Addiction in the Family

Joseph Lee, MD Answers the Basics and Where to Get Help

Why is addiction called a family disease?

One reason is that addiction tends to run in families. We know there is a strong genetic predisposition to the disease. Another reason is that—as the saying goes—no man is an island. That's especially true with addiction. It's an illness that impacts everyone in the family in destructive ways. Everyone in the family grapples with its consequences.

It's obvious why the alcoholic/addict needs help, but why do family members need help to address addiction?

Even though we know addiction is a disease, there are behavioral aspects that hurt families. People with addiction do things that betray trust and sever relationships. It's difficult not to take betrayals and other harmful behaviors personally. And families tend to suffer silently with addiction, working hard to keep a lid on everything. It's imperative that families get addiction counseling and help to work through the pain and chaos of addiction, or they will eventually implode.

What surprises families most about addiction?

So much about addiction surprises families. It's a shock to the system. We all have an idealized image of who our families are, who our children are, our mothers, our fathers. When someone becomes addicted, all of that is thrown aside. What you thought you knew about your family doesn't square anymore, and you start asking yourself all kinds of questions: How could this happen? What happened to my child, the honor student? Why didn't I see this coming sooner? What does this say about me? Did I do something to cause it? Addiction has an isolating effect. Families need to know they are not alone.

Where can families turn for help?

You can often find good, initial information about addiction in families from your primary care physician or a counselor. But for help with addiction, it's important to seek out professionals who specialize in addiction and treatment. Counselors and other health practitioners who do addiction work know how to get people to be accountable without fault-finding or judgment. Accountability is key; fault-finding is counterproductive. Most important, if you suspect a family member is struggling with addiction, don't put off getting help. Addiction is a disease, but treatment works and lasting recovery is possible. There is hope. There is help.


Joseph LeeAs the medical director for Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s youth services, Dr. Lee is Hazelden’s thought leader on matters related to youth, addiction, families, and mental health. A triple-boarded physician, he completed his Adult Psychiatry residency at Duke University Hospital and his fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine and is a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Substance Abuse Committee. Dr. Lee  is the author of  Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond, which provides an honest guide for parental leadership in times of crisis.
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