Like a tornado, individuals with substance use disorder often create a path of destruction – leaving extensive damage in their wake. Relationships with spouses, children, families of origin and chosen families are impacted the most. Loved ones tend to experience intense feelings of anger, loneliness, rejection, fear, shame and frustration, leading to unresolved turmoil.
That’s why we say addiction is a family disease because everyone close to the individual is swept into the chaos. By not only treating the individual, but also the family, we can address the damage and work together to create healthy, functional relationships in recovery.
Addiction Changes a Family
All families experience some dysfunction. However, research shows substance use disorder can fundamentally alter a family to the point where non-addicted members start to change significantly as well.
For example, a professional spouse who never misses work, may sacrifice her own career to take care of her husband and manage all the household chores or caregiving tasks that would typically have been shared. Or a partner may repeatedly make excuses about why mom missed the soccer game, slept all day or didn’t pick up the bicycle she promised for her son’s birthday.
The emotional energy and time devoted to making everything appear stable both inside and outside the family chips away at intimacy and connection. Family members often go into autopilot, losing themselves in the process.
Recovery is Stronger When Family is Involved
Families today come in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of what a family looks like - participation of key loved ones in treatment is essential to an individual’s long-term wellness and recovery. The people who patients define as “family” provide insight into their life, which help clinicians like me see the full picture so we can develop a strategy to move forward.
One of the first steps in treatment is educating families that substance use disorder is a disease. It’s often a light bulb moment when families can finally make sense of their loved one’s upsetting behavior.
Next, families must recognize that no matter what they do, they can’t control their loved one. Families often act out of desperation, but we want them to love in a way that supports healthy behavior.
In fact, we feel it’s critical that family members are honest with the patient to help hold him or her accountable. We work with them to understand that love sometimes means letting individuals with a substance use disorder experience the natural consequence of their behavior. We educate families about the role of boundaries in healthy relationships.
In family sessions, we encourage everyone to be open-minded and vulnerable and to focus on what it will take to achieve meaningful change. We look at family dynamics, communication style and conflict style from both perspectives. Even with divorced families, we work towards being aligned. Ultimately, every family must be motivated towards a common goal in order to avoid falling back into old patterns.
Family Members Deserve Their Own Recovery
We know that recovery is not linear. Just as the person with the substance use disorder must make changes and evolve his or her identity – so too must their loved ones. In fact, the need to function individually is just as important as the need to function together as a unit.
As part of my work, I help families look at their own recovery plan and that can be difficult because they are so used to focusing on their addicted loved one. We help family members to understand that they also have needs and that they deserve well-being and peace - separate and apart from their loved one’s disease. In some cases, the patient may not get well, but family members must still be empowered to live their lives in a healthy and fulfilling way.
Self-care is an essential part of this equation as it has often fallen by the wayside amid the chaos. This can include a host of activities from finding a support group, such as Al-Anon, to improving their diet, exercise and sleep. After the patient is discharged, we also recommend ongoing therapy for family members and creating a community of others in recovery.
When you’re a family in the throes of addiction, you can feel as if you’re on a desert island. I want families to know that they’re not alone and that there is hope. By committing to their own recovery, they can go beyond healing to true transformation.
By Erin Goodhart