Addiction is sometimes referred to as “the family disease” because its symptoms can have such a far-reaching impact, not just for the individual with substance use disorder (SUD) but also for everyone in their family system. Still, sometimes the disease of addiction can be hidden within families. This could be due to a variety of reasons such as intentional deception, a normalization of substance misuse, or a culture of denial in the family system. Learning how addiction often goes undetected within a family is necessary for motivating treatment for those who need it most.

Why Addiction Is Often Hidden in the Family System

A loved one may hide their addiction from their family for a number of reasons. Sometimes, they themselves are still in denial about their substance misuse and its negative effects. They may think that they are using responsibly or that the consequences of using aren’t that bad. If they can’t face the problem themselves, they may unconsciously hide their behaviors from members of the family system. 

Another reason for hiding SUD is fear of judgment from loved ones. When an individual comes to terms with the fact that they have a problem, it is often followed by feelings of shame and self-hatred. They may start to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as identifying with harmful terms like “junkie” and “addict.” Due to the stigma of addiction and mental health disorders, a person may be afraid to come clean because of their loved ones’ potential reactions. 

In the depths of addiction, many people simply do not want to get help. This is a common reason for hiding SUD. When someone is addicted to a substance, it’s hard for them to imagine their life without using. They may hide their problem from their family simply because they don’t want to be forced to get help. This is a particularly difficult situation because the family cannot provide effective support or encouragement if they aren’t aware of the problem. 

Generational Patterns of Addiction and Denial

Although SUD may be purposefully hidden from family members, this is not the only way that addiction can go undetected. Sometimes, the issue may be apparent to an outsider’s eyes, but the family themselves cannot see it. This is often due to generational patterns that have normalized substance misuse within the family system. 

If a person has grown up watching their parents regularly misuse substances for mood enhancement, to cope with negative emotions, or to fill emotional voids, they will likely learn that that behavior is normal and okay. When they grow up, they may model the behavior they learned and develop the same unhealthy habits. Further, because it is normalized within the family, they will likely not find any fault with their behavior. They will show the same habits to their children, who will grow up to do the same thing. This is how generational patterns of addiction form and are perpetuated over time. It often requires outside influence, such as education or a wider social network, for a family member to realize that there’s a problem. 

Even if there is not a culture of substance misuse in a family, there may be a culture of denial keeping them from acknowledging the problem. It’s often easier for families to pretend like they’re perfect instead of addressing deep-rooted and uncomfortable issues. This is completely understandable; humans in general prefer to avoid discomfort and confrontation and would rather maintain a false sense of security. Admitting that a loved one has SUD can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and anger. Family members may even fear that if the addiction is acknowledged, other family issues will be brought up. 

This is how a culture of denial is perpetuated in the family system. However, when a person continually sweeps things under the rug, the problems eventually begin to show. Addiction will take its toll whether it is acknowledged or not, and the sooner the problem is addressed, the better. 

Breaking the Cycle With Family-Centered Services

Family-Centered Services is committed to helping families break the cycle of addiction within their family system. The first step to making a change is understanding SUD and knowing its symptoms. Remember that just because these behaviors are normalized within the family doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic or dangerous. 

Some signs that may indicate a loved one’s substance misuse include:

  • Frequent legal trouble, especially when substances are involved
  • Using substances to cope with personal issues
  • Frequently using more than intended (for instance, blacking out)
  • Using substances to relieve withdrawal symptoms (for instance, drinking to “cure” a hangover)
  • Social circles revolve completely around substance use
  • Neglecting responsibilities at work or at home
  • Continuing to use, regardless of negative consequences 

These are just a few of the warning signs of SUD. If these behaviors take place on a large scale within a family, there may be a culture of addiction in the family system. Family-Centered Services knows that family issues are some of the most difficult to deal with. Conversations surrounding SUD in the family can be emotionally charged, but they are often necessary to create a future of wellness for everyone. We can help facilitate these conversations in a way that is both healing and effective.

At Family-Centered Services, based in Washington State, our goal is to help families identify these problems, acknowledge them, and heal from the damage they’ve caused. Our team has personal and professional experience dealing with SUD in the family system, so we know how difficult it can be to approach. We also know how necessary it is to bring these issues to light in order to work on them. We work with entire families and encourage everyone to play a part in the healing process. In our experience, this is how you make lasting changes and stop generational patterns. Be the one to break the cycle. Give Family-Centered Services a call at (509) 991-5822.