6 Things I Learned From My Family's Legacy of Addiction

By Lisa Marie Basile 07/26/17

For a long time, I struggled with this idea—how could drug abuse be a brain disease if it takes a bad decision to kick into action?

A childish drawn picture showing a man separated from a woman holding the hand of an unhappy child.
Addiction is a family disease

Addiction runs thick through my family’s blood. My grandfather—a hardworking Navy vet—took to the drink early on, eventually dying at the young age of 63 from health complications not helped by the endless beer he drank. My mother looks at old polaroids from the 60s and 70s, and with a single glance she can tell if her father was drunk. He always was, she says matter-of-factly, as if she has long-since accepted the pain of her truth.

My grandmother, a wonderful, warm woman, was warned not to drink in her last few years; she did it anyway. Their addictions loomed over our family from childhood; and because of this, I never knew a life without worry. When I got a little older, both of my parents gave into their respective addictions. Life became an revolving door of detoxes and rehabs and relapses and AA meetings (and eventually, foster care). The journey, as a child of an addict, has been a long one, and I have learned a lot along the way:

1. Addiction is a disease in many ways.

According to Drug Abuse.gov, “Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.”

For a long time, I struggled with this idea—how could drug abuse be a brain disease if it takes a bad decision to kick into action? In that sense, wouldn’t it be a choice? Sure. My family—and the millions of people who chose to use drugs or alcohol chronically—made a bad decision, but addiction definitely has a biological component.

“There is a genetic influence on alcoholism and other addictions, and prolonged substance-abuse often damages brain structures that mediate self-governance,” according to a 2013 report by Frontiers in Psychology. In the end, whether addiction is biological or not, the root of any disease is something that’s sick or has been broken—something that’s just not working. That could be depression or PTSD or something else, and that’s the most important thing to remember…

2. Which is why it’s important to have compassion.

It seems like it’s easy for some people to vilify folks suffering with substance abuse issues, and that it’s harder to develop compassion (the stigma has done a number on our perception of addiction, for one). Like this piece from the National Counsel on Alcoholism says, addiction becomes a family disease. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s basically mom, dad, the addiction, and the kids all living under one roof—in whatever family setup you’ve got going on. I know it felt like that for me, like my parents had a shadow-twin; was I going to see my mom? Or was I going to see her shadow-self?

People have always asked me how I managed to “forgive and forget,” how I am able to let go of the fact that my childhood was affected by the near-constant chaos of substance abuse issues. The fact is—I didn’t forget (because I’m human!) but I have forgiven my family members. Addiction, no matter the stigma attached to it, is a disease. There is definitely a “bad choice” component here, but lots of people make bad choices. Do we all deserve to be reminded of our sins over and over? Compassion is the healthier, kinder, and more freeing option (there’s a selfish aspect of compassion here, as well). Would you want to be forgiven?

Shaming or blaming the person in your life sometimes can feel like the natural response, but trust me: it’s not going to get you or that person very far. They’re already in so much psychological pain—compounded by guilt and denial—which is why compassion and care is a good place to start from when encountering the problem.

3. ...But even compassion has its limits.

There are times when I realized, especially as an adult, that I just could not deliver unlimited, unconditional love, support, and acceptance. There’s a little something called compassion fatigue or burnout—and my god, is it real. I never thought I’d get to that point; I’m sensitive, I’m empathic, and I’m a grade-A worrier. But it took research and time to figure out that compassion fatigue is both real and not a tell-tale sign that you are a bad person. You are a normal person if you are feeling this.

I was dealing with the recurrent relapse of a family member when I figured out that I was feeling exhausted, distant and at a loss for support. I just had no more to give—I was emotionally drained, and there was no returning from the brink of this feeling. Self-care became a priority—I needed separation, some time to myself, some time to sleep and workout and gain self-strength so that I could go back and offer love and support to my family member.

But beyond compassion burnout, you may also be experiencing abuse (verbal or emotional or even Physical). According to Narcotics Anonymous, it’s important that you find help—legal, therapeutic, or otherwise.

4. Stereotypes about addiction are problematic and limiting.

There are endless misconceptions when it comes to addiction. It doesn’t matter if they “only drink beer” or “don’t drink every day.” It doesn’t even matter if they hold a good job and make loads of money. It doesn’t matter if they’re not a total mess. It doesn’t matter if they wait until after work to drink. (Same goes for drug addicts—there are plenty of high-functioning drug abusers). A person doesn’t need to fit a perfect trope to have a problem with a substance. For a while, that really tripped me up. My parents were nice! They loved me! How could they have a problem? Sadly, it’s not that simple.
According to a 2007 study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 20% of alcoholics are functioning. That’s a lot of people with a problem that you may not see off the bat.

5. Dealing with an addict is not an art or science.

You will have ups and downs—but the most important thing of all is to recognize that the person in your life needs help. You will feel resentment, anger, exhaustion just as you will experience love, and endless care, and hope. You will learn more about the human condition you may have bargained for—but you will not do this easily. There’s no one hard and fast solution, and those misconceptions around addiction will pop up along the way. There’s no one easy path to sobriety for everyone.

There’s no quick fix. No one-size-fits-all. Dealing with substance abuse means learning and relearning how to love, reading the material provided by rehabilitation centers and AA meetings, and managing the emotions that will bubble up. I will say this with utmost sincerity: You do NOT have to do this alone. Please reach out for help. Ask for support. Having a community, a teacher, a friend, a therapist—anyone—will make you stronger in the long-run.

6. Because there is life after addiction.
It may not be perfect—relapses may happen—but everyone deserves a full, beautiful life. Hope, persistence, dedication to recovery, and community support can keep your family member sober—enabling them to experience the little things they may have missed in the whirl of their addiction. They’ll notice colors and smells, they’ll show up for family experiences, they will likely be able to confront the deeper issue, and they will find a sense of happiness again.

All of that said, this might be a long road. It might not end perfectly. It might not even last long. But I am here to say that I have seen life after addiction. It can happen. I’ve seen it, and it’s powerful.

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Lisa Marie Basile is a writer, editor, storyteller and community creator based in NYC. You can find her work in The New York Times, Narratively, The Establishment, Refinery 29, Bustle, Bust, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Healthline, Greatist and more. She is the author of Light Magic for Dark Times, as well as a few books of poetry. You can find her on Linkedin and Twitter.