A recent study found that 12.7 percent of Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse disorder—that’s one-in-eight. The recent Surgeon General’s Report on addiction found that over 27 million Americans reported using illicit drugs or misused prescription drugs. The addiction crisis in the United States is an epidemic, and it shows in what it costs us: tens of thousands of lives each year, billions of dollars in public spending, and untold amount of wasted potential in millions of Americans struggling to escape the cycle of addiction.
But absent from the national conversation on the addiction crisis are the social costs. That isn’t because we don’t care about them or believe they’re insignificant. On the contrary, substance use disorders plague not just individuals struggling to escape its grip, but the friends, families, and loved ones of those struggling with substance abuse. In other words, addiction affects us all, mostly in ways difficult to gauge, measure, or talk about.
Nevertheless, for those who share a home with a loved one suffering from a substance use disorder, the impact is very real and difficult to articulate. That is because, in many households, the atmosphere is characterized by distrust, silence, and isolation – making the social costs of addiction difficult to think about, much less talk about.
If you’re a child with a parent struggling with a substance use disorder, how do you talk about the effects of their illness or your concerns for their safety? When they’re high or drunk, you stay away. Or, you fear they won’t listen or understand. When they’re sober, you cherish the status quo, worrying that you might ruin the moment, and simply brace yourself for the next episode. There never seems to be a right time.
Will your concerns be heard? Addiction tends to create a sense of tunnel vision for those afflicted: friends, family, and even basic material comforts become secondary. The next fix trumps everything else. Of course, this isn’t a moral failing, but rather a central feature of substance abuse: Addiction can make us into people we don’t even recognize. It distorts our reality, our priorities, and perceptions. It can take almost complete control of us.
Where do you go for help? Would the outside world understand? Would they judge you or your family? How do you even articulate what it’s like to come home without food in the fridge, knowing that your parent used that money to buy drugs or alcohol, and going to bed on an empty stomach? Often, the response is social isolation. We feel alone and ashamed of our struggles, so we don’t reach out. And, the cycle continues.
The emotional and interpersonal consequences of addiction are devastating. Children who grow up in a household characterized by substance abuse often later find themselves in the same place. In bottling up their concerns, they may resent their parent, or even themselves—if they feel responsible—and may look to drugs and alcohol as an emotional valve.
In some cases, children might develop unhealthy relationships with their parents, acting in caretaker roles—naturally belonging to parents—which may produce only enabling results. It normalizes the addiction and promotes an unhealthy role reversal of the proper parent-child relationship. Children who act as caretakers for their parents are forced into traumatic experiences and perverse roles for which they are not—and never should be—emotionally suited.
We can’t tally these social costs which, though myriad, are intangible, and when they do manifest, do so in indirect ways. And yet, these costs represent so much of the already massive toll of the substance abuse epidemic. Broken homes, hollow or unhealthy relationships, financial stress and poverty, suspicion and distrust of family members—for millions of Americans, this is the daily atmosphere of the place where people should feel safest.
What You Can Do
The situation may seem hopeless, but it’s far from it. Here’s what you can do to help fight the substance abuse crisis in the United States.
The first step is talking about addiction. Discussing the nature of substance abuse with people around you brings attention and awareness to the issue. Shedding light on its complexity helps fight the stigma surrounding substance abuse, which unfortunately prevents many from seeking the help they need. As we recently noted, stigma only worsens the problem, a problem which exposure can help to mitigate. Join us on social media this month, which is National Recovery Month. Use #NationalRecoveryMonth and tag Stand Together Foundation (@Standtgthr).
You can also support communities working to help individuals live a strong, sober life. At Stand Together Foundation, we work with Catalysts like The Phoenix that provide safe, intentional community and rewarding physical activity to those in recovery. Many of our Catalysts, such as City Rescue Mission, Milwaukee Rescue Mission, Cara, Chrysalis, and Urban Ventures, operate recovery programs and serve individuals in recovery working to find jobs and break out of poverty.
Fostering supportive sober communities and celebrating sobriety rather than stigmatizing it are both key to helping individuals break the cycle of addiction, restoring broken relationships, and healing families. The impact reaches far past the individual to everyone around them, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.