For each person with an addiction, it’s estimated that seven others will be directly affected.
That’s why it’s important to involve family members in treatment.
“When someone is addicted, whether it is alcohol, street drugs, gambling, or the Internet, it impacts everyone else in the family. Families live in silence, fear and shame,” says Linda Bell, president and CEO of Bellwood Health Services in Toronto.
Addiction is fairly common. Alcohol addiction alone affects about one in 10 people in Canada, and there are many other addictions besides alcohol. You can tell it’s an addiction if it’s interfering with other parts of the person’s life and they can’t stop.
There’s a great deal of shame and secrecy attached to addiction, and Bell hopes talking about it helps people understand that it’s an illness.
“We talk about cancer, heart disease and breast exams. But we don’t talk about addiction and how to get out of it. People think it’s willpower. That’s like trying to recover from lung cancer with willpower.”
When people with an addiction finally reach out for help, the problem is often very far gone.
“People who come are in crisis,” says Bell. “Examples might be, their doctor has said their liver is enlarged, they’re having gastrointestinal problems, they’ve been charged with impaired driving, they’ve had a car accident, they’re bankrupt, their job is on the line, or they’ve been caught stealing.
By the time the addiction gets to that point, the family has been through hell.
“It becomes very stressful for the other people. Their loved one might be at the race track, the casino, the bar. Life becomes unpredictable and chaotic. Everybody stops talking about it.”
Family members often feel guilt and shame. Children stop bringing friends home; partners become isolated.
“Families will have lived with this for many, many years before the bottom falls out,” says Bell.
Her advice? “Reach out. Find help.” There are addiction services in every community. The recovery process is much easier and more successful if you intervene early, she says. In the general population, about 70 to 75 per cent do well in recovery.
Treatment can be a long, slow process — typically five years — and the degree of success depends on the person’s motivation. Treatment focuses on retraining the brain, teaching the patient to know they are smart and valuable, and giving the brain a rest through a period of abstinence. It culminates in a 12-step recovery program for both the addict and the family.
“It’s a treatable problem,” says Bell. “People get better.”