You walk to your son’s room and knock on the door, hoping he’ll say he’s actually going to be home for dinner this time. There’s no answer. You know he’s home because his music is blaring. You knock twice more before swinging the door open because you’re tired of his constant lack of courtesy and respect. He’s lying on the floor, blue-lipped and motionless. When the paramedics get there, you hear the words coming out of their mouths but you can’t believe it.
“Heroin overdose.” The world goes dark.
Even if your loved one makes it through the overdose or doesn’t even overdose at all, loved ones of addicts are highly susceptible to experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the trauma they face when dealing with the addict.
What is PTSD?
We’ve probably all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in our lives. But it’s also one of those disorders that many people invoke too lightly.
“Oh, I’m so OCD about my closet!”
“That chick is seriously bipolar.”
“Ugh, I’m going to get PTSD by the time these exams are over!”
Psychological disorders like PTSD are very real ailments that can only be diagnosed by licensed clinical professionals. So what exactly is it? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that some people experience after a life-threatening event. This includes a car accident, an assault, or even an earthquake.
Symptoms of PTSD
Reliving the event – experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, or lifelike memories
Avoiding memories of the event – not wanting to address, talk about, or think about the event
Negative feelings about yourself or the world – not being able to feel happy about things that made you happy before the event
Hyperarousal – startling easily; feeling irritable, angry and always alert; having trouble sleeping
PTSD in Loved Ones of Addicts
Addiction doesn’t just affect the addict. Loved ones of addicts experience a lot of trauma during their loved one’s addiction. In serious cases, that trauma can lead to PTSD. Even if a loved one didn’t necessarily experience one defining life-threatening event, constantly caring for the addict can be life threatening in the long run. Living in chaos, dealing with the addict’s faults, and trying to love someone who isn’t really able to love back will definitely change a person’s way of thinking, feeling, and living, which is life threatening in and of itself.
Examples of PTSD triggers because of a loved one’s addiction:
- Witnessing a loved one overdose
- Seeing the aftermath of an overdose
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Sexual assault
- Seeing a parent passed out or incoherent
- Losing a home, kids, or even the addict
Sometimes a person might not classify as experiencing PTSD but could still be severely affected by the loved one’s addiction. Most commonly, the loved one will start living his or her life as the caregiver for others while sacrificing their own well-being. Living with an addict means that you have to be responsible for two people. You might feel that you have to take care of and clean up after the addict. However, caring for an addict can be very self-detrimental because (1) you aren’t getting any confirmation, appreciation, or love back from the addict and (2) you don’t have enough time or effort to care for yourself as well. Even if the addict gets treatment or you move on from him, the time spent on the addict will still change the way you live your life afterwards.
PTSD in Children of Addicts
Children are incredibly likely to experience symptoms of PTSD if a parent is an addict. The parent is supposed to be the child’s caregiver, no questions asked. But when the parent is an addict, those roles are reversed. The child is forced to mature more quickly and take care of his or her parent’s addiction. Some triggers for PTSD in a child include seeing a parent hit rock bottom, witnessing a parent overdose, and being taken away from the parent by protective services.
Children can experience the common PTSD symptoms listed above as well as other symptoms that are specific to children. These include:
- Acting out the trauma through play
- Retelling the trauma through stories
- Avoiding school
- Having trouble with schoolwork
- Having trouble with friends
- Running away
Besides post-traumatic stress disorder, a parent’s addiction can also cause a child to become codependent. Dealing with an addicted parent can also change the way a child will act in adulthood. A parent’s addiction can actually cause a child to constantly seek approval in adulthood as well as make excuses for other people causing them harm.
It’s incredibly important to seek treatment for PTSD as it can quickly develop into other mental health problems. For example, PTSD can lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse if left untreated. However, you can also help to prevent PTSD as a result of a loved one’s addiction by seeking help for your addict. Don’t wait until you see your son lifeless on his bedroom floor.