While speaking as a panelist on substance use disorder (SUD), I felt it necessary to remind the audience that addiction is a family disease. While family members may not themselves be tethered to use of a substance, we all share in the anger, guilt, despair, and all too often grief that ripple back and forth in a family’s encounter with SUD. I learned early on, “Addiction isn’t a spectator sport, eventually the whole family gets to play.”
What may be harder for some to understand is that the “sport” gets played for a lifetime, even by generations to come. I am reminded of a line near the end of Robert Woodruff Anderson’s play I Never Sang for My Father, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”
One disruption that is almost certain to appear is the alteration of a family’s calendar. While always a constant, grief finds a way to manifest itself in anniversaries new and old — certainly on birthdays, or with an empty chair at holiday tables (a practice some families observe not only in name but in deed), but also the memory of the day someone overdosed, or the last memory of sobriety. The scar of a horrifying discovery or a dreaded telephone call now mars Christmas Day, a wedding anniversary, or what would ordinarily be a celebratory family event.