written by
Lucinda Koza

Identifying as a Caregiver

Partners caregiver Narrative Top Stories 4 min read , June 25, 2022
Photographer: Sydney Sims | Source: Unsplash

When you have someone in your family or in your life who has an addiction, it can seem commonplace. If you grow up in a home in which a parent often needs care, almost like a child, when they come home drunk and you have to clean them up and put them to bed, this can become status quo. Baseline, normal behavior. You don’t question it so much; you just figure every kid has a house like this; or, you decide you don’t mind taking care of your parent because you want to make sure they’re safe. What you certainly don’t do is realize you are a caregiver. You don’t realize the amount of responsibility you take on around the house, because no one else will do it. It seems normal.

I’ll never forget a quote I heard somewhere, about how there are two different kinds of parents. One whose touch feels like giving, and one whose touch feels like taking, or asking for something. This immediately helped me identify that I was in an unhealthy situation. This is important. If your loved one’s touch or presence always feels like they need something, you are a caregiver. If the pattern isn’t broken, it’s only a sign of what’s to come.

“Excessive use and abuse of alcohol in old age have been associated with changes in brain structure that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and variants of dementia," says Nikola Djordjevic, MD. In fact, binge drinking can increase the likelihood of dementia three times. Behavior in your loved one that you may have gotten used to by now may actually be signs of developing dementia. Delayed diagnosis and lack of intervention can have fatal consequences. These are symptoms that someone is developing dementia:

  • Unexplained changes in personality.
  • Trouble solving complex problems.
  • Difficulty with navigation. You might get lost following a familiar path.
  • Short-term memory problems. It's normal to occasionally forget a piece of information. It's not normal to be unable to participate in a conversation because you can't remember anything.
  • Cognitive problems that make daily life difficult. For example, a person might have trouble following a recipe.
  • Poor decision-making.
  • Confusion with place or time. For example, a person might forget they're in the 21st century.
  • Trouble with communicating, such as chronic word-finding difficulties or increased difficulty reading or understanding speech.

Couldn’t each one of those symptoms be mistaken for a symptom of alcoholism, or substance misuse? If you’re a caregiver yet to identify yourself as a caregiver, how long could you unintentionally go on excusing behavior that needs medical attention?

Lawrence Weinstein, MD, Chief Medical Officer for American Addiction Centers, says children of a parent who has alcoholism may feel anger or abandonment that can affect them throughout their entire life. Children of alcoholics are at a greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experiencing mental health trauma, and have a greater possibility of developing a substance abuse disorder themselves, according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization.

“If you grow up in a family where everything is unpredictable, you tend to want to hold on to a feeling of control,” says Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, CA. Adult children of alcoholics often have depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and feelings of shame.

“They may believe on some level that they did something to deserve the neglect they experienced,” Gardenswartz says.

“You have been damaged by somebody who was supposed to protect you, and someone you are supposed to love and who is supposed to love you unconditionally. It can screw you up pretty bad,” Harkes says.

Children of alcoholics often had to grow up quickly and take on responsibility beyond their mental capacity. They were the caregiver for the person that was supposed to be their caregiver. Identifying oneself as a caregiver opens up a world of possibility; to be able to name what you went through or are still going through, and find communities of caregivers who feel just the way you do, are powerful ways to break the cycle of substance misuse.

In 2020, I had identified as a caregiver; but not yet for the substance misuse. I was working with Lyfebulb and found a company, youturn health, who maintains the world’s largest library of proprietary, therapist-led video content about substance misuse. Developed after engaging with 40,000 individuals through nationally-recognized, non-profit partner, FAVOR Greenville, youturn provides evidenced-based training content to enterprises. youturn had so much content for substance misuse, and for their families. This is when I finally realized, my caregiving had begun before the paperwork and before the hospital. I was already trained, in many ways, to take care of my parent rather than receive care.

It is still difficult for someone who has gotten used to ways of being to take a step back and realize the relationship dynamics at play. But it is almost just as important for the caregiver to realize their role as it is for the person suffering with substance misuse to realize their addiction. This is why I-Ally has partnered with youturn health. Serving caregivers includes caregivers of loved ones with addiction, because it often comes along with many co-morbidities -- and is a disease unto itself.

family caregivers mental health dementia