Families With Addiction

By Noel Neu, MS, LMHC

heart with world and family

Living in a family where one or more of its members has an active addiction to drugs, alcohol, or any other destructive compulsive behavior has become so common, at this point in time, that it can be considered a “norm” in our society. Whether the family member(s) are functional in their addiction or not, often the concern is focused solely on that individual and how they are behaving in the family dynamic. A person in active addiction needs sufficient intervention, redirection, education, and prevention skills to develop a plan of recovery that has real efficacy and long-term success.

This is critical in helping the whole family to heal. However, the family also needs a sufficient plan of action to not only help their loved one, but to help themselves heal as well.

Throughout the years I have heard statements such as, “Why do I need to be here (in therapy), he has the problem!” The key to helping a family with a member in active addiction is not so much as an “in your face” intervention approach, but rather an empathic, validating perspective that helps the family become aware of their own struggles. To disarm the anger, which is fueled by underlying fear and hurt, it is critical to validate the pain. There is a message of hope that can only be received when the feelings of hurt are shared and acknowledged. The principle feeling of active addiction when one is around it is powerlessness. To accept powerlessness is to become empowered. This is one of many paradoxes of recovery and of life.

Once I take ownership of my responses, I gain the ability to change. In Al-Anon the slogan for this is “Let it begin with me.”

Just as in recovery from addiction, like-minded support and spiritual solutions are of great help. Two very important resources for this are Al-Anon and ACA. Al-Anon helps the family member gain support with how they contribute to the addiction through their own obsessions and compulsions with the active addict. ACA or Adult Children of Alcoholics, helps a member to gain insight into the personality traits that are inherent in a child of an addict that have been passed down epigenetically since birth. The nature and the nurture aspects of the psychological development of a child are effected by a parent(s) active addictions.

Since the beginning of the last century, a cultural desire to “escape” difficult standards in life such as having a “perfect” family appearance arose. Going back four or more generations, it is more than likely somebody’s parent used something to cope with his or her challenges. The result is most of us can claim being the adult child of an alcoholic or addicted parent or grandparent. Here is the good news: Nobody needs to be blamed from our past for this! Fighting over who should-have done what creates more harm than any reasonable source of healing. The main importance of this realization is that I have the need to look at my patterns as a family member to see where I have been enacting behaviors that contribute to the harmful impacts of active addiction. This is the essence of “Let it begin with me.”

Once a family member is open to looking at themselves for healing, the shift in the entire family dynamic begins. The way this is manifested is through communication and boundaries. In my Assertive Awareness training I discuss the differences between healthy and ineffective communication. Generally families of addicts act and react passive-aggressively and indirectly which leads to mistrust and contributes to an environment of dishonesty.

The statement “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean” takes on the attitude of assertiveness as it exhibits honesty with compassion. This change in communication creates an “open system” in which the family experiences an emotional safety in which to exchange how they are being impacted by each other. The impact that this has on the active addict is he/she becomes willing to look at his/herself since they are no longer the “problem.” This last part is the miracle that occurs when families heal. It is no guarantee that the active addict will engage in their own healing, however, the examples of their beloved family members gaining a sense of peace and well-being directly contributes to their own awareness of how much pain they are in themselves. An emotional bottom can then be experienced, and this is the point when an addict truly becomes willing to recover.

A large number of the population of drug and alcohol treatment at this time is young men and women in their 20’s to 30’s whose parents have sent them for help. Moreover, a growing population of adult children are sending their parents into treatment for help since addictions to prescription medication have become more and more prevalent.

Healing as a parent or a child is different in perception yet same in practice. Checking your own behaviors and healing your own ineffective responses to your loved one’s addiction while being validated of your own heartbreak and pain is the solution.

The most complicated family relationship to practice looking at self is in a romantic connection of any kind with emphasis on a marriage. Being witness and primary target of your spouse’s neglect and/or mistreatment due to active addictions is confounding. The solution, however, is the same. Practicing detachment from your spouse’s behavior with compassion and love for yourself and for your spouse is critical in obtaining the corrective
behavior needed to impart respect and emotional safety in your marriage and for him/her to truly look at the damage being done.

Being in a family with an active addict is unmanageable when focusing on the addict exclusively. Remember the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (all that is around me), the courage to change the things I can (all that is within me), and the wisdom to know the difference (knowledge and experience gained). This sums up the concept of helping someone else through focusing on healing yourself. The solution is simple yet not at all easy. Please be sure to garner as much emotional and spiritual support you need to walk through your own personal challenge.

Noel Neu, MS, LMHC is the CEO and clinical director of Empathic Recovery (www.empathicrecovery.com). Mr. Neu has been a clinician in private practice for over ten years and has developed programs for “Assertive Awareness” training, “Living your Truth” to build self-esteem, and helping families with addictions heal.