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PTSD In Family Members Of Addicts And Alcoholics

Imagine that the person you love the most is sick. Like, really sick. Their skin is the color of illness, their hair falls out, and they behave strangely. They’re wasting away before your eyes. You get late night panicked calls from your loved one’s friends. You spend a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms and emergency room lobbies. You live in fear of getting that phone call—the one telling you that, finally, your loved one has passed away.

Seeing a family member, loved one, or close friend in life-threatening danger can create a mental condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even if you’re not the person who’s in danger, the emotional stress, fear, and pain of watching someone else go through it can be devastating. Family members, partners, and friends of people who suffer from addiction know this anxiety intimately. In fact, as the addict’s mental illness worsens, the corresponding PTSD response can get stronger, too.

When The Person You Love Is Your Trigger

A 2005 study by a group of researchers at Service de Réanimation Médicale, Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris, France investigated PTSD in family members whose loved ones were in the hospital’s ICU. They found that there was a link between a loved one’s perceived risk of death and PTSD symptoms and that the more stressed the family member felt, the more intense their anxiety. The study focused on the “primary decision maker” in each family. According to the study, “Higher rates [of PTSD] were noted among family members who felt information was incomplete in the ICU (48.4%), who shared in decision making (47.8%), whose relative died in the ICU (50%), whose relative died after end-of-life decisions (60%), and who shared in end-of-life decisions (81.8%).” There was a clear and obvious link between a medically stressful family event and the development of PTSD.

Similar correlations have been found in families of people who are terminally ill or relatives of children who have cancer. It’s not a leap to say that family members and friends of addicts and alcoholics endure the same emotions. The same components are all present: fear of the addict dying, not knowing what’s happening or what will happen to the addict, high-risk medical procedures, and having to make medical decisions for the addict. Any parent who’s waited for their kid to come out of an alcohol-induced coma or taken an over-dosing child to the emergency room knows this feeling. Being a bystander to someone else’s addiction is heart-rending, and can take a psychological toll as well.

How Do I Know If I Have PTSD

PTSD is a serious anxiety disorder that develops after someone goes through or witnesses a life-threatening event. Veterans and soldiers are a population at high risk for PTSD. However, PTSD is not just a wartime problem. Survivors of rape, incest, and abuse may also develop PTSD. Car accidents, assault, and natural disasters can trigger the same psychological response that makes someone’s “fight or flight” instinct go into overdrive.

The symptoms of PTSD can be hard to identify at first because they are so present. PTSD is an immediate, demanding disorder—after all, it makes every situation seem like life and death. Ignoring the symptoms, or brushing off a PTSD attack, is nearly impossible.

Flashbacks, hypervigilance, and avoidance are the most common symptoms of PTSD. This means that you may find yourself thinking about your loved one all the time, worrying about where they are and what they’re doing. You may check in on the addict constantly and panic if you don’t hear back right away. You might also catch yourself avoiding the addict, or blaming yourself for the addict’s behaviors and choices. It’s also common to feel depressed, have trouble sleeping, and feel like you’re constantly on edge. Talking about these problems instead of burying them can help you feel less isolated.

The Life And Death Nature of Love

So, what to do if your loved one’s addiction is stressing you out to the point of PTSD? First, having PTSD or developing a mental health issue is not a sign of weakness. It doesn’t mean that you’re not coping or that you’re not a good support person to the addict in your life. It’s important to remember that addiction affects everyone in the addict’s life, including their families, friends, coworkers, partners, employers, and neighbors. Just remember that you are not alone, and you don’t need to suffer in silence.

Addiction is described as a “family disease” for a reason. Your anxiety and fear are a natural response to an out of control, frightening situation. Don’t question yourself because you’re experiencing PTSD—that’s counterintuitive, and can end up causing more harm for you and your family. Instead, seek help from a therapist or counselor, and talk to a psychologist or medical professional if your symptoms are seriously interfering with your ability to work, parent, or enjoy your life. Some family members and friends end up finding emotional support and their own recovery in Al-Anon or another 12-Step group. Addiction can be a life-threatening mental illness that affects everyone. Take care of yourself first—your life matters, too.