Addiction Is a Family Disease

by Maureen Cavanagh
May 12, 2019

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
—Viktor Frankl

We’ve all heard the expression that “addiction is a family disease.” Growing up in a family where, more often than not, holidays, family gatherings, or just an ordinary Tuesday night ended in a drunken brawl, I swore I would not catch the family disease. The devastation of addiction reached far and wide in my family. I was the poster child for a person who should have a substance use disorder.

Instead, I dodged the bullet but carried the genes and the scars. Addiction is called a family disease because no one is spared the impact. Everyone suffers the pain. Some of us wear the wounds on the outside, and many carry them deep beneath the surface. The toll addiction takes on the loved ones supporting the person who struggles, the children who grow up in the dysfunctionality of a relapsing brain disease, and those who are left behind by the ever-climbing death toll ensures they are never the same. I may have distanced myself from my family of origin, moving away and avoiding the chaos, but my daughter, Katie, would inherit the genetic predisposition, and I would spend decades in therapy digging at the roots of my childhood trauma and then in therapy again, years later, dealing with the pain of watching my beloved child self-destruct, taking the entire family down with her.

Each person who loved my sweet Katie handled the pain differently. Some were angry. Others created distance and felt they couldn’t interact with her, leaving both her and them unsupported. Her younger brother held in his fear and pain, acting as if he was okay, being supportive, but eventually falling apart. As for Katie’s father and me, we jumped into that bottomless pit with her and tried to help, which looked a lot like slowly destroying ourselves. In our effort to fix her, we created physical boundaries but no emotional boundaries at all. Our own relationships crumbled, work suffered, and life revolved around the hope and fear of a phone call from Katie. The family disease had come full circle, and we were all infected. As with many diseases that you might feel responsible for contracting, we gave in to shame and stigma and did our best while we suffered in silence.

All of the worst things in life seem to grow in the dark. The moment I reached out for help and connection was the turning point. When I shined the light on the problem by educating myself, attending meetings, and finally understanding she was suffering from a disease, I began to view the symptoms as something separate from my daughter. That meant that my little girl was still in there somewhere, and I could remain hopeful that she would come back to us once the symptoms subsided.

In the meantime, I could only take care of myself until she was ready and let her know that, no matter what happened, I would love her. We had to learn to love ourselves, too, and create boundaries with our emotions. Riding the roller coaster we were on was slowly killing us. I realized that I couldn’t fix the disease of addiction any more than I could have cured any other disease. I was not that powerful. In fact, I was powerless over her addiction. We all were.

We were finally educated, supported, and ready to speak out. We all, Katie included, started the process of recovery. As with any tragedy or deadly disease that affects a family, reaching out to others who have walked a similar path and finding support has made the journey easier, and the hope is that exposing the darkness will be the beacon others can use as a guide to heal.

Magnolia Recovery and Consulting Services 
MacMillan Speakers Bureau 
If You Love Me: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Opioid Addiction
Collateral Damage Podcast 
Taking Back Your Life Podcast

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Maureen Cavanagh

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