Addiction is a Family Disease
You might know all too well that a drug or alcohol addiction doesn’t just affect the person with the addiction. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence it puts an enormous amount of stress on the family, affecting stability, unity, physical and mental health and finances.
Dysfunction is the norm in many families struggling with an addiction. It’s difficult to establish and maintain normal routines when family members are consistently interrupted by unexpected and often-unsettling experiences, especially if the addicted loved one is unpredictable, violent or otherwise abusive, and family members are indelibly affected by stress, fear, sadness and anger.
These negative experiences disrupt family life and affect the ability to make meaningful connections with other family members, and this often manifests in mental and physical health problems or behavioral issues.
Children living in an emotionally unstable home environment often feel overwhelmed, and they may withdraw, act out or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol themselves in an attempt to fill the void left by addiction.
They may grow up to have trust or anger issues or mental health problems like depression and anxiety, and they may be at a higher risk of developing their own substance abuse problems, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Recovery is Possible
The moment your loved one agrees to seek treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction is a pivotal one. It’s the moment at which a brighter future seems to unfold before your very eyes. The hope you’ve been nurturing—or suppressing—spreads its wings, and in a flash, you imagine a life where holidays are joyful again and the family isn’t walking on eggshells in an attempt to head off trouble.
All of this is possible, but it takes the whole family to make it so. Simply treating the person with the addiction and expecting everything else to fall into place is unrealistic. Patterns of thought and behavior have become deeply ingrained in the family psyche, and left untreated, these can compromise the recovery of the loved one with the addiction.
Recovery begins with confronting the truth and knocking down walls. It begins with deconstructing the family unit as you now know it and rebuilding it piece by piece, thoughtfully, mindfully and truthfully.
This is a joyous time. It’s not an easy time, though. There’s a lot of work ahead for your addicted loved one, and there’s a lot of work ahead for you and other family members. But the more you and your family engage in your loved one’s recovery, the greater the impact across the board, and the more functional your family—and the higher your overall quality of life—will be.
Behaviors That Perpetuate the Cycle: Enabling and Co-dependence
Addiction doesn’t just affect the thoughts and behaviors of the addicted. It also leads to destructive attitudes and behaviors among family members. Maybe you’ve been living in denial, sweeping the problem under the rug, following behind your addicted loved one and trying to mitigate the consequences of the addiction.
Maybe your whole life has come to revolve around the addiction, whether it’s a major point of contention in the household or it’s the giant elephant making itself at home in your rooms, stamping out the warmth and crowding you out until you’re existing on the outskirts.
Either way, you’ve likely developed some co-dependent or enabling behaviors, and those behaviors won’t correct themselves. Becoming aware of these behaviors and changing your way of thinking about yourself, your loved one and the addiction is the essential first step in restoring function to your family.
Codependency, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, occurs when you engage in learned behaviors, attitudes and feelings that result from adapting to dysfunction in the family. Codependents are likely to be obsessively concerned with another person’s problems to the extent that they neglect their own needs and desires.
If you’re codependent:
- You may be obsessed with your loved one’s drinking or drug abuse, worrying constantly about the consequences of the addiction.
- You may be living in denial to some extent, either by lying to other family members about your loved one’s substance abuse or avoiding contact with people because you don’t want to have to talk about it or explain anything. You don’t want anyone to know how bad it can get.
- You may react irrationally or even violently at times to circumstances related to the addiction.
- You may have extremely low self-esteem due to neglecting your own physical, emotional and spiritual needs because your focus is solely on your loved one.
- You may have misplaced anger toward your loved one that ends up aimed at the kids or the dog or your next-door neighbor.
- You may compulsively engage in activities that help you cope with your reality, such as shopping, eating, exercising or surfing the Internet.
- Your mood may be entirely dependent on your addicted loved one—if he’s in a good mood, you’re in a good mood. If he’s in a bad mood, so are you.
Enabling behaviors are those that support your loved one’s substance abuse, either directly or indirectly, and they boil down to removing the consequences of your loved one’s addiction, often out of love, sometimes out of fear, but almost always to the detriment of your loved one, yourself and the rest of the family.
If you’re enabling:
Engagement in Recovery: Ending the Cycle and Healing the Family
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration underscores the importance of family involvement in treatment, pointing out that families have a complex role in a loved one’s recovery, including supporting the treatment process and helping to improve the chances of successful long-term recovery.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse points to a large body of research that shows involving the whole family in treatment can reduce the risk of relapse. There are other tangible benefits, too:
Getting involved in treatment is as much about addressing and working through your own and your family’s issues as it is about supporting your loved one’s recovery.
Four Essential Ways to Get Involved in Treatment
In the first weeks of treatment, you likely won’t have much contact with your loved one. During this time, you and other family members should begin engaging in your own recovery by learning as much as you can about the addiction, engaging in individual and family therapy and joining a support group for the loved ones of an addicted individual.
Learning all you can about your loved one’s addiction is crucial for helping him or her recover, and it lays the groundwork for restoring function to the family system. Addiction is a highly complex disease that affects everyone involved, and learning all you can about it is essential for understanding how your and other family members’ thoughts, attitudes and behaviors affect your loved one, each other and the family as a whole.
Psychoeducation workshops for family members are usually offered through a high-quality treatment program. Psychoeducation opens the doors to other ways you can get involved in your loved one’s treatment and provides you with the resources your family needs to begin working through issues and restoring function to the family system.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction points out the importance of every affected family member engaging in individual therapy. Therapy provides a safe place to express concerns and work through fear, anger, resentment and other negative emotions associated with addiction.
It helps you learn healthier ways of communicating with your loved one and other family members with the overarching goal of establishing a more balanced family dynamic. Age-appropriate therapy for minor children can go a long way toward preventing them from succumbing to substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors down the road.
Families who participate in a support group like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon are better able to support their recovering loved one in positive and healthy ways. These groups, whether you join online or in person, are populated by other families in various stages of recovery who can offer a sympathetic ear, provide practical advice, offer coping skills and strategies and help reduce feelings of isolation.
Support groups are extremely valuable for helping you support your loved one in recovery as well as helping to ensure you get the help you need to restore function to your family.
Family therapy is the cornerstone of family involvement in treatment. According to the National Institutes of Health, the goal of family therapy is to address the family unit as a system and help members develop an understanding of the interdependent nature of the family.
Relationship patterns among family members are highly complex, and altering dysfunctional patterns brings about productive change for each individual and the family as a whole. Without participation in family therapy, these patterns of behavior will likely remain unchanged, and the continued dysfunction can impede the progress of your loved one’s recovery.
Unfortunately, not every family or family member is willing to get involved in their loved one’s treatment or work through their own issues, and that can pose a problem. Because the family is a system, maladaptive behaviors are constantly reinforced through interactions among its members. If one family member has patterns of thought and behavior that are unhealthy, it will affect the other family members and the family as a unit.
Why Some Are Resistant to Family Involvement in Treatment
Not all families or people with addictions are open to family involvement in treatment, generally to the detriment of their loved one’s recovery.
Fear is a major obstacle when it comes to the whole family engaging in the treatment of an addicted loved one, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Family members or the addicted loved one may be afraid of what will happen in family therapy—some may worry that they’ll be ganged up on, or that they’ll learn things about themselves or other family members that they’d rather not face. Others may worry that family secrets will be revealed, such as abuse or illegal activities.
Distrust of large agencies and systems can also prevent family members from getting involved in a loved one’s treatment. They may resist engaging in their loved one’s treatment due to fears that their family life will be disrupted by other agencies that may become involved, such as the criminal justice system or child protective services.
In some cases, one or more family members may feel they will benefit from continued dysfunction and may try to keep the entire focus of treatment on the addicted loved one, denying that the other members of the family also need help. Along these lines, family members may have the attitude that only the person with the addiction is sick and needs help; since the other family members don’t have an addiction, they don’t need treatment.
It can be very difficult to get resistant family members involved in treatment. The National Institutes of Health cites psychoeducational groups and motivational interviewing as two interventions that can help break down resistance.
Psychoeducational groups help families understand how the addiction affects the family as a system and underscore the benefits of family involvement in treatment in terms of improved outcomes for the addicted loved one and improving the functioning of the family unit.
Motivational interviewing helps resistant family members—including the addicted individual—work through ambivalence toward recovery by leading them through a discussion that helps them identify their own intrinsic motivation for wanting to change.
Putting it all Back Together After Treatment
Once your loved one completes treatment, an individualized aftercare plan will be put in place to help prevent relapse. The aftercare plan will include ongoing individual, group and family therapy as well as continued participation in a 12-Step or similar program, all of which are designed to help those in recovery transition from rehab back to “real” life while building on the momentum and motivation gained in treatment.
Just as your loved one’s recovery will always be a work in progress, so will family healing. The National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence defines recovery as an ongoing process of change that leads to abstinence as well as improved health, a better sense of wellness, and a higher quality of life.
There is no point at which your loved one or your family will be deemed “recovered,” and as such, it’s crucial to develop your own kind of family aftercare plan that will ensure ongoing support, education and growth in the context of your loved one’s return to the family community.
Ways to Stay Connected with Recovery After Treatment
Staying connected to the recovery of your loved one and your family after treatment is important for continuing to grow and evolve in a positive way and for providing the best possible support for your loved one as he or she progresses through the stages of recovery and faces the inevitable triggers and stresses that could potentially lead to a relapse. There are a number of ways to continue working toward your own recovery goals while supporting your loved one and promoting continued healing among family members.
Stay in Therapy
Continuing to engage in individual therapy and seeing to it that other family members continue working through various issues are essential for ongoing personal growth and improved family functioning. Continued family therapy will help you, your recovering loved one and other family members navigate the new sober landscape as a unit and put the skills and strategies learned in therapy to productive use right away.
Continue to Engage in a Support Group
Changes in the way your family functions won’t happen overnight, and the early stages of recovery can be fragile. Ongoing participation in a support group in addition to individual and family therapy will help you stay mindful and vigilant as your loved one continues to work on maintaining sobriety.
A support group will also keep you connected to the most current research in the field of recovery as well as continue to offer helpful coping advice from others who are going through or who have gone through a similar situation. You will continue to gain important insights and find valuable resources through your support group, and you’ll also be in a position to provide much-needed support and information to other families who are just starting their recovery journey.
Maintain Good Health
Good physical and mental health are essential for maintaining momentum in recovery. Ongoing maintenance of any physical or mental health issues among family members will help ensure the family continues to strengthen as a unit and remains able to continue supporting your loved one.
The Guiding Principles of Recovery
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has developed twelve Guiding Principles of Recovery that can help you and your family stay on track with your recovery goals. These principles include understanding that:
- There are many pathways to recovery. Engaging in a variety of activities related to improving family functioning, including therapy, getting support and keeping health issues under control, will offer the best possible chances of long-term recovery.
- Recovery is holistic and requires addressing the various complex issues related to body, mind and spirit.
- Recovery is supported by the community, including peers, family and allies.
- Recovery comes from a place of hope and gratitude. Holding on to hope and expressing gratitude are the foundations of mindfulness in recovery.
- Recovery is all about improving your health, rebuilding your life and re-defining both the individual and the family.
The last of the principles is perhaps the most important: Recovery happens. It’s not a vague concept but a concrete reality that grows stronger with each passing day that you stay mindfully committed to promoting healthy functioning and communication within the family.
Letting your guard down or equating the end of treatment with the end of the problem is highly detrimental, but the more engaged you, your loved one, and other family members are in ongoing recovery, the better the outcome for everyone involved.