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How Addiction Became My Family’s Disease

Reading Time: 5 Minutes

In my active addiction, I don’t remember my family being affected much at the time. Of course, that’s ridiculous, but the truth is: I was so immersed in my own pain and struggles that I didn’t realize that not only was I suffering from this devastating disease, but that it had spread to my loved ones as well. I may have been the only one using drugs, but the truth is: addiction had taken over my whole family.

So, to look back and see how addiction was truly my family’s disease, I asked some close members of my family just how my addiction affected them.


“It was like seeing someone else wear your loved one’s face. It was devastating. It consumed all of my thoughts all of the time.”—My mother

My addiction wasn’t just all-consuming to me. My family had to witness the shell that I had become. They had to see my emaciated, sick body walk around as if nothing were wrong. At the time, I thought I looked fine, and I tried so hard to put on makeup and appear normal. But I was sick, and it was obvious. It wasn’t just the physical change that was so heartbreaking either: I simply wasn’t myself anymore. I would fall asleep at the table during birthday dinners. I would talk non-stop nonsense for 20 minutes without taking a breath. I only called when I needed something. I was scared to call any other time, out of fear that they would catch on to my lies. The cover-up was exhausting, but I was oblivious to the fact that at the same time, my family was forced to live in a perverse version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. They watched me walk around as if someone else were living in my skin. They were captives of my disease, and the fear that I would fatally succumb to my addiction was constant.


“You wind up in my situation and have two conflicting narratives. You start to believe them. You want to believe them. So, when someone asks how they’re doing and you say ‘Oh they’re great! Good job, good kids, good life!’ You feel happy about it. It isn’t till you see them later, that you get this weird pain in your gut.”—My little brother

Just as I was in denial that I was addicted to drugs, so was my family. The idea that someone they love could be willingly hurting themselves, putting themselves in terrifying situations, and slowly killing themselves was not only unbelievable, but it was also too much to process. I made a point to isolate myself. I posted calculated pictures on Instagram, texted my family about any “good news” I could find, and I simply carried on as if things were fine. My family knew things weren’t, but there was a desperate desire to believe that they were, and my attempts to appear normal sometimes fed that desire. What was easier: having a loved one in the throws of heroin addiction, or a happy, healthy one with their own family and a new home? Their desperation chose to believe the latter. Of course, that denial was temporary, because my addiction was worsening and could be only denied for so long.


“I couldn’t think about anything, but you may be dying. All I could think was, like, I have to keep you alive because you won’t keep yourself alive.”—My sister

My sister is my best friend and has been my other half since the day she was born. But what happens when the person you care about most becomes addicted to drugs? How do you deal with your best friend transforming from your funny, reliable buddy into a lying, sickly mess? My sister, she felt it was up to her to take care of me. She gave me money. She gave me rides. She feared that if she didn’t, someone much more dangerous would. She watched me live as if I didn’t care if I died, so she cared for me. Unfortunately, this codependency broke her down. At the time, I didn’t correlate her depression, constant tears, and severe anxiety to me. Her codependency and my blindness to the effects of my addiction on others were slowly destroying my sister, but she thought that if she stopped—I would die. It was a codependent feeling, yes, but it was also a huge, unfair burden to put on my little sister and someone I loved so much.


“I felt like I couldn’t help and it took a toll on our relationship in ways normal families wouldn’t understand. Felling helpless just added to the depression I already had about my wife killing herself”—My husband

My husband witnessed the most. He didn’t have the luxury of distance or denial that my other family members had. He was living in the epicenter of my addiction, and just like me, he was powerless over it. Of course, we fought about it. But I always won. My addiction somehow amplified my powers of manipulation. I was a master and distorted situations and arguments to my benefit. And if he somehow didn’t let me use or buy drugs? I would just act like the most vile, horrific person to live with until he caved. My husband was facing a monster so much bigger and stronger than him, and he had no idea how to fight it. He was forced to live with this demon and watch his wife wither away, succumbing to her addiction. This powerlessness was not only frustrating, but it was also depressing.


“It was weird, you know, how quickly ‘sad’ turned to ‘mad.’ I’ve been mad a lot before, but this was different. You go from being so confused and hurt that your loved one is in pain, to this strange sort of hate for what they’ve become. It’s like being betrayed. And it’s a direct correlation; as the anger grows, the sadness shrinks.”—My little brother

The combination of fear, denial, codependency, and depression was like living in a powder keg. Eventually, though they still worried and cared about me, it was hard to see me as someone suffering. All the exhausting emotions I had thrust upon my family resulted in anger, bitterness, and resentment. Why couldn’t I just quit? Why didn’t I care about myself? Why didn’t I see that I was going to die? As I was simultaneously going through my downward spiral with addiction, my family was also going on a painful journey. When we are in active addiction, we aren’t alone. We take our family along for the ride. They become hostages, and their inability to shake us from this disease inevitably results in resignation and anger. Luckily, my family found the necessary resources regarding my addiction. They transformed their anger into strong, healthy boundaries that sort of shook me out of the trance I had been living in. At first, I was enraged, and I cut them out of my life—hurting them even more. But addiction only gets worse. It never plateaus or gets better, and I finally realized that I had to get help. It was at that time that I realized how I had unknowingly put my family through so much pain, and that the help I was seeking was what they were seeking, too


“My family today knows they can rely on my word. I’ve earned back your trust. In early recovery I wanted all of my relationships to heal immediately, but I learned that time truly does take time and nothing is fixed overnight.” –My stepfather, after 5 years of sobriety

So what does this mean? For me, I feel lucky. I dragged my family through the trenches of opiate addiction, and despite the consequences, they were forced to deal with, they stood by me. Now that I am sober and healthy, I shudder to think about the person they were forced to see, enable, and try to help for so long. Repairing that damage was a key part of my working on the 12 Steps, not only for them but for me. I couldn’t carry that guilt and shame: it would have killed me. Instead, despite how uncomfortable it was, I acknowledged what I did to them. I made amends to them. I was so terrified to face them and list all the atrocities I had committed during my addiction. But do you know the crazy part? Every single amends I made to each member of my family resulted in them saying one similar thing:

“I am just happy to have Kait back.”

That’s all they wanted all along.

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