Dear Dr. T - Is My Husband's Addiction a Disease?

Dear Dr. T.,

My husband Ted has been drinking until he is drunk and smoking marijuana daily for many years now.  We have a daughter together that is 13 years old and I try to keep his behavior from her as much as I can but I know she sees more than I would like.  I’ve lost the man I married, my daughter barely has a father anymore in him, and we almost never visit the rest of our family anymore because Ted is such an embarrassment when he gets drunk and high. 

His addiction is ruining his life and my life – I just don’t want it to ruin my daughter’s life too.  I feel like I know what the right thing to do is, I need to leave him, but it’s just hard because our finances are tied together, I would need to move but most of all because this will be devastating for our daughter. 

I know he’s clearly addicted to marijuana and an alcoholic but I’m confused about what that actually means - I hear people say that addiction is a disease.  How can drinking too much and getting stoned be a disease?!  But if it is true and really he does have a disease, it makes me think that there’s probably no cure.  Am I stuck with this man the rest of my life?  I just want the old Ted back, the Ted I fell in love with and married.  I haven’t give up hope but I just don’t know what to do next. 




In response to Amanda’s letter, we gave her a call and did an interview to get more information. Here are the responses to her interview below. We asked her 1st about her husband and his alcohol and drug use. 


What is Ted's drug of choice?

Mostly alcohol and marijuana, I think he occasionally does cocaine as well.

Does he have any additional mental health issues (depression, bipolar, anxiety, etc.)?

No, he’s never been diagnosed but I suspect he has depression or maybe bipolar disorder.

Does Ted have any current legal issues?

Yes, he is currently on unsupervised level of probation following his 4th DUI.  His license is suspended.  He recently got off house arrest.

Has he ever been in treatment before?

He’s gone to some NA & AA meetings in the past, and done a court mandated group counseling course three times.  He didn’t like NA or AA and just said it was a just a meeting of people feeling sorry for themselves.

Would he want his treatment to include religious/spiritual aspects?

Yes, it would be a bonus if it would be Christian based.

Has Ted ever been violent toward anyone inside the family, including you?

He did get violent with me once while he was high on cocaine but if I stay out of his way (don’t try to take his keys), then he isn’t physically violent.  I do have to say that he is emotionally & verbally abusive to me when he is using, though never towards our daughter.

What has been the impact of his use on you and your family?

Emotional – I don’t trust him at all, I feel isolated, I can’t talk to others without getting judgment or advice.  I’m never sure what’s going to happen day to day – are we going to have money? Is he going to be killed? Will he kill someone else? Will he just leave and never come back? How would I explain this all to our daughter?

It’s devastated our marriage.  It’s caused me to have some stress-related health issues & depression.  And it’s completely destroyed our finances.  

What have you tried to help?

I feel like I’ve tried it all.  Interventions, threats, bargains, - shut off cell phone so he couldn’t call drug dealers, took keys, tried to ignore it, went to Al-anon, couples, individual therapy, read on internet. I’ve tried threatening to leave, ignoring him, boundary drawing/bargains. All these worked to some degree in past but do not any longer.

How do you hope Ted will get help?

I have no idea, but I’m not hopeless.  I have to believe something will and can work.

What are you hoping to see change? Are you okay with Ted continuing to use, but in a reduced amount or safer way? Or do you want him to completely stop?

Long-term I want him to completely stop but in the short term if he can be functional & not an embarrassment in public, I could accept reduced use for awhile.

How much energy are you willing to put into changing the situation?

I have a supportive family so I think I would be able to free up one to two hours a day to actively work on something that could possibly help.

Dear Amanda,

Right away I can tell that you love your husband and your daughter very much. The situation you describe is heart-breaking because it seems like you feel torn between your love for your husband and your love for your daughter. Please know that you are not alone in experiencing this situation and this dilemma is not uncommon in families where a loved one is using or drinking. You sound like a very resilient person; you may not feel like it right now, but the fact that you’ve been married for so long and that you’ve never stopped trying tells me that you are a person who has a great deal of inner strength.

First things first, Amanda. The safety of you and your daughter are the highest priority. Although you say that Ted has only been violent once, the fact that he has been violent in the past and that he continues to be verbally aggressive toward you means safety should be considered when you thinking about making any changes. You can find resources on how to keep yourself and your daughter safe by going to our resources page.

In regards to the question you asked about addiction being disease, I can totally see why that would be confusing and frustrating. Addiction is a frustrating process! The idea that addiction is a disease is pretty popular and organizations like Al-Anon do tend to lean toward a disease model of addiction. And there is evidence to suggest that addiction has a genetic component and there is more evidence to suggest that addiction leads to changes in the brain.

What does that mean for you and your situation? One benefit of thinking of addiction as a disease is that it highlight that it is NOT your fault that Ted has an addiction. Knowing that it’s not your fault can help free you from guilt and shame. So often we can fall victim to the “what if” game. What if I had been more loving? More caring? Just spent a little more time with him? Some people view addiction as a disease because it gives them permission to stop playing an unwinnable game. If addiction is a disease then all of the love, care, and time in the world wouldn’t have stopped his addictions.

You also say in your letter that if addiction is a disease, then there can be no cure, that it is hopeless. I completely understand why you would feel hopeless. You have done a lot to help Ted! You’ve tried bargaining, threatening, shutting off his cell phone, going to Al-Anon, and even going to individual therapy! You’ve done a lot of work! But here’s the thing about addiction--it’s complicated.

My personal views about addiction are that while it has some disease-like qualities but there are also situational factors that lead to and maintain addiction. This means that while there are biological parts that influence Ted’s addiction, there are also situational parts that influence his addiction. And the fact that there are situational parts to addiction means that there are things that can be done to help people with addictions.

You even have some evidence from your experience. You wrote that some of the things you’ve tried to help Ted led to him stopping or decreasing his use. This is a positive sign; it means that there are things you can do to help Ted (if you choose to do so). Some of the ideas you’ve already tried might work again with some slight tweaking or changes to them. And there are other ideas that you can try that we’ll continue to talk about here at Sober Families. If you want to find out more about some of the ideas we’ll be talking about, check out our website for ways to learn more.

So, what does all of this mean? Put simply, addiction is not your fault, but there things you can do to help change its course. Is changing it easy? No. Does it take time and energy? You bet. Does it require us to think about whether we want to invest our time and resources into changing our loved ones’ addictions? Most definitely. For various reasons, we sometimes choose to leave situations and to not invest our time and energy into them. Sometimes we’re just too tired, or we’ve decided that the best choice we can make is to focus on ourselves and others in our family and let go of trying to actively help our loved one. I think it’s important to know that if we choose not to help that it does not mean that we’re a failure.

Before I sign off there is one more thing I’d like to address in your letter. You wrote that you have an 11 year old daughter. My hunch is that you are wondering:

A) if she is at risk of developing an addiction;

B) if you should talk to her about your husband’s addiction.

From the research, we know that addiction tends to run in families and that people who have family members with addictions are more likely to develop an addiction later in life. I like to highlight the phrase “more likely” -- as I said earlier, biology is not destiny. Remember, addiction has both biological and situational/environmental components. What this means is that your daughter is at increased risk for addiction (just like how some children are at increased risk for cancer if certain types of cancer occur in the family), but addiction is not her destiny. What is also true from the research is that many people are a part of families which include addiction, but most of them do NOT develop addiction themselves.

In terms of talking to your daughter about your husband’s addiction, there is no one “right answer.” Many professionals recommend telling the truth about a family member’s addiction to kids in a way that they can understand. I really like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (they are a large teaching hospital in Canada that specializes in training, treating, and researching addiction and mental health). They have an easy-to-understand tip sheet on how to talk to children about addiction and how to continue the conversation past the initial disclosure.

Amanda, I hope you’ve found my response helpful and that it has shed some new or a different light on the difficult situation you’re in. My most sincere hope is that you find a way to free you and your daughter from the cycle of Ted’s addiction.

Warmest regards,

-Dr. T.