Damage To Family and Friends: Understanding Addiction as a ‘Family Disease’

In the process of recovery from an addiction; to a substance, an attitude, or an unhealthy relationship, it is essential to develop newer, healthier thought processes and behaviours that will help reduce the impulsive and compulsive ones that have been present for a long time.


“The cry of the husband or wife of an addict is often: They get all the attention while addicted, all the attention during treatment and all the attention in recovery. What about my feelings?”


The isolation and frustration of the addicts family

The pain and anger in this statement indicate the isolation and frustration of the family of the alcoholic or addict. You only have to open a newspaper to read of incidents of violence, sometimes even murder, resulting from addictive behaviour in a family. Sometimes it is the family that gets beaten up, but sometimes the family is driven to violence themselves. In either case, the emotional damage is profound, and the effects of it last for years.

In one family, two terribly frightened and bewildered children were sent into care and referred for counseling when their father, having drunk more than usual, picked a fight with the mother and strangled her. He woke in the morning to find her dead in bed. He had no recollection of what had happened, he had always loved her and his grief and remorse were terrible to see.

An 18-year-old, Irene, was sent to jail for the killing of her father. For years he had made their home life a hell, he had repeatedly taunted and humiliated his wife and had accused his two teenage daughters of being whores. They were in fact just schoolgirls. One night, Irene couldnt stand his verbal and physical abuse of her mother anymore, and she went for him with a kitchen knife. In the struggle, the knife went into his abdomen and cut a main artery.  He bled to death before he arrived at the hospital. The family is still paying the price.

These are dramatic incidents, but many families in Britain today are under this kind of emotional strain that ultimately makes family members feel murderous, even if they dont act on it. Time and again we hear frightened and angry children cry, I wish he was dead!Before families get to this state there are often years of anxiety, moments of hope and then despair again.


Living with the illness of addiction is increasingly more painful

Early in any relationship with an addict, there is little sign of a problem. Usually, husband and wife go out together to the pub or a dinner party. Slowly and insidiously the wife may notice that her husband seems to drink more than anyone else. She doesnt take much notice. But then at weekends, he seems to get home later and later from the pub at lunchtime. And during the week, before coming home from work in the evening, he again stops off at the pub. He begins to give excuses such as, Oh, I was late at the office,or I had to go and see so and so on the way home. With a little checking, she usually finds out that this is a lie.

She begins to get a bit irritated at the spoilt meals and she feels taken for granted. When she tells him, he gets defensive and may even start to blame her nagging for his staying out! So what does she do? She shuts up. She begins to question herself and says, Maybe I am being unreasonable.’

Over the years these small incidents add up. He starts to drink more when they are out with friends and is silly or embarrassing. Sometimes he gets very personal about his wife or paws other women. Maybe he just gets loud and she feels very embarrassed for him. After the children start to arrive she thinks he will settle down, and maybe for a time he does, but before long he is back into the same pattern of drinking.

“One of the most painful aspects for people living with an addict is the progressive insensitivity.”


The self-obsession and insensitivity of addicts

One of the most painful aspects for people living with an addict is progressive insensitivity.

Addicts over the years become exquisitely sensitive to self and almost totally insensitive to the feelings of others. They become the center of their own universe. Many times they say, Well, they dont care about me, they wont stick with me. No wonder I drink/take drugs.

It never seems to occur to the alcoholic or addict that it is because he or she is smelly, drunk, or insensitive, and only looking out for his own satisfaction, that a wife, husband, or partner feels anything from distaste to downright revulsion at times. But when this is expressed, it is just another reasonfor the addict to continue their behaviour.


Family guilt

Many times wives, husbands and partners are also damaged by accepting advice from the ignorant. Unless you work directly with addicts for a long time, their stories and reasons and excuses for their behaviour are totally believable. Many friends, families, doctors and social workers fall for the notion that stress makes the addict. In fact, the addict creates their own stress by their lack of performance and their diminished functioning as their addiction progresses. All these well-meaning people are inclined to say things such as, Try being nicer to him, Take her out more, It must be because you spend too much time at your work. The spouses are then made to feel more guilty and responsible, and they begin to believe that perhaps it really is their fault. You can imagine what this will do to an already shattered self-worth.

It never seems to occur to people to say, It must be awful being nice to that person who is such a pain in the neck all the time,or I wonder if that chap stays out late because she is not much fun to come home to. She looks such a mess, shes a real bitch when she drinks.The addict has a marvellous capacity to present himself as a victim, of the family, the boss, the job and even the whole world. In fact, the addict, although suffering a great deal, is most of the time anaesthetised to emotional pain. It is the family that is the victim. The wife or the husband on the receiving end often becomes quite emotionally damaged by living in a constant state of anxiety and fear.


“If you try to control and fix the situation yourself, you will only end up experiencing the most appalling fear, loneliness, pain and suffering.”


Maggie had to be medically treated for anxiety after ten years of never knowing how or when her husband would turn up. He was a gentle loving person when they first met, and she had never seen the other side of him. Early on in the marriage he started to drink more and more. There was nothing wrong at work, there was nothing wrong with their relationship, he just liked to drink and he drank more and more regularly.

After four or five years she knew he would be in late from work, there were always excuses, there were always reasons. Sometimes he would just be half an hour late, sometimes he wasnt in until 11 pm. But if she didnt have supper ready, if he was early, then she was to blame.  If it was all curled up and dried when he came in late, then that was wrong too.

After a while he started going on to drinking clubs and sometimes he wouldnt come home until two or three in the morning. He would either be upand full of himself and wanting sex, or he would be morose and bad-tempered and looking for an argument. Sometimes he wouldnt arrive home at all and she lived with the fear of a phone call from the police or a hospital. All the time he looked quite good physically, held down a good job and to most of the world he was a hell of a guy. But Maggie knew the real person she was living with, and the fear became too much to bear.


Looking after yourself

It is vital that you – the wife, the husband, the partner or family member – should take care of yourself. It doesnt matter whether the addict has gone into treatment, is still continuing their addictive behaviour, or even dies of the illness; it is essential that you too should take care of yourself and your emotions.

You have rights too, you are a person, you are worthwhile, you need to be happy and balanced and able to cope with normal life. You have a right to some peace, love, a caring family and a career. So start today taking care of yourself.

Emotional harm is just as damaging as physical harm. Whether you are hurt emotionally or battered physically, you dont have to accept it. Battered wives are often found in alcoholic marriages. You have been made to feel so worthless so many times that you seem to accept beatings as normal. The abnormal has become normal for you through habit. The fear of getting out, of being on your own, is greater than putting up with the misery, for yourself and your children.

You dont have to feel helpless, you can get help, if you are willing.

It is only when you start looking after yourself that you realise that you wont get anywhere unless the addict accepts the need for recovery. A husband cannot treat his addict wife any more than if she had cancer. A wife cannot cure her alcoholic husband any more than she could if he had heart disease.

If you try to control and fix the situation yourself, you will only end up experiencing the most appalling fear, loneliness, pain and suffering.


Jill and Andrew

Jill has never been abused physically but when her husband Andrew drinks, nothing is ever right. Jill, you know I dislike that dress, why do you wear it?’ ‘Jill, you really shouldnt have spoken as you did at dinner, you dont really know what you are talking about. In fact, he had been the one who had gone on and on and had topped every story with another, boring the dinner guests with his know-it-all remarks, until there was an awkward silence. This leaves Jill always feeling wrong. Whatever she says she is made to feel stupid or pointless.

She feels totally inhibited and immobilised and therefore unable to change her situation.

As Andrews behaviour deteriorates, Jill becomes more and more isolated. She is embarrassed to tell her parents what is going on because after all they had raised doubts about him when she got married. She doesnt tell her friends because she feels it is disloyal and letting her husband down.

She starts to tell lies, which makes her feel even more bad. She covers up for him, excuses him, and pretends everything is okay. When he starts being too hung over to get to work on Mondays, she is the one who calls up the office and lies for him.

The more Jill desperately tries to maintain normality, the more he abuses and blames her. She tries being nice, she tries being a bitch, she uses sex then withdraws it. She tries to have a new hairdo. She tries spending more time with him than with the children and whatever she does and to whatever lengths she goes, in the end, he always makes her feel that somehow she is to blame.

She starts fighting back but this doesnt work either. The evenings become cat-and-dog fights and he rushes out to the pub yet again.

She feels helpless, hopeless, and abandoned. She has no career, she married early, she has no training, and she has little money of her own. Even if she wanted to leave she knows she cant as she feels she has no resources with which to survive in the world with herself and her children. Jill is trapped and afraid. She has kept most of this to herself. Its not surprising that she has become emotionally crippled.

Men suffer just as much if the woman is the drinker. Even if they have the advantage of greater financial security and a more successful career, they suffer just as much emotionally.


If you are in need of help, advice or support, call us today on +44 (0) 1534 729060 or email

This article has been edited for use on our website with kind permission from James and Joyce Ditzler from their book Coming Off  Drink.

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