On the Side of a Volcano: Living with Someone Else's Addiction
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
There are plenty of difficult places to find yourself in life. Times where you feel ground down by your circumstances, trapped seemingly with no hope of escape. Being cut off from the support of those around you can make it a thousand times worse. One such group of people, rarely considered in my experience, are the families- wives, husbands, parents and children- of people addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Think for a minute: how many times in TV or movies have you seen a portrayal of addiction, more often than not a positive story of redemption. I bet if I asked you, you could tell me more or less what an Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meeting looked like. At least what it looks like in an american film, all strong coffee, cigarettes and “My name’s … and I’m an alcoholic.”
But how many times have you seen that story from the point of view of the wife sat waiting in the car feeling all mixed up, happy that her life isn’t as chaotic as it was a week ago, angry that she’s sat outside another meeting and desperately hoping this is the time that her husband’s sobriety sticks.
We rarely get to see this experience of addiction. Parents watching their child get more and more aggressive, hiding their purse every night so money doesn’t get taken. Husbands who struggle to understand why life with them and their children wasn’t ‘enough’ to stop their spouses from using cocaine and lying about it, for years.
I’ve done street outreach with homeless people, I’ve worked in prisons and now I’m a counsellor but some of the most challenging work I’ve done was supporting people affected by other people’s substance misuse. Why? The answer’s in that phrase ‘affected by other people’. In all my other roles in addiction, mental health and to a certain extent prisons- the people I’ve been working with have been trying to make changes in themselves.
Families affected by addiction find their lives shaken by one individual, an individual they have no control over. They might as well be living on the side of a volcano! They are more likely to be suffering with depression and anxiety. Their finances may be at risk, which in turn can jeopardise their housing. They may not feel safe in their own homes, worried that drug dealers will come to get money owed. Then there is the family member that has the drug or alcohol problem themselves. Their possible aggression or mood swings. The pressure from other people to kick them out. The grief at a loss of a future together. Suddenly finding out so much of their life together was a lie.
In 2017/2018 there were 268,390 adults engaged with drug and alcohol services in the UK, and 15,583 young people. Both of these were a significant decrease than the year before which is, if a sign of a reduction in people needing treatment, excellent news. However, the majority of those individuals in treatment will have at least one other person affected in some way by that individual’s substance misuse. And that is only the people in treatment. People can go on for years before things get so bad they go for help from established services. Help for their families on the other hand remains woefully limited. One parent of an adult alcoholic put it better than I could: “We struggled for more than 10 years with his drinking, and when he decided he was ready, there was all these appointments and services to support him, yet where was the support for us?”