowing story about addiction as a family disease, and how one family suffered three deaths across two generations, with three generations impacted due to heroin addiction. This story concerns the Taylor family, living in the United Kingdom. They were a happy and loving family, but things began to spiral downward when matriarch Gaynor passed away in 1993 due to lung cancer. Her husband, Christopher, began using heroin. He could not have foreseen the domino effect that this would have on his five sons and one daughter.
His daughter, Jade, saw Christopher using heroin when she was only 15 years of age. Addiction became a family disease in the worst sense when she began using as well. At the time of the Mirror’s publication, Jade was on methadone and was doing everything in her power to combat her addiction. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. She injected while she was pregnant, and her son inherited her disease. In fact, her son is her primary motivation to continue her recovery. She does not want to lose him to the same disease that impacted her father so badly that the children were split up into foster homes.
While the family may have been split, Jade did not fall out of touch with her brothers. That’s why she knows that three of her brothers (Mark, Chris, and Justin) are all struggling with their own heroin addictions. It was also how she discovered in 2005 that Paul, her eldest brother, had died of a heroin overdose. He was only 25 at the time of his death. At that time, Jade had told herself that she would never become a drug addict. Unfortunately, many addicts were once people who have made this exact same vow.
When Jamie was 16, she encountered the third death in her family (and the second due to heroin). Her brother Jamie, who was 18 at the time, had died of a heroin overdose. By the time of Jamie’s passing, Jade was already fully aware of just how badly this family disease had spread. Two of her brothers had died, and the remaining three were all addicted to the same drug. Her father still struggled with it, and had only become worse over time since the death of her mother. And in 2007, it finally took his life. His drinking and his heroin use resulted in pneumonia, and he died at the age of 48. She wanted to know more about the drug that had affected every member of her family, and so she decided to try it for herself.
Jade soon became homeless, but she still couldn’t stop chasing the dragon. It was only around four years ago, after her son Conner’s birth, that she received the true wake-up call she needed. She had never seen a baby born with heroin addiction before, and the sight was jarring: “He was shaking and jittery and had a high-pitched squeal. I did that to him.” She is now struggling with her addiction and is hoping that social services will not take Conner away from her.
Jade might see some light at the end of the tunnel, but for her brothers, it may be too late. Only time will tell. And it all started when just one man’s addiction became a family disease. Luckily, the next two stories have happier endings.
Stories of Hope: Part 1
Another family out of the United Kingdom, the Prevas family, had a much different experience with addiction as a family disease. It did not spread as it did with the Taylors, and the issue was only faced by one of them. Nonetheless, it gripped all of them. But not only was their daughter able to recover, but the effects on the family were eased. In fact, they were so grateful for their daughter’s recovery that they held an awareness event in York County to share their stories with others, which is when the tale of their recovery was covered by the York Dispatch.
Jill and Chris Prevas noticed their daughter’s struggles with drug addiction when she was just a teenager. Now 23, she has been in recovery for five years. Their event is not to celebrate her recovery, but rather to spread awareness due to the growing epidemic of drug-related deaths in their county. However, when their daughter was still struggling with addiction, the Prevas family never thought of themselves as people who would be able to help others. As is often the case with the parents of addicted, they felt as if they were failures for being unable to help the one person who mattered most to them.
Chris Prevas was especially vocal in the family’s discussion with the York Dispatch. He said that he blamed himself for his daughter’s troubles, believing that it was his duty as a father to protect her. He was quoted as saying: “As a dad, I didn’t know what to do at first.” He said that the ultimate lesson he had to learn was that addiction as a family disease needed to be addressed. Not only did his daughter need professional help as she would with any other disease, but everyone had to do their part to help her. And the main thing that they needed to do was to stop enabling her.
Harry Carnahan, one of the speakers at the Prevas family’s “Break Free from Addiction” event and an operator of one recovery house and three sober living houses, speaks to the type of feeling experienced by Chris Prevas. In Carnahan’s words: “You can feel so much pity that you don’t have the ability to take action—you’re paralyzed.” That’s one of the worst forms of enabling because it can be the hardest to recognize. Enabling is not just doing things for the addict that they should be able to do for themselves; enabling can also take the form of inaction.
The Prevas family was able to learn the important lessons before they suffered a death in their family. They learned when it was time to intervene and put an end to their daughter’s self-destructive behavior. More importantly, they learned that her behavior was not their fault. That is not the core of what “enabling” means. They saw addiction for what it was: a disease. And by acknowledging that fact, they empowered themselves to overcome their own symptoms of the horrible family disease from which they were suffering.
Stories of Hope: Part 2
The next story takes place here in the United States, and is a bit more unique in the sense that it actually pertains to two families. This story, covered in part by NBC News back in February of 2014, involves mothers Carol Christiansen and Susan Salamone. They both lost their respective sons, Erik and Justin, to heroin addiction. But while some might think that their deaths would be the end of the story (as it nearly was for Jade Taylor above), these two families were able to come together and spread awareness in a fashion similar to that of the Prevas family.
Carol Christiansen and her daughter (who is not named in the story) discussed the loss of Erik Christiansen with NBC. He was an undercover narcotics officer for the NYPD, but he eventually became hooked on drugs himself. When he was 28 years old, he lost his life to an overdose. Carol was devastated as a mother. In her words: “It breaks my heart that there’s no future. There’s no Erik being a sergeant, getting married, having children.” The light went out on his life, but it drove Carol to seek out Susan Salamone when she saw an article in the paper about her son, Justin. The article was written by Susan herself, and the two decided to help each other spread awareness and help other families to recover.
The website for their non-profit organization, Drug Crisis in Our Backyard, tells the full story of Justin Salamone. He began smoking marijuana when he was 16 years of age, but began experimenting with other drugs in college. In his early 20s, he started abusing Percocet and other medications. Susan and her husband tried to help Justin, taking him to therapy as well as 12-step meetings. They then sent him to a thirty-day rehab program in 2008, after he was arrested for Oxycontin possession. After treatment, however, he graduated to heroin use and stole money from his parents to pay for the habit. After that, the family tried Vivitrol treatment. It worked well, and Justin even began getting help for some co-occurring mental issues that had been left unattended. Unfortunately, however, Justin Salamone relapsed again in 2011. This time, Susan’s 22-year-old son Andrew told her husband that Justin had overdosed. He did not die, but he was disabled due to a brain injury. In 2012, the disease finally killed him.
The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous states in a chapter excerpt read prior to every AA meeting: “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.” (Emphasis ours.)
Justin Salamone and Erik Christiansen were such unfortunates. They were not men who did not care about their families, but simply people who fought a losing battle against a treacherous illness. Fortunately, their families were able to move forward with a message of hope. As a result, they are now spreading awareness and are helping other families to cope with similar losses. They are also fighting to prevent other families from suffering such losses in the first place. Their family disease could have crippled them with despair. Instead, it drove them to improve the lives of other families who have faced this disease. It is not the happiest story in the world. But it isn’t the worst, by any means.
The story of the Taylors was terrifying, but at least there is hope for Jade. The Prevas family saw their daughter survive and get the help that she needed. The Christiansen and Salamone families were not so lucky, but at least they were able to spread a message of hope and help other families who have been through similar ordeals. Each of these stories demonstrates its own version of light at the end of the tunnel, even if that light in the case of the Taylors is unfortunately somewhat dimmer. There is always hope for a family to recover, as long as there is breath within their bodies.
Those who take advantage of our programs here at Amethyst Recovery will find their lives enriched, and will be given the tools they need so that they and their families can recover from this most sinister disease. Addiction may be a family disease, but families can work together to find the strength they need to engage in a healing process. If you know someone is struggling, or even if you have lost someone already, always know that life can still become better. It is never too late to be happy, joyous, and free. Happiness is a choice that we make; please, make that choice today.