Nicotine packages and alcohol sitting on a table.

The Impact of Substance Abuse on Military Families

I’ll never forget the morning we woke up at 5 a.m. to our two-year-old son in my husband’s closet, holding a canister of nicotine pouches in his hands and crying that he “didn’t like it.” He was hysterical, bumping into furniture as he walked around the house because he was so dizzy. When I called poison control and explained the situation, I was told to hang up the phone and dial 911 immediately because our son had ingested a toxic dose of nicotine.

My husband rushed our toddler son to the emergency room on post, just a few minutes from our house. We knew it would be quicker than an ambulance. I sat in the nursery, nursing our infant daughter, preparing to drop her off with the neighbor so I could get to the hospital to be with our boy as quickly as possible. The worst images were playing in my mind and my internet searches were only worrying me more: seizures, cardiovascular collapse, coma, death.

The story had a happy ending. Our son did not present with any serious toxicity symptoms. He was given a charcoal drink to neutralize his stomach lining and sent home after a few hours of close monitoring.  But nevertheless, it was a very scary day, and a day that caused my husband and me to have a very serious talk about his nicotine addiction and how it was affecting our family.

I know I am not alone in my struggles dealing with addiction in my service member. Substance abuse is unfortunately a common problem in the military. Addictions tend to impact families in multiple ways, so it is important that spouses find ways to communicate and work together on solving the addiction and its effects on the family.

It’s been a long road for my husband and I — getting to a place where he can respect the boundaries I set for our family, and where I can accept his addiction isn’t going to be cured overnight like I wish it would be. If I had my way, he would quit — cold turkey — and never go back. Unfortunately, he has “quit” several times without succeeding. He has handed me his canister of nicotine pouches, looking me in the eye and promising me he’s done. The hope is always short-lived as the addiction slowly creeps back in.

I have had to develop a few strategies to accept the addiction as much as possible, while also protecting myself and our family. Here are three things that have really helped me long this journey:

  1. Set boundaries. Since the incident with our son, we had to set major boundaries in the house regarding what our children have access to. It quickly became apparent that my husband needed to be much more careful with where he kept his nicotine pouches. This was a long-term frustration that wasn’t solved immediately. I set boundaries that my husband did not initially follow — which caused marital issues for a while. But after some trial and error, we came up with a good plan together. My husband keeps his unused nicotine pouches in his truck and disposes of his used ones by flushing them down the toilet. The rule is that it is not allowed in the house unless it is in his mouth. That is the boundary that keeps our kids safe, so I have peace of mind and don’t have to worry every time our one-year-old daughter picks up a mysterious object off the floor. It has taken time and patience, but I now trust my husband to follow this boundary and it has solved the issue of fear and helplessness on my end.
  2. Be supportive. I have observed that many spouses fall into the pattern of belittling their partner for their addictions — perhaps, calling them “weak” or “pathetic.” Talking down to an addict is rarely helpful and can only exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and deflated self-worth. No one wants to be addicted to something, so an addict is already his own biggest critic — even if it doesn’t appear that way from the outside. As frustrating as the addiction can seem to the addict’s spouse, it is important that spouses remain supportive and respectful. Important: this does not mean supporting or respecting the addiction. Check in with your spouse. Try to understand things from his perspective. While you most likely won’t be able to understand or relate, be a listening ear and ask what you can do to support him best.
  3. Get creative. Aside from certain safety issues addiction might pose, there is always the financial burden that addiction places on families. Alcohol, tobacco and nicotine products are not cheap, and they add up quickly when bought day after day. And if your spouse is like mine, he’ll likely grab an energy drink and snack when he’s at the gas station buying his nicotine pouches. I closely monitor our budget, and it’s not uncommon for my husband to spend $200-$300 on gas station purchases in a month. This is of course absurd — and we’ve had to get creative in this category. We found an online retailer that sells his nicotine pouches in bulk. We now save close to $2 or $3 per canister — which ends up saving us a lot of money in the end. I also purchase his energy drinks and favorite snacks in bulk at a local warehouse store which also saves us several pennies. A very helpful starting place can be to print out a couple months of your bank statements and highlight all the purchases so he can see with his own eyes how much everything’s adding up to. When it’s just one small transaction here and there, it doesn’t seem like much to him. It may be your job to help him see how much of a financial burden his addiction is placing on your family.

Whether it be concerns with safety, finances or marital tension caused by your spouse’s addiction, remember you are not alone. Many military spouses face this challenge, and I hope my experience can be of help to others going through the same thing. Dealing with addiction can be one of the most helpless and hopeless things in a marriage, so it is important to find a community of support so you’re not walking it alone, as well as finding good communication with your spouse so that you can come up with a plan that both of you can tolerate — and hopefully — grow from in the end.

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