In families with untreated addiction where no one really knows what “it” is they are dealing with — is it a character defect, a moral weakness, a lack of love and respect or is it really a brain disease, like “they” say it is — all concerned spend endless hours blaming and shaming and slicing and dicing and mincing words. And it is that which drives the family disease of addiction. For often society, and the family member(s) themself(ves), believe there is something they (the family member) can do to make their loved one stop. And the underpinning of it all is that no one (typcially) understands addiction for what it is — a developmental, chronic, often relapsing brain disease that starts with substance misuse. It is the substance misuse that changes brain function, which in turn is what makes one person’s brain more susceptable to the five key risk factors for developing the disease (genetics, early use, social environment, mental illness and childhood trauma). And at the same time, it can be the five key risk factors that will cause one person’s brain to interact differently with substance use as compared to another’s, which in turn contributes to the development of addiction. Not only all of this, but if the underlying contributing risk factors are not treated (as in the case of mental illness, for example) in addition to stopping the substance use, it’s extremely difficult to sustain long-term recovery. [These two sources shed more light on these concepts: The Addiction Project and NIDA’s Princples of Effective Treatement.] All this to say – blaming and shaming do NOT help.
So it is my great pleasure to share’s Nadine’s guest post in which she asks, “Whose fault is it anyway?” Nadine is the owner of Virtually Nadine, a virtual assistant company that provides online administrative support and social media management to addiction specialists and social service organizations. She specializes in working with leaders in this undervalued and overworked field to help them deal with the time consuming process of running an organization. You can connect with Nadine on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, or her website.
Addiction – Whose Fault Is It Anyway? by Nadine Herring
When it comes to addiction and the reasons for it, it’s so easy to point to the family, but are we really to blame? The following appeared in my April 17, 2015 article, “The Blame Game,” published on my website, Virtually Nadine.
I have a confession to make: I watch Dr. Phil, pretty much on a daily basis. I know, I know…but I like to watch a good train wreck to wind down my day and this show never fails to disappoint.
While there have been some truly cringe worthy episodes that make you wonder why they would even put them on the air, there have also been some good episodes so things tend to balance out.
The Dr. Phil show likes to specialize in shows that deal with family dysfunction: whether that be from divorce, parent-child issues, or its favorite topic – addiction. Now let me start by saying that I think Dr. Phil’s heart is in the right place when he takes on these topics, but I don’t always agree with his methods especially when it comes to dealing with the family members of addicts.
A typical addiction episode of the Dr. Phil show usually involves the family member or friend of the addict reaching out to Dr. Phil for help in dealing with the addict. They usually have tried every option (so they say) and are reaching out to him as their last hope for their loved one. The family member(s) will usually come out first, tell their story and then the addict will be brought on stage to tell their story. Once both parties are on stage, it doesn’t tend to go well and lots of arguing and yelling ensue. Now Dr. Phil can step in and shut this down immediately and facilitate a calm, rationale conversation but that wouldn’t make for good television, so he tends to let them go at it for a while before he cuts to commercial.
Once back from commercial, Dr. Phil will talk with the addict to dig into the story a little deeper and try to find out how and why they got started using. More yelling and name calling is done, and Dr. Phil usually turns to the family member(s) and starts to go in on them, and the blame game begins. As the sibling and spouse of former addicts, I take great offense to this and usually get so angry watching him insult, patronize, and downright shame the family, that I have to change the channel!
I’m going to speak from my experience and tell you that my brother and sister’s addiction had NOTHING to do with how they were raised. My three sisters and I, along with my brother were raised in a very loving, close, two-parent home and there was no dysfunction in our family. Now my brother was the oldest, so I can’t speak to how his addiction started, but I did notice that he seemed really different to me once he got out of the army. My brother joined right after high school and was stationed overseas for a while in Asia, and I honestly think that’s where his drinking problem began. Though I was very young when he came back, I definitely noticed a change.
As for my sister, we are only 14 months apart and were extremely close, so I was there from the beginning of her addiction. I know exactly how her addiction started, and again it had nothing to do with her family life! My sister started hanging with some very shady friends who got her started with marijuana and it very quickly progressed to harder street drugs. She left home at a young age, but my parents did everything they could to help her, and I would even follow her around to try to make sure she was safe, but her friends and her addiction were more powerful than our love for her. For YEARS she would go in and out of rehabs, in and out of our lives and there was nothing we could do.
So when I see Dr. Phil jumping all over some of these families who have genuinely done everything they know to do and come to him for help and he blames them for their loved one’s addiction, it makes me upset and sad because my family has been there.
We’ve watched our family members sink deep into the abyss of addiction and tried everything we could to help them. We watched as our family was torn apart and relationships were destroyed. My parents watched their only son and I watched my brother who I idolized, slowly drink himself to death, and when he finally got sober, watched him die way too young from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 49. I watched the pain, devastation and stress of my parents as they wondered where their youngest daughter was and if she was okay. We lived for years dreading a late night phone call because we just knew it would be the police calling to tell us that she was dead. Unless you have lived with and loved an addict, you will NEVER understand how this feels.
Fortunately for my sister and our family, her story has a happy ending and she has been clean for over 10 years now and we are so very proud of her and the strength it took for her to make it through her addiction alive; her story is truly amazing.
I know that my family is not to blame for the addictions of my brother and sister and while I commend Dr. Phil for his efforts in trying to help addicts, he is doing them no favors when he tries to play the blame game with their families.