For Families: The Dangers of Living with a Secret Addiction

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Families living with addiction often keep secrets from each other, extended friends and family and their greater community. That’s because the anxiety and stress that accompanies an addiction are so intense, the individual family members develop defense mechanisms to help them cope and deal with the problem. While this may seem to be the most logical way to handle the problem at the time, it’s actually a way to compound stress, anger and resentment. Worse yet, keeping one secret starts the chain of lies and deceit, which means the family members will continue to hide more and more.

The Dangers of Keeping Secrets

We’ve been taught that sometimes, a secret is worth keeping. And in some situations, it can be. But when discussing addiction and the secrets that surface between family members, there is more harm to be done than good. Here’s why.

  • It takes energy to keep addiction a secret. Energy should be focused on helping the addict seek recovery rather than hiding the problem.
  • Lying and keeping secrets increases the risk of isolation. When family members are carrying around this burden, they don’t enjoy being with friends or family anymore.
  • Keeping secrets causes stress within the family unit. Children may know that something is wrong, but they don’t know what. This causes confusion and a lack of trust within the family unit.
  • Being secretive about an addiction means that the family is covering up the problem instead of dealing with it. Denial is one of the biggest obstacles to seeking treatment.

Why Families Keep Addiction a Secret

With so many dangers to hiding an addiction, why then, do families do this?

Social Stigma

No matter how hard treatment centers try to educate the public on addiction as a brain disease, it still carries a negative stigma. Many people look at addiction as a weakness or selfish act. Therefore, in order to protect the reputation of their loved one, families lie about the problem.

Additionally, addiction is linked to the family. For instance, parents may feel like they didn’t do a good enough job raising their child. A husband may feel like he doesn’t make his wife happy. Even though addiction can affect anyone regardless of socioeconomic status, race or background, some people believe that addiction stems from dysfunctional homes.

Shame and Embarrassment

Probably the most common reason why people lie about addiction is the shame and embarrassment that they feel they will suffer if their secret is out. This is due, in part, to the fact that our society does have a negative attitude when it comes to addiction, and people say hurtful things. The family feels that they can’t handle these comments, and they don’t want their world to come crashing down. So, they continue to lie and cover up the addiction to maintain their reputation.

This is especially common for families who are actively involved in the community, such as teachers, church leaders, babysitters, coaches and so on. They feel that if their secret was made public, they would be viewed as deficient or defective.

Learned Behavior from Previous Generations

Sometimes, an addiction may be covered up because the family doesn’t know any other way of dealing with the issue. For example, a wife may hide that fact that her husband has a drinking problem because her own mother did it, too. Even though the cycle is unhealthy, the wife may know of no other way to deal with the addiction than to lie and make excuses for her husband. In these cases, it’s also common for extended family to support covering up the addiction because that’s how they dealt with the problem years ago.

Can Families Living with Secret Addictions be Helped?

Families who are living with a secret addiction can be helped at any moment. All they have to do is let their secret out. Since this is a very difficult thing to do, it’s best that the family does this in a safe and secure environment, such as with a support group or family therapist. They don’t need to share everything, but they can at least break their silence and be with others who will not judge them.

Families are almost always relieved that they took the step to release their inner struggles and learn that they are not alone. Many other families go through the same battles, and there is help available through inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, support groups and family therapy.

Most importantly, families should know that they can share their feelings at their own pace. Some family members choose to release everything at once to achieve a clear conscious, while others take their time sharing stories. Through this simple yet powerful act, families are able to seek the help that their loved one needs and live a life without secrets. A life where they can finally be themselves.