Art by Bethany Wilson
Watching his father stagger home one night when he was young, freshman Carson Vandermade said he didn’t realize his father was drunk until an argument exploded between his parents. It wasn’t until later in his life he fully understood that his father suffered from alcoholism.
“You don’t understand it, because you’re a kid, so it’s not like something that’s real,” Vandermade said.
Sixteen million people in the U.S. had alcohol use disorder in 2016, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and 21.5 million adults had a substance abuse disorder in 2014, according to American Addiction Centers. But these people are not the the only ones affected by substance abuse.
A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 46 percent of U.S. adults have a family member or close friend who is or has been addicted to drugs. In 2012, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services found over 7 million children in the U.S. lived with alcoholic parents.
Alcohol and drug abuse can create long-lasting effects not only on the addicts themselves, but also on their loved ones. Through recognizing the negative habits of addicts and receiving help through counseling and support groups, friends and family can overcome the hurt in their lives caused by addiction.
Being in relationship with an addict
Substance abusers can become focused solely on obtaining and using the substance, which can damage relationships, according to American Addiction Centers. Addiction can make people more secretive, have trust issues and more prone to anger and abuse.
Freshman Zoe Walsh said her mother’s alcoholism made her feel like she had to be responsible for her.
“It became a pattern of watching her binge-drink and not be able to control herself,” Walsh said. “I felt like I had to parent her or look out for her and feeling like she just in general wasn’t in control of herself.”
Vandermade said he also felt responsibility for his father’s alcoholism, especially in terms of his parent’s relationship.
“As the relationship between my mom and my dad becomes more dynamic through me being able to understand [his alcoholism] better as I grew up — I was more of a mediator between my mom and my dad,” Vandermade said. “Where there was resentment between them, I had to meld. I felt a responsibility for their relationship and for my dad’s safety as well.”
Substance abuse can also cause problems like issues at school or work, money problems, domestic violence, child abuse and/or arrest and prison time, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Being in a relationship with an addict can also develop into codependency. Codependency, as defined by Mental Health America, is “an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.” Codependency is also known as “relationship addiction,” as those in codependent relationships form abusive and one-sided relationships.
People who are codependent are more likely to enable and cover up addiction, as they feel insecure or avoidant of the problem, according to Mental Health America.
Loved ones of an addict can also feel isolation, fear and resentment, said Mona Dougherty, senior communication specialist for Al-Anon — an anonymous support group for friends and family of alcoholics.
“When people are affected by [alcoholism], they feel like they’re alone, or that they’re by themselves [and] no one else can understand what they’re going through,” Dougherty said.
Walsh said she is also more likely to “overreact” when it comes to her loved one’s drinking habits, as it makes her uncomfortable.
“Someone having a drink may not seem like that big of a deal to most people, [but] if it’s my mom having a drink, it can cause panic and a lot of discomfort and very adverse reactions,” Walsh said.
What to do if you think your loved one may be an addict
If a person believes their loved one is an addict, Pepperdine counselor Sparkle Greenhaw said they should first educate themselves on what addiction looks like.
Greenhaw said a loose definition of addiction is someone who abuses a substance without regard to consequences and/or is unable to moderately use a substance. A person may be more prone to addiction if they have family history of addiction or have developed a tolerance to a substance.
Symptoms of drug addiction in adolescents include being withdrawn, sleeping more, depression, hostility, changes in eating habits and deteriorating relationships, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Risky or dangerous behavior, negative effects on grades and/or health, being in trouble with the law/campus officials or getting angry if others comment on habits can also be symptoms of alcohol or drug use, according to the Pepperdine Health Center.
Walsh said her mother’s pattern of binge drinking and being unable to quit drew her to the conclusion that her mother was an alcoholic.
“I kind of discovered it for myself because my family was really uncomfortable with those labels [of alcoholism] and since then, she has admitted to it,” Walsh said.
The next step is to let the addict know that you care. If a person chooses to confront a friend or roommate about an addiction, Greenhaw said to “stick to the facts,” like missed classes or probation.
“If you share a judgmental opinion, that’s something people can argue with and that tends to not be as helpful,” Greenhaw said.
If it becomes a safety concern, Greenhaw continued, a person should tell an authority figure or someone who can help.
“As a roommate or a friend, you may see more of it and you have a more accurate picture,” Greenhaw said. “Unless you let someone know who can help, they may not know what’s going on. There’s a limit to how much someone can do.”
For Pepperdine students, the Counseling Center, Housing and Residence Life staff and the Office of the Chaplain are all people who can help, Greenhaw said. However, only the Counseling Center and Office of the Chaplain are required to stay confidential (so long as no one is in immediate danger).
How to help (and how you can’t)
A person who wants to help an addicted loved one should first set boundaries.
“I think it’s important in [relationships] for the person to set boundaries: emotional boundaries and boundaries in how much they’re going to take on,” Greenhaw said.
Walsh said loved ones of addicts should use compassion to define boundaries in the relationship.
“Try to understand where they’re coming from, and then use that understanding and that knowledge to recognize where you need to have a little bit of separation,” Walsh said. “Help them recognize that unless something changes, your relationship might not be as close as it could be.”
Behaviors loved ones should avoid include: assuming the responsibilities of the addict, preaching or lecturing, feeling guilty or responsible and joining or enabling the user, according to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). Loved ones also should not try and cover up or lie about a loved one’s addiction.
“Sometimes silence is actually contributing to the problem because they’re pretending like there’s not an issue or problem,” Greenhaw said.
Vandermade said it’s important to take the relationship day by day.
“A piece of overarching advice is: let love dominate your relationship with the person,” Vandermade said. “It’s easy to fall into resentment or be bitter about certain things, but you [have to] recognize it as a disease and treat that with compassion and recognize that they’re not in control.”
Walsh said those in a relationship with an addict should not take the addict’s actions personally.
“Understand that the person they are as an addict is a reflection of their inner turmoil rather than your relationship with them,” Walsh said. “You are still a good loved one and family member no matter how they lash out.”
Ultimately, it is the addict’s responsibility to change and overcome his or her addiction, Greenhaw said.
“You can only do so much,” Greenhaw said. “You can’t make anyone do anything.”
Resources for loved ones of addicts
For loved ones of addicts, there are many different resources available.
The Pepperdine Counseling Center offers free, confidential counseling for anyone who wants support. Greenhaw said the Counseling Center is nonjudgemental, and students can talk about their own substance abuse or someone else’s substance abuse.
“We take the approach that we want people to help themselves,” Greenhaw said. “We would talk with them about what’s going on, what’s not going well [and] how can we keep you safe.”
Walsh said she has attended counseling both at home and at Pepperdine.
“I think it can be really beneficial to have that be a tool [and] to have someone else make sure you’re dealing with things healthily,” Walsh said.
Another option for loved ones of substance abusers are support groups. Groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are anonymous support groups for friends and family of people with alcoholism and drug addiction. Both groups follow a 12-step process, which helps members recover from the effects of being in a relationship with an addict.
Al-Anon is anonymous and available to all ages and people who are looking for support from their loved one’s alcoholism, Doughtery said. Al-Anon, like Nar-Anon, is centered on supporting the loved one of an addict and helping them overcome the effects of alcoholism or drug abuse in his or her life, Dougherty said.
“There’s no restriction on what kind of Al-Anon relationship,” Dougherty said. “It’s not about that person, it’s about how you feel. Alcoholism is a disease, and it affects families regardless of whether it has been acknowledged as such. The effects on families are long lasting.”
Dougherty said those impacted by alcoholism and who are looking for support can try an Al-Anon group, but she hopes they will look until something fits.
“There’s no replacing the feeling of support, acceptance and encouragement that they can get from a group,” Dougherty said. “It’s all about finding that right group for you.”
Greenhaw said it is important for loved ones of addicts to get support for themselves, whether that’s talking to the Counseling Center, HRL staff, a friend or family member.
Walsh said she has encountered people throughout her life whom she was able to talk to about being affected by alcoholism.
“It’s a surprisingly common thing — people with addict parents or loved ones,” Walsh said. “That’s one of the most beneficial things is hearing things like, ‘You’re not crazy, you’re not being a bad person for having this off-relationship with your parents; it’s not your fault.'”
Walsh recommended practical steps for those in a relationship with an addict such as getting involved in a new activity, finding ways to stay grounded, exploring creative pursuits and journaling.
“Journaling is a really great way of processing your experience without it having to be verbal and outspoken,” Walsh said. “You can still externalize it.”
Using faith for support
The Office of the Chaplain at Pepperdine is another alternative for those looking for confidential aid, as they offer counseling for anyone looking for spiritual support or guidance.
“Our goals in spiritual care include helping people with their prayer lives, vocational discernment, getting involved in ministries and engaging God in numerous ways,” Chaplain Sara Barton said. “Sometimes addiction or other challenges present themselves during spiritual care, and in such cases, we partner with the Counseling Center and Student Care Team to support student health. We encourage students to seek us out, and we can help them understand services available to them.”
Dougherty said the 12-step program of Al-Anon includes reference to a higher power, but members do not have to be religiously affiliated or believe in God to participate.
“The individual puts their own definition on what that higher power means to them to help them achieve physical, emotional and spiritual serenity and growth,” Dougherty said. “It’s not something that’s going to be pushed on you one way or another. We do have people who are atheists and agnostics.”
Barton said if a student has a faith system, she would encourage investment in intergenerational relationships, which can be found in churches, synagogues and other religious gatherings.
“A friend or mentor who has lived through life’s challenges can offer helpful advice and direction,” Barton said.
Walsh and Vandermade both said they recommend relying on one’s faith, as they are both Christians.
“If you can find peace [in religion], that’s awesome, too,” Walsh said. “Having counseling in God can be helpful if you’re not in the place where you feel comfortable talking about your experience with other people.”
Vandermade said his father’s alcoholism forced him to grow up, not literally, but in a spiritual sense, as he relied on his faith.
“I think having a faith is what got me through it and why I didn’t need to seek more practical ways of coping,” Vandermade said. “Knowing that no matter what happens for that one night that’s really [bad], it doesn’t matter; I’m a child of God. I have one Father that I can depend on for anything, and He won’t let me down.”