Substance Abuse, Addiction Take Heavy Toll on Military Families

soldiers on a mission

If you’re in a military family, you’re keenly aware of the cost of your family member’s service to the country. You may find yourself living on a military base, far away from other family and close friends. You may find yourself charged with the sole care, feeding and nurturing of your children, from infants to teens. Of course, you always have to deal with the stress your loved one’s deployment brings; will the next knock at the door be the one you’ve always dreaded?

The significant strain of living in a military family can take a serious toll. For some, it can contribute to or exacerbate alcoholism or drug addiction — a problem that occurs far too often in family members of veterans.

Substance Abuse in Military Spouses

The extended separation that comes with deployment places considerable stress on the spouse who remains at home.  The husbands and wives of military personnel are often forced to take on new responsibilities, such as managing all the finances or caring for the house. Military service takes an emotional toll as well. The spouse at home may struggle with feelings of loneliness, anger and/or frustration.   The strain can contribute to depression as well, which is a major risk factor for alcohol and drug abuse.

Alcoholism or drug addiction in the family may also develop after a military member returns home. While family members look forward to being reunited with their loved one, the return can be challenging. Service members often feel exhausted from their deployment. They may return with a mental health condition, such as depression or — if they were in combat — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Couples may also find themselves fighting about household responsibilities, the children, or money.  The hope that life will simply “return to normal” once a deployment ends may end up shattered by the disappointment that nothing is the same – and never will be.

As the spouse of someone who’s in or been in the military, you will have an even greater risk of substance abuse and addiction if your relationship is a violent one.  In some cases, the violence can be intentional, such as outright verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. However, in many cases it’s not.  Veterans suffering from PTSD can also act violently as a result of the symptoms they are experiencing.  For example, nightmares may cause them to hit their partner during sleep. Living with an abusive partner always creates significant stress.  It can lead some desperate spouses to turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. Studies show that women who have been abused are significantly more likely to have substance abuse problems than those who haven’t been abused by a partner.

Many military families also find themselves taking care of an injured veteran. At least 50,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets sustained injuries while serving. Caregiving is particularly stressful on family members. Researchers have found that caregivers in general report a lower quality of life, as well as a decreased sense of well-being. In addition, caregivers are more prone to developing depression, which, as mentioned above, is a well-established risk factor for alcohol and drug abuse.

Substance Abuse in Veterans’ Children

Adults aren’t the only family members affected by a military member’s service. When a parent is deployed to combat, the situation can negatively impact the mental health of children and teens in the home. Research suggests that parental deployment raises the risk of depression, thus also increasing the risk of alcoholism and drug abuse. In fact, studies show that middle school and high school students with a deployed parent had higher rates of alcohol use, binge drinking, marijuana use, other illegal drug use, and prescription drug abuse than children in non-military families.

Getting Substance Abuse Help for Yourself

Find a treatment center. Addiction is a chronic and progressive disorder that requires treatment by trained addiction professionals. Consult a rehab facility to learn about your treatment options. If you are a veteran, contact your local VA medical facility; they’ll be able to discuss available treatment options with you. Rehab for alcoholism and drug abuse may involve inpatient or outpatient therapy, medication if needed, and continued care in the form of addiction self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Gather support. You don’t have to deal with addiction alone. Military families have a reputation for banding together in times of crisis, and an addiction is a crisis. You will benefit from the supportive relationships you can build with other men and women going through the same military life experience. Look for local groups or find a military support network online.

Getting Substance Abuse Help for Loved Ones

Educate yourself. You’ll benefit yourself and the loved one you’re trying to help by educating yourself about substance abuse and addiction.  People don’t become addicts because they’re weak-willed or morally bankrupt. An addiction changes the brain’s chemistry, altering the way a person thinks and acts.  Learning as much as you can will help you overcome any denial or lack of knowledge that hinders you from helping a struggling family member. Find out more through an addiction recovery center or by attending groups like Al-Anon, which is a support group for family members of alcoholics.

Explore treatment options. Those struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction have distorted perceptions and thought processes.  They may be oblivious with regards to the impact their disorder has on themselves – not to mention family members and close friends. Add depression, PTSD, or another disorder into the mix and things often become even worse.   Contact an addiction specialist to learn the best way to go about getting your loved one into treatment. A specialist can provide talking points that will allow you to jumpstart a discussion with your family member.  He or she may also give you a referral for a professional interventionist if necessary.

Don’t preach or lecture. It’s painful to watch loved ones destroy themselves or others with addictive behavior, eliciting a variety of negative emotions in you. However, no matter how upset, frustrated, or angry you feel, it’s crucial to avoid preaching to or lecturing.  That approach not only doesn’t work; it all-too-often backfires and makes helping them get into treatment an even greater challenge.  Find a safe, healthy outlet for your own feelings to that you can keep your emotions in check with confronting your loved one’s substance abuse problem.

Don’t enable. Enabling a loved one’s addiction is an easy trap to fall into. Enabling involves doing things that accommodate the addictive behavior and allows the person to continue engaging in it.  For example, if you call your husband’s work to say he’s sick and won’t be in for the day – because he’s too hung over – that’s a form of enabling.  Talk with an addiction specialist about ways you can say “no” to your loved one.

Focus on your own life. Alcoholism and drug addiction consume more than the addict;  they impact everyone who loves him or her. If you feel your life is being drained by a family member’s addiction, it’s crucial for you to step back and attend to your own well-being. Talking to a therapist is one way to work through your feelings and find healthy ways to deal with the strain and anxiety of loving an addict. In addition, work to rebuild your emotional balance with stress-relieving activities, such as meditation, yoga, or regular exercise.  Finding a support group for military family members may also be beneficial.

Don’t allow alcoholism or drug addiction to steal away your life or the life of someone you love.  Reach out for help today to an addiction treatment center – preferably one that specializes in working with military personnel and their family members. After all, as part of a military family there’s already been significant sacrifice.  You and your loved ones deserve to live a life that’s free from addiction.



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