Switch on any entertainment show on any given day, and chances are you will hear about an actor, pop star or other well-known personality admitting that they have an addiction problem. While some are able to overcome it and get on with their lives and careers, others suffer significant loss.
For ordinary people, the results of addiction may not be as public but they are just as tragic. Marriages fall apart. Children may be taken away from their parents. Homes, friendships, careers, and even lives are lost. We watch the devastation and wonder why on earth a person would risk everything for just a drink, or a hit, or the spin of a roulette wheel. Don’t they care?
The truth is that they usually do care, desperately. But addiction – of any kind – is not just deliberate self-indulgence. It is an overpowering mental disorder. The addict can no more control the addiction than a diabetic can control the way their body produces insulin. So, unless the person seeks help to take control of their illness, the behaviour will continue despite all consequences.
Seeing a loved one struggle with addiction is confusing and stressful. Often, while the focus is on the addict’s issues, close family members also suffer emotionally, financially, and physically. Thankfully, there is growing recognition and support for these hidden victims.
As part of its Addiction Services Program, Wiliam Osler Health Centre offers a range of services for people who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling as well as programs for their family members and friends. Osler’s treatment programs include a Withdrawal Management Centre that provides urgent care for adults and Drug and Alcohol and Problem Gambling Counselling Services that offer assessments, referrals, and treatment.
Family support services include a ‘Family, Friends and Community Information Day’ – a workshop offered every six weeks; one-on-one counselling; and a family support group that generally runs about 12 weeks. People who complete the 12 weeks are offered Alumni status so that they can continue attending the group longer if they feel the need.Versa Dean, Wendy Linton and Martha Smith are all Addiction Counsellors at Osler who also work with families. All are familiar with the ripple effect of addiction. “It’s a family problem,” Dean said. “People who have a primary addiction know they need help. But often, their family members are also in need of support.”
The signs of a drug, alcohol, or gambling issue may begin subtly – sums of money disappearing from a household account, calls from strangers, or long periods when the addicted person is away from home or work. Eventually, the problem escalates. Addicts are so consumed by their cravings that they can become secretive, dishonest, financially irresponsible, and even abusive. This is tremendously frustrating for their loved ones. Yet, much of the counselling process involves helping people understand that they cannot change or control an addict’s behaviour.
“It’s not about changing the addict. It’s about setting boundaries. Even though family members may mean well, they can actually do more harm by taking on all the responsibility,” Linton said. For example, a parent who consistently lends money to an adult child with drug-related debts is actually reinforcing the addictive behaviour by not allowing the person to face the consequences of their addiction.
At times, setting boundaries may involve drastic steps such as dissolving a marriage or letting a family member go into bankruptcy. However, Smith noted that it does not have to mean abandoning the addicted person. “Sometimes the right thing to do is really hard. But people can explore the ‘gray area’É changing a relationship rather than cutting it off entirely.”
As difficult as it is to watch a loved one struggle with addiction, there is hope. As all the counsellors point out, success is a relative thing. Many addicts may never be entirely free of their addiction, but they can seek treatment and make positive lifestyle changes. And with knowledgeable support and guidance, family members can learn to take care of themselves throughout this difficult process.