By Anonymous, 2018
I was asked recently to make an attempt at explaining what it means to have a family member with a substance use problem, and what it is ‘really like.’ Despite knowing it would literally take a book to explain my own experiences and thoughts, being nervous and appreciating the limitations of even attempting to speak for others, I hope you will find this very summarised attempt, based on my personal experience of living alongside someone with an alcohol dependence problem, and anecdotal evidence from my SMART support group friends, useful in some way. I also very much want to thank Scottish Families for allowing me a voice.
Where to start? Firstly, I would like to say that, although, along with the group, I have found that there are very many common challenges faced by all family members, there will be variances and, without doubt, subjects I do not manage to touch on here.
Having a family member with a substance use problem, or attempting to support them through recovery, changes almost every area of our lives.
We all constantly live with the impact on us, and those around us, of the many very unsettling, at times frightening, situations, problems and worries we face. We are often very fearful for their survival, desperately seeking information and help for them. Dealing with someone who can be irrational and exhausting to interact with and look after, trying to negate the stress on, and protect the welfare of, others around the situation and, at times, very conflicted about what to do for the best due to differing needs and opinions amongst those around us.
We also often have the uncertainty of not knowing how, or where, we and our loved ones may be living next, to name but a very few. It impacts on our relationships with others, time and ability to work, how we define ourselves, how we view the world and much more.
We also experience problems with the way some services, society, and even other family members on occasion, appear to then judge and then interact with us.
It is a very stress-laden, sad and lonely life for many of us which can, and certainly did for me, lead to low self-esteem, an inability to cope healthily and eventual isolation. We are often both physically and mentally exhausted from attempting to help and maintain some normality in life whilst, at the same time, having to cope with the emotional turmoil within us caused by the much difficult, sometimes almost impossible to bear, situations we find ourselves in and having to sort out. There are times when it literally feels like torture.
For my part, one of the hardest and most unhelpful aspects of my situation, in amongst all the above, was becoming afraid to speak honestly to others anymore. Mainly because of my initial fear of the stigma attached to the subject in the first instance and also because I then encountered too many situations where I did end up feeling judged and viewed as being somehow in the wrong.
Both I, and many other family members, already live with someone who will tell us “it’s your fault” when we attempt to discuss or bring their behaviour to the fore so that it can be, firstly, acknowledged and then, hopefully, changed.
It does not help when others choose to simply ignore us or inform us that we are probably enabling the behaviour, that leaving/throwing someone out is the only solution and, furthermore, that we have very little right to be involved in or consulted on treatment.
I cannot recount properly here the feeling of total despair, exhaustion and also guilt that I was left with when, having finally persuaded my husband to seek help and, having crucial information about the very possible cause for the addiction in the first place, and, to my mind, the root that needed to be tackled, was told that services would be concentrating on my husband and that my input would not be required.
Yes, respecting choice and confidentiality is important. Is it wise to offhandedly dismiss an offer of input and assistance from someone who lives with/works to alter the situation daily and, ultimately, looks after the individual concerned? I am still to be convinced! Would services be quite so quick to dismiss a potential source of insight and assistance from family for other ill individuals? I know things are changing and this is not always the case. However, it still seems to happen too often.
We are also often, as previously mentioned, in amongst (I am referring to adults here) family members who are not able to acknowledge or assist with the problem for their own reasons. Sometimes, sadly, that can be due to them also having a substance use problem. Sometimes it is because they themselves are not able to cope with and accept that their son, daughter etc. has gone down “that route”, and they too will challenge and accuse us. I personally encountered both these scenarios and there are more. It is heart-breaking to deal with for all and causes so many conflicts, at a time when understanding and support within the family should be the priority. Society, at the same time, seems to not want to engage with us for the most part.
Having said all of the above, my personal conclusion, and, if I may, a plea to humanity whilst I have the chance, is that stigma, and all that follows it, is one of the most counter-productive and, alongside adequate support services and education on the subject, urgent issues we face. I and I believe many, no longer want to be afraid to speak to others freely or watch someone who themselves feels judged and shamed struggle even more. It only compounds the problems for all of us, and creates much more besides.
Although I know first-hand that there can be very real problems associated with the resulting behaviour, there is no shame inherent in addiction. Whether it is coffee, the internet, working, eating chocolate, sport etc., most of us have one somewhere! There is also no shame inherent in attempting to understand and help someone with an addiction problem. I would ask you to consider whether there should, perhaps, be more shame attached to allowing other human beings to become frightened, withdrawn and unwilling to seek help and speak honestly?