Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2024

The elephant in the room: Metaphors in women’s accounts of life with a family member with problematic substance use


Background: Research has shown that a family member’s problematic substance use has significant deleterious mental and physical health impacts on other members of the family. Women are more often affected than men. These negative health effects persist as the person with problematic substance use ages, and they vary according to the relationship status.

Aim: The aim of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of how women experience and are affected by their family member’s substance use problems.

Method: A metaphorical analysis of narrative interviews with 11 daughters and five wives of older adults (>65 years) with problematic substance use.

Results: We identified four areas of signification in which metaphors were employed: (1) experiences (chaos and crash and walking on eggshells); (2) strategies (complicity and silencing); (3) dilemmas (deceit or a disease and open or closed dilemmas); and (4) consequences (obtaining or retaining an identity, health and different types of help).

Conclusion: Family life with a parent or spouse with a substance use problem was described as chaotic, unsafe, uncertain and with no prospects of change. The study illustrates how metaphors are used to mediate experiences and worldviews pertaining to existential matters founded in deep negative emotions, deceit, shame and stigma. Metaphors make up a crucial material for communicating emotions and themes that are difficult to convey due to shame and stigma.


Aud Johannessen, Anne-Sofie Helvik, Kjerstin Tevik, Thomas Tjelta, and Kirsten Thorsen

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