Guest Post: Addiction, Family, and Healing

The battles that come with loving a person who struggles with addiction can be extremely painful. One such battle is having to face the dishonest words and behaviors of your loved one.

When Trust Falls Apart: A Look at Addiction, Family, and Healing

Families will often come to me, astounded by how their addicted loved one can look them right in the eye and calmly lie that he/she is not drunk or high, when it’s evident that he/she is. This type of interaction feels so very personal to the family.

It can leave the family feeling hurt, disillusioned, or downright furious. We think, “How could they do that to someone they love?!”

In a healthy brain, one that is unencumbered by the highjacking of addiction…they likely wouldn’t. That’s why it’s so confusing and painful. Many families will report that the dishonesty about drug and alcohol use causes more wounds to the relationship than the use itself!

However, with education about how addiction works, we can come to understand how the bizarre nature of this disease can actually be fairly predictable – and why our loved one has deviated in this way from values we hold dear (and maybe they once did too).

Getting High to Survive

As addiction progresses, the addicted person becomes more and more captive to the demands of the disease. Because the disease greatly impacts the “survival circuitry” in the brain, the perceived need for the drink/drug becomes a profound compulsion.

The logic that an addicted person would follow is similar to that of a starving man who easily justifies the theft of a loaf of bread, “I gotta do what I gotta do. I’ll deal with the consequences later.”

Stuck in the Middle

I often envision an addicted person in a tragic tug-o-war. On one team is the Disease, fierce and manipulating them into submission. On the other team are Societal Expectations: the shared belief structure of right vs. wrong, laws, and norms.

The notion of a healthy family structure falls under the umbrella of this second team, holding expectations of mutual respect, consideration, honesty, and the like.

While most addicted people never fully abandon these values in their heart of hearts, the pull of the disease tugs progressively stronger until the person is being yanked between others’ expectations and their own compulsions.

At this point, it can feel to the addicted person that the most adaptive solution is… lie like your life depends on it.

In other words, the addicted person attempts to keep society/family satisfied (or at least at bay) while keeping the disease satisfied by continuing to feed it.

It’s Not Because They Don’t Love You

As personal as the dishonesty can feel, this was never about love. I have come to consider dishonesty as an actual symptom of substance use disorder. It’s an adaptation the addicted person makes to continue surviving in “normal life” in spite of the profound changes that have occurred in their brain.

To be clear, I do not share the above explanation as a justification of hurtful behavior. I share it as a clinician who happens not to have a personal history of addiction.

In my early years as a provider for the substance-misusing population, I too, struggled with the bewilderment, and at times admittedly hurt feelings, when my addicted clients would lie to me about their recent use. After all, I was there to help them, right? Why would they lie to ME?

I’ve come to truly understand however, that dishonesty serves as an odd… but reliable ally that shields the addicted person from their shame, consequences, and need to explain their actions.

While a growing body of neuro-scientific understanding continues to shed light on the “WHY?” many of my clients would admit that on a personal level, they truly don’t understand why they do what they do.

What they do know however is that in order to get to their next fix, they need to evade those that love them the most. A loving family who wants to save you from addiction is the greatest threat to your next high.

Breaking Up and Waking Up

That powerful allegiance between the addicted person and their drug/drink seems only to be broken when they themselves come to understand that this intimate affair they’ve had with their substance has become a nightmarish relationship with a toxic abuser, the kind of abuser that controls their life and takes everything else they love away.

At that point, we hope they can finally reconsider their allegiances.

Recovery: Not Just for Substance Users

When a loved one enters recovery from addiction, it often takes the family a very long time to trust again. Understandably there is skepticism and disillusionment. After all, if a person has looked us in the eye and lied so calmly to us during active addiction, what is our barometer for honesty now?

The notion that “time takes time” is a reality that a recovering person must humbly accept. The addiction caused great damage, and that will take time to heal.

But as the family nurses its wounds, they must also understand that trust-building is a two way street. We must accept that our loved one lied to us because they didn’t trust us to understand the tug-o-war in which they were trapped.

The only way to become a trusted ally is to begin listening and trying to understand. In this, we also hopefully set the stage for them to eventually hear and understand our pain as well.


About the Author: Karen Perlmutter, LISW-CP, has worked as a therapist in clinic, hospital, and private practice settings for 15 years. She specializes in the treatment of substance abuse and mental illness, with a particular interest in supporting the entire family system through the complex journey of addiction. She has developed an evidence-based course for families coping with a loved one’s addiction.  Karen also aims to share education, support and hope with the community through a variety of speaking forums which have included universities, treatment programs, support groups, National Public Radio, professional development events, and an upcoming Tedx Charleston talk.


Author: Cassie Jewell

Cassie Jewell has a Master's degree in counseling and is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner (LSATP), and board-approved clinical supervisor in Virginia.

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