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What Is Addiction?
Addiction is a brain disease, and it happens when someone cannot stop using a substance even if they understand the full impact of its negative effects. When people think of addiction, they usually think of the behaviors they notice in people. However, addiction is more about neurological changes than it is about behavior alone. When a person starts using a substance, it alters the brain’s perceptions and signals of rewards. The change in brain chemistry is short-lived at first, but chemical signals cause the brain to crave more of the substance to achieve the same effect.
People often give in to cravings, and they eventually build a tolerance to the substance. This means that a person must use more of the substance to achieve the same reward effect. Over time, the body becomes dependent on the substance. As a result, the person experiences unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when she or he tries to stop using the substance. Withdrawal can also happen when someone goes a certain amount of time without the substance. As people become more dependent on substances, they develop an addiction.
How Addiction Affects Behavior
When a person who is addicted to a substance undergoes brain scans, the changes are visible. For example, MRI scans show tissue changes in the prefrontal cortex. It serves as a center for logical thinking, self-control, goal setting, and planning. As a result of substance misuse and decreased tissue, people behave differently.
The variations of behaviors may depend on the substance someone uses. For example, someone who misuses cocaine may be talkative and energetic. Someone who misuses opioids may be lethargic and sleepy. These are some other potential behavior changes:
- Irrational statements and behavior
- Mood swings
- Lack of self-control
- Inability to stop using a substance
If you notice the above behaviors in your sibling, it may indicate an addiction. However, some behaviors can also be characteristic of a mental illness. In many cases, people who suffer from addiction also have a co-occurring mental illness. As a result of people not getting mental health care when they need it, they often turn to substances to self-medicate.
How Addiction Affects Siblings and Relationships
The sibling of the person with an addiction may experience a wide range of emotions. They can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. These are some examples of common feelings that siblings of addicted people experience:
Those effects can strain relationships and make it harder for siblings to maintain communication.
How Addiction Makes Siblings Feel
Siblings may experience a wide range of emotions as a result of a brother’s or sister’s addiction. If you experience these feelings, it is normal in a sibling relationship when one has an addiction:
- You feel like your sibling chooses the substance over you.
- You feel like your sibling breaks your trust constantly.
- You feel like family members or friends enable your sibling’s addiction, which causes more tension for you.
- You frequently feel like you do not know how to act or react.
How To Deal With an Addicted Sibling
Since most siblings are not sure how to act around an addicted brother or sister, it can be stressful trying to figure out how to help. First, it is important to remember to take care of yourself as you try to deal with or help your addicted sibling. These are some ways to do that.
Setting boundaries is one of the most important steps. It helps prevent multiple problems. These are some benefits of strong and clear boundaries:
- Clarifying your expectations and needs
- Avoiding burnout from trying to help
- Reducing unhealthy arguments and conflicts
- Avoiding enabling the addicted sibling
If you want to help your sibling, it is crucial to have a trusting relationship. However, it can take time to build or rebuild trust if your sibling broke it. Also, many people who are addicted do not trust others, and this may be a side effect of substance misuse.
Communicate Your Needs
An important part of dealing with an addicted sibling effectively is communicating clearly and calmly. Do not bring up past wrongdoings. As a result of addiction, people often behave poorly. It can be easy to react with anger, nagging, blaming, and other negative responses out of frustration. Try to avoid those, and tell your sibling how you feel rather than making statements that appear accusing. For example, say, “I feel like you do not want to listen to me.” Do not say, “You never listen.”
Limit Exposure to Substances
If you have a prescription for a drug that has the potential for abuse, or if you drink, be conscientious when your sibling is present. Keep your medications locked or in a safe place. Avoid drinking in front of your sibling. Also, talk to your family and mutual friends to ask them to avoid using substances or drinking around your sibling.
Signs That Your Sibling May Have an Addiction
How do you know if your sibling has an addiction or is struggling with something else? The behaviors listed earlier can indicate addiction. However, there may be other changes you notice as well. These are some of the common signs that your sibling has an addiction:
- Your sibling misses work frequently, and this is a new pattern.
- There are new legal or financial troubles for your sibling.
- As a result of the addiction, your sibling avoids work, school, social gatherings, or family gatherings.
- Your sibling acts secretive about a purse, a drawer, or some other location.
- In comparison with the past, your sibling has poorer hygiene habits.
In some cases, it can be hard to identify all these signs. If you live with your sibling, it may not seem as easy to notice some changes if they happen gradually. For example, some people who develop an alcohol addiction may drink for years, and siblings may not notice the addiction when it first starts.
How Siblings of Addicts Can Help
Now that you know how to deal with an addicted sibling, you may be wondering how you can help that person. One of the most important ways to learn how to help is to reach out to a professional treatment facility. A treatment center can help you understand why medical supervision is critical for safety and what steps you can take to help. These are some starting points.
My Brother Is an Addict: How Can I Help?
In males, drug abuse is more likely to result in emergency room visits. Also, men are more likely than women to use illegal drugs. Men also tend to have higher rates of dependence than women.
My Sister Is an Addict: How Can I Help?
Although men may be more likely to visit the emergency room or use drugs, women have an equal chance of developing an addiction. In terms of birth order, younger sisters tend to be more likely to develop an addiction. The same is true with males.
The Solution: An Intervention
An intervention is an event that people who care about your addicted sibling create. The goal is to get your sibling to enter treatment. For an intervention to be successful, it is important to work with a professional interventionist. An interventionist knows the right steps, strategies, penalty suggestions, and more.
Treatment Options for Your Addicted Sibling
These are the main forms of treatment for addiction:
- Detox is the first phase and is medically supervised.
- Residential treatment is inpatient treatment that lasts about a month or several months.
- Partial hospitalization treatment involves multiple, long treatment sessions each week.
- Intensive outpatient therapy involves several sessions but is not as intensive as a PHP.
- Outpatient treatment usually involves one or more therapy sessions each week.
- Sober living is a structured, safe living environment that minimizes relapse risks for people who just finished treatment.
Therapists may use group, individual, and family therapy structures. Family therapy helps you, your sibling, and your family learn how to support your sibling. It also gives you a safe space to talk about how the addiction affects you. Additionally, your sibling learns how to communicate better with you and work through problems.
Resources for Siblings of Addicts in Illinois
Many people call us to say, “my sister is an addict” or to say, “my brother is an addict.” If this applies to you, please give us a call to learn more about resources for siblings of addicts and treatment options for your sibling. You are both important, and Northern Illinois Recovery Center in Crystal Lake is here to help.
Licensed Physician and Surgeon
Dr. Beth Dunlap, a board-certified addiction medicine and family medicine physician, and is the medical director at Northern Illinois Recovery Center. She is responsible for overseeing all the integrated medical services at both campuses. Beth completed medical school, residency, and fellowship at Northwestern University, where she continues to serve on the faculty as a member of the Department of Family and Community Medicine. She has extensive experience in addiction medicine at all levels of care, and her clinical interests include integrated primary care and addiction medicine, harm reduction, and medication-assisted treatment.