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The dysfunctional family is often passed down from one generation to the next. Parents that struggle with addictions often have kids with addictions. The abused can become the abusers. Anger and shame and low self-esteem have a way of becoming so entwined with our thoughts and behavior that we cannot possibly imagine a life without them. But I’m here to tell you that you can end the cycle of abuse, addictions, and pain. You can choose to live your life differently. Don’t let the mistakes of the past (yours or someone else’s) determine your future.
The Effect Of Addictions, Abuse, And Loss On Your Overall Health
We are learning more every day about our health and how it is impacted by all the different things we come in contact with in our lives, whether by choice or not. We now know that regular exercise and a healthy diet are important and we are learning how mental health plays a role in our physical health. Everything we do (or don’t do) or experience has a chain reaction that leads back to our wellbeing. Addictions, abuse, and loss are no different and have an impact on our health as well.
Addictions & Your Health
Addiction has many effects on your health. The use of drugs can lead to lung or heart disease, stroke, cancer, and mental health issues. Alcohol can destroy many functions of your body, such as your liver. Depending on your drug choice, you may end up with specific types of cancer, dental problems, damaged or destroyed nerve cells, etc. You may also have an increased risk of contracting infections such as HIV or Hepatitis C from sharing needles or participating in unsafe sexual activities as well as heart or skin infections from injecting drugs.
The relation between drug use and mental health is more cyclical. Mental health issues may be a precursor to addiction, but they also may be triggered or made worse by drug use. Those struggling with mental health disorders may turn to drugs in an attempt to improve their symptoms, but this often worsens the problem long term.
Drugs physically change how your brain works over time. Although the initial decision to try a drug may be your choice, once you begin using, you begin to lose the ability to make that choice. This is where the difference between drug abuse and drug addiction comes into play. While drug abusers are misusing substances (whether legal or illegal), they still have the ability to change their habits and stop using. Once you become addicted, however, your brain chemistry has been altered and the need to use is no longer a choice. Even if you want to stop, you are physically incapable of doing so of your own free will.
Abuse & Your Health
There are many different types of abuse including (but not limited to) physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, digital, cultural, financial, and academic. Generally, abuse is any kind of maltreatment of one living being by another.
Any form of abuse can lead to physical health struggles later in life. These struggles include obesity, arthritis, mood and personality disorders, heart disease, and PTSD, just to name a few. In addition, victims of abuse are more likely to develop bad habits later in life such as eating disorders, alcohol or drug abuse, and smoking, each of which carries their own health risks. The occurrence of mental health disorders is also higher among abuse victims.
The mind and body are very closely related, we are learning. So any type of abuse can leave not only physical scars but emotional scars as well. In turn, unhealthy emotional responses can cause your body to be in poor health. For this reason, it’s imperative for victims of abuse to learn and practice coping skills in their daily lives in order to minimize the negative effects of past trauma.
Loss & Your Health
As I mentioned, the mind and body are intricately connected and we’re learning more and more about how your mental and physical health impact one another. The loss of someone you love often has a tremendous effect on your mental wellbeing and, in turn, can affect your physical health as well.
The grieving process may actually leave you with a weakened immune system which often leads to more illnesses such as colds, flu, infections, etc. Another health concern among the grieving is heart problems. One specific heart condition recognized in grieving partners is something called broken heart syndrome, in which the heart pumps abnormally during a short period of time after a loss. This can cause extreme chest pain and possibly short-term heart muscle failure but is usually treatable.
Other health concerns associated with loss include substance abuse, depression, and poor sleep, each of with bring along their own list of health risks. It’s also been noted that grief increases inflammation in the body leading to a myriad of other health problems or worsening your current conditions. The reason for this is likely related to the increased stress surrounding a loss.
The Relationship Between Addictions, Abuse, and Loss And Dysfunction In The Family
Dysfunction in families is a multi-faceted issue that does not necessarily follow one particular pattern. Because of this, there are many different ways in which addiction, abuse, and loss relate to the dysfunction in a family. The dysfunction may come about as a result of an addiction, abuse, or loss in the family. However, dysfunction may also lead to further addictions and abuse which could lead to more loss. It becomes an endless cycle.
Addictions In The Dysfunctional Family
Many dysfunctional family systems stem from the introduction of substance abuse into the family unit. One parent’s addiction, regardless of the type, affects the whole family. This often leads to many other problems that effectively make the family unable to function normally.
The addict, or dependent, as they’re known, is the centerpiece of the family dysfunction. However, it is likely that their dependence on a substance is not new to the family dynamic. Those who become addicted most likely come from a family with a history of addiction. If the addict grew up in a dysfunctional family him or herself, it’s possible they also experienced various forms of abuse and/or loss as well, leading them to turn to addiction as a means of escape.
The addict is probably suffering from mental and physical health issues that they are unable to cope with, therefore driving them to turn to a substance and repeat the cycle within their own family. The family members – the partner and children – of an addict tend to fall into specific roles within the dysfunctional family in order to survive. These roles include the hero, the scapegoat, the mascot, the caretaker, and the lost child.
These roles allow the family to maintain some semblance of normalcy in an attempt to present a picture of a healthy family in the public eye. It also enables them to cope with the dysfunction in the best way they know how to. Unfortunately, without proper support or intervention, it is likely that one or more of the children in this family will grow up to become addicted as well, again perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction in their family.
Abuse In The Dysfunctional Family
Abuse in a dysfunctional family is often a symptom of the dysfunction rather than the root cause. Most often, the abuser struggles with one or more of their own issues that they are incapable of controlling such as substance abuse and addiction or mental health problems. Because they cannot cope with these issues, they lash out and abuse those around them in an attempt to control the only thing they feel they have power over – other people.
It’s highly likely that abusers experienced some sort of abuse or dysfunction themselves as a child. Perhaps one or both of their parents were unable to provide them with a happy and healthy childhood due to an addiction, an absent parent, a health issue, financial problems, family upheaval (such as divorce or the loss of one parent, for example), or maybe a combination of several of these. They were not able to work through the emotional and perhaps physical scars left by these experiences and now are unable to cope in adulthood.
Abused children do not learn healthy emotional regulation which makes it incredibly difficult for them to form healthy patterns of behavior as they grow. This may make it more difficult for them to succeed in school, build healthy relationships, or have a healthy mindset about themselves and the world around them. Because of this, children who grow up in an abusive situation may end up repeating the same abusive behaviors with their own family as an adult. This is because they’ve never learned a healthier way to cope with their problems.
Loss In The Dysfunctional Family
The relationship between loss and dysfunction in a family is varied. In some families, a loss is a catalyst for dysfunction. For instance, when a spouse dies, the remaining spouse may be so consumed with grief that they are not able to perform the functions needed to maintain a healthy family. This can lead to a family that is dysfunctional.
In other cases, a loss may be the result, directly or indirectly, of dysfunctional behaviors in a family. A child may pass away as a result of abuse or neglect, a parent or adult child may be lost to drug abuse, or a family may be torn apart by infidelity in a marriage. Loss isn’t necessarily limited to death. A parent or child who leaves the family may leave the remaining members in grief as well. In the same way, watching a loved one spiral out of control due to an addiction can cause a family to feel a sense of loss.
We know that loss can lead to severe depression and many other physical health struggles. The combination of these struggles and dealing with the loss that triggered them can lead some people to a very dark place and may make it difficult for the family unit to function normally. When the loss is a result of the dysfunction, the implications of that could spur the family to make positive changes. However, in other instances, a loss in a dysfunctional family may further divide the remaining members and trigger even more dysfunctional behaviors to surface.
How To Overcome Addiction, Abuse, and Loss
No matter what struggle you’ve had in your life, there are ways to work through the pain and overcome the dysfunction so you can live a life you love. Three key ways to overcome any struggle are to join a recovery group, build up an active support system, and to seek medical help when necessary.
Addictions, abuse, and loss, as well as many other struggles not covered here, are all immensely difficult to overcome, but not impossible. These struggles can leave you emotionally and physically broken in many ways, and sometimes it’s hard to even put words to how you’re feeling. But you don’t have to stay stuck in your brokenness.
The first step in making any change is deciding that you want to change. It’s been said before that you can’t and won’t change until the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of change. And it’s true. Change is painful and hard. Oftentimes we choose to stay in less than ideal situations simply because we’ve grown accustomed to our life and we know what to expect. Even if the expected is painful and unpleasant, we prefer it to the unknown because we’ve learned how to survive here.
But there comes a point when a person may decide that nothing could be worse than what they are currently experiencing and they find the courage to take a step of faith into the unknown in order to escape whatever hell they are living in. Many of these brave souls get lost along the way and find themselves back in the same situation again, but many others make it out and find a joyful life free from the pain of the dysfunction they lived in before.
Join a support group
There are many support groups available to cover just about any struggle you may be facing. From Alcoholics Anonymous to support groups for specific health struggles or life circumstances, you can find a support group that meets your needs. My favorite group, and the one I attended to help me overcome my own challenges, is Celebrate Recovery. This is a Christ-centered 12-step program for people who are struggling with any hurt, habit, or hangup that they need support to overcome.
I have met friends in this group who are struggling with so many different issues like substance abuse, co-dependency, PTSD, anger, loss, divorce, abuse, adult children of alcoholics, and so many more. The one thing we all have in common is that we believe Christ has the solution for all of our problems and can lead us to a better life. You don’t necessarily have to have the same struggle in order to build each other up and help each other overcome. You just have to desire a change and be willing to support one another and to work through your own pain.
Build Up An Active Support System
Joining a support group is a great first step towards recovery, but building a support system is perhaps even more important. You can’t do this alone and there are people who want to see you succeed. Even if you feel like everyone you once loved has given up on you, there is still hope for your recovery and your future. Find others in your recovery group or other social groups you are a part of who can keep you accountable and encourage you on this journey.
The key is to find one sponsor who is ahead of you on the journey to recovery and who can hold you responsible for your choices and goals. You need someone who is further along on the journey because they need to have a good understanding of the struggles you may come against and need to not be tempted in the same ways as you anymore. They should also be someone who is not afraid to tell it to you straight and call you out when they see you making bad decisions.
It is also wise to add 1-3 accountability partners whom you can meet regularly with to build each other up, keep one another accountable to your goals, and to be available to talk each other off the ledge when you’re tempted to relapse.
In addition to adding positive influences to your life, it is imperative to eliminate any negative influences in your life. If you have friends or relatives who have contributed to your struggle in the past or who trigger you, it is best to distance yourself from them. This is often one of the most difficult parts of recovery because our friends are likely a very large part of our lives and distancing from them may mean completely re-imagining how you live your life, sometimes without some of the people you have cared about the most. It’s important to note that this distance may not always have to be permanent, but it is a vital step in your recovery that gives you the distance and perspective you need to regain optimal health in your life.
Seek Medical Help
Implementing healthy lifestyle choices and building a positive support system are essential steps to breaking the cycle of dysfunction and overcoming addictions, abuse trauma, and loss. But sometimes it’s just not enough. Some of us need more help in the form of medical assistance in order to break free from our struggles. There is no shame in needing medical help to achieve your healthiest life.
I am one of many who lived in denial for many years before finally surrendering to the fact that I needed more than a support group and friends. I needed medication to help manage my mental health struggles. Once I was able to set aside my pride and seek the help I needed, I found relief and freedom from the chains of depression and anger that had held me back for years.
If you’ve been attending recovery groups, you have an active support system in place that keeps you accountable for your actions, and you’re still struggling to break free from the hurts, habits, and hang-ups that have caused pain in your life, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor for advice and support. You may find that a simple therapy routine will help you or perhaps you need to begin a trial of medication. Regardless of what specific course of action you and your doctor agree upon, your mental and physical health is worth it. You are worthy of living a healthy and happy life. Don’t let shame or judgment or other people’s opinions stop you from chasing after what you know is best for you.
Life After Recovery
Recovery doesn’t have an endpoint. For those of us who have admitted our struggles and sought out support, the journey will continue until the day we leave this world. Remaining sober, managing your mental health, learning to regulate your emotions, or whatever other struggles you’ve had will be a daily choice. There is no once-and-for-all cure. But with continued support from your friends and family, your recovery group, and maybe even your medical doctors, plus the determination to keep moving forward at all costs, you can overcome your struggles and change your life and the lives of those you care about most.
Addictions, abuse, and loss don’t have to define who you are or what type of life you’re going to lead. Choose to put those things behind you and live in the blessings of a life of freedom.
As you continue to walk the road of recovery, be bold and brave enough to share your story with others who are still struggling. It’s so amazing to see how you can inspire hope and change in the lives of others when you are open about the freedom, meaning, and purpose you’ve found through recovery. Be the change in someone else’s life and let your light of hope shine for everyone to see!
Addictions and abuse are often the pillars of a dysfunctional family. But the root of the problem is usually much deeper and addictions and abuse are merely symptoms of the underlying issues that no one dares discuss. Loss often comes as a consequence of addictions and abuse. You may lose a loved one to an overdose or an accident or violence caused by these struggles. The pain inflicted in a dysfunctional family causes many to follow the same path in hopes of escaping. But this escape is temporary and in the end, the only way to truly break free of the endless cycle of pain is to face it head-on, stand your ground, and choose to say, “It stops here.” You deserve to have a healthy and happy life. Choose today to break the cycle of dysfunction and live a life you love!