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Ask a Counselor: How can I help my family understand what I’m going through?

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

By Addiction Policy Forum

Reaching out for help can feel extremely overwhelming. Many first-time callers to the Addiction Policy Forum helpline are feeling hopeless, helpless, and alone. When they muster up the courage to consider reaching out, they are faced with many unknowns— Who will I talk to? Will they be able to help me? In this column, our counselors answer common questions about substance use disorder:

“How can I help my family understand what I’m going through?”

It can feel frustrating and isolating when your loved ones don’t understand the disease of addiction. One of the things that you can do to try to help educate your family is to provide them with evidence-based information about substance use disorder and its impacts on the brain. This basic science can help people understand why addiction is a health condition, not a moral failing.

Addiction is the most severe form of substance use disorder. It is considered a brain disease because in some people substance use changes how the brain works. The two main parts of the brain affected by substance use are the limbic system and the cortex. The limbic system is responsible for our basic survival instincts, like eating, drinking, finding shelter, and protecting our young. When we do these things our brain releases dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical). The brain remembers that feeling, and seeks it again. Using substances can activate the same “feel-good” process, then the brain remembers seeks it again. Continued substance use can hijack the brain, making it think that using substances is more important than all of the things we actually need to survive, like eating, drinking, and finding shelter. Substance use also affects the cortex, which is responsible for impulse-control and decision-making. These changes make it progressively more difficult to stop the unhealthy behaviors that are common among people with an active substance use disorder.

We have some great, free resources that translate the science into digestible information, and can help you and your loved ones to better understand this disease:

When someone is struggling with substance use it impacts the whole family, so it’s crucial to bolster the support systems and self-care routines of the family members, as well as the person who is struggling. Dr. Caroline DuPont, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction medicine and anxiety disorders, recommends that family members “first turn to the basic principles of health required by all: sleep, nutrition, exercise, sunshine, and positive content.” Looking at these habits can provide us with a vast amount of knowledge. These may seem like basic concepts, but prioritizing wellness can make a huge impact on how we feel and can help us to deal with stress in healthy ways.

There are also support groups and programs for friends and family of people with active use disorders and in recovery. Some examples of these support groups include Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and SMART Recovery Friends and Family. These support services can be a great place for impacted families to connect with others who’ve been through what they’re going through. Additionally, individual and family therapy can be incredibly helpful for families healing from the trauma of addiction.

Finally, please remember that you are not alone. 20 million people struggle with substance use in the United States and nearly half of adults have a close friend or relative who has been addicted to drugs. Addiction Policy Forum's trained counselors are here for you and your loved ones 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We can help find local treatment and support services for you and your whole family. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 833-301-HELP-- we are here for you.

Addiction Policy Forum is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating addiction as a major health problem. Our national headquarters is located in Washington, DC with resources and services in every state.


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