"Alcoholism and drug addiction run through my family" - Jada Pinkett Smith and her mom

Jada Pinkett Smith and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris. Credit: Getty Images
Jada Pinkett Smith and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris. Credit: Getty Images

In another compelling episode of Jada Pinkett Smith's Facebook series, Red Table Talk, she and her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris talk about addiction. Adrienne, who has been sober for 27 years, explains in the episode that she struggled with a heroin addiction for 20 years during Jada's childhood. In another episode, Jada revealed her own struggle with an addiction to sex; particularly to sex toys

READ MORE“She drinks too much” - here’s what you can do to help 

The revelation that Jada and her mother shared is a common issue, not only because people struggle with addiction in all scopes of life, but because addictions can and do run in families. "Alcoholism and drug addiction run through my family, and I've had my own addictions that I've had to get over," Jada says at the start of their addiction episode, and this is a reality for a lot of people in our society. In addition to Adrienne's addiction, Jada was also exposed to her step-father's drug use.

We spoke to addiction therapist, Debbie Bub, and she explains that addictions that run in the family are a prevalent issue. "People come in to look for help for themselves and there’s a history of addiction in their family. Anyone working in addiction treatment will know that it is very common to have family members that also have the same problem.”

While addiction may not be necessarily hereditary like hair colour, it is possible for addictions to be passed on between family members. According to the Learn Genetics website, "there are many ways that genes could cause one person to be more vulnerable to addiction than another," but genetics aren't the only reason why you'd pick up the habits of family members.

Debbie explains that “if you do have a close familiar member that’s addicted, you are more likely to get an addiction yourself, but it’s more complex than that. There are other factors, like trauma and a difficulty in coping with feelings.”

In an article for Celebuzz, Andrea Simpson reports that Jada's previous step-father, Warren A. Brown, who was also a drug user, feels responsible for his step-daughter's addiction because of their estrangement. Andrea writes that "he can’t help but think if he would have been there for her, she would have struggled less." Considering that Warren also struggled with substance abuse, his presence in Jada's childhood is an example of how one's home environment contributes to one's susceptibility to addiction.

Simply put, people who have relatives who struggled with addictions are more vulnerable to them.

READ MORE: Is gaming addictive? Yes. Does it mean you could be mentally ill? Possibly 

Understanding a family member who is addicted

"The thing that people don’t really get their head around is what’s it’s like to be addicted," Debbie comments. "The experience of an addiction is like a snowball effect. So, if someone starts to use and they lose control over their using, it’s a very hard thing for us who are not addicts to try and understand." Often family members get very angry with the addict because they assume that they could just stop, but right at the heart of an addicted person is that choice falls away. 

"I love the Afrikaans word for addiction because it’s 'verslawing', which means to be enslaved; and that’s really the dynamic that happens in every single addiction. That person loses control over their using; the power dynamic goes into the drug or the alcohol and the person becomes powerless. They cannot say ‘Okay I’ve had enough now’," Debbie explains. 

READ MOREAre therapy apps the key to making counselling more accessible for a lot of South Africans? 

How can you help yourself and the relative?

Take care of yourself

This sounds strange, but you have to get the support and care you need. "We get so focused on the addict that we neglect ourselves," she says. Because being a relative means you are vulnerable to addiction, you need to take care of your mental health and ensure that you are coping with things in a healthy way. “The best support that I recommend is to go to the Al-Anon and Nar-Anon meetings because you can meet people who have exactly the same problem and who have found ways to cope with it." 

Don't ignore the problem

"The other thing is not to step around the problem," says Debbie, "because often people don’t talk about what’s actually going on. Get enough support for yourself and with that support, try to speak about what’s happening in that family.” Addiction is not a subtle thing, she affirms; it’s quite obvious. "Family members would be the people that would first know something’s not right because they see changes in behaviour; they would probably see that things go missing around the house or money gets lost or stolen from the house. And when you try to talk to the person about it, they will deny it and often blame someone else for their problems."

READ MOREHow to call out problematic family and friends 

Avoid supporting the addiction

When a relative is addicted, it's easy to mistake being there for them with supporting their addiction. Supporting the addiction is doing things such as cleaning up after the addict, enabling their behaviour, and fixing the chaos that their addiction is causing. Though it might sound harsh, Debbie advises that you not clean up too much after all the chaos that their addiction is causing because that means they’re going to have to face the truth quicker than if you are cleaning up after them and constantly mending the damage they cause. You need to allow the person to just see the truth of their reality.

If you need support through a family member's addiction, contact the Al-Anon group; or if you are personally struggling with an addiction, contact the Alcoholics Anonymous National Helpline: 0861 HELP AA (435-722)

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