According to a Columbia University study, “40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.” It is estimated that each chemically dependent person directly affects at least four others. The math suggests that an astonishing 160 million Americans are directly affected by addiction.
When a family member suffers from an addiction, their family and friends suffer too. Family and individual functioning are inevitably altered by the chemically dependent person. His or her relationship to the mood-altering chemical gradually builds walls that neither the family’s love nor logic can penetrate until he or she receives treatment. The effects on the family are often experienced as anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, and even resentment. Often there is “helicoptering” or detective behaviors that go on because we believe that by knowing the who, what, when, where and how, we can stop the problem. The answers to these questions may never be answered, and they do not stop the addiction, but the ability of the family to play an instrumental part in an addict’s recovery, is possible.
Unknowingly, however, family members can become enablers of the problem. Their genuine compassion for their loved one can cloud their judgment and prevent them from setting limits and boundaries that the addict desperately needs. Family members can experience many emotions with regards to the addiction and their loved one; sadness, anger, feeling they are to blame, and becoming judgmental. Moreover, the walls, emotions, and behaviors do not instantly dissolve when abstinence begins and often persist during and after treatment. Learning to trust, forgive and navigate a new course that includes healthy limits often requires professional guidance and support for the family, too.
Where does one start? Identifying the fact that a loved one needs help, and seeking education on the developmental processes of addiction is the first step in helping a loved one struggling with an addiction. While the recovery process is an individual journey, the family members are along for the ride, whether they choose to be or not. To assist in this journey, there are resources available that can help educate family and friends of addicts and help them to understand the disease, including, Al-Anon for alcohol abuse, and Nar-Anon for narcotic abuse.
Additionally, families must learn about the different treatment options available to help their loved one understand their choices. There are inpatient (residential) facilities and outpatient services, as well as various treatment offerings to meet the individual needs of the client. Even with the family’s support, however, the addict may not be willing to go to treatment. In many cases, an intervention is warranted. An intervention is a process where family members, with the help of a professional interventionist, confront the individual about their addiction and the damage it is causing themselves and their family and friends. In many cases, an intervention can, and does lead the person to treatment.
Can the family still be involved when the addict is admitted into treatment? Research shows that family support during the recovery process is paramount for effective treatment and reduces the chances of a relapse by 20%. It also reduces despair, hopelessness, and conflicts that are linked to the recovery process. Family members can be supportive during treatment through family therapy and open discussions. Together they can work to change old habits, form new behaviors and family cultures to eliminate the client’s desire for drugs or alcohol. Family therapy also educates the family on behaviors associated with substance abuse and mental disorders and on the medical and psychological effects they are likely to encounter with their loved one throughout treatment and thereafter.
It is normal for family members to have adapted to the addictive behavior of their loved one as a coping mechanism before treatment. During treatment however, the family is advised on practical strategies such as support groups, and the enabling behaviors that they should avoid. Families that have lived with addiction have probably experienced damaging emotional and relational consequences. Addiction does not discriminate. Parents, spouses, partners, siblings, and children are all affected by the downward spiral of addiction. Therefore, the family member’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that came about because of the dependency, need to be surfaced, treated, and healed. The family, through specialized support, will learn to balance taking care of themselves and taking care of their loved one.
Motivation is another fundamental element of the treatment process where the family can play a vital role in supporting the client. It’s important for the family to work together during this process, and be a unified front. During times of low motivation for the client, family involvement is particularly useful as it can boost the client’s commitment. As well, family support enhances compliance to medication management and overall engagement throughout the recovery process.
What happens after treatment? After completing treatment, the client moves into the maintenance stage. Family members in this juncture play a significant role in the rehabilitation process by providing support and a safe environment, and most importantly, by taking care of themselves, and not becoming the “sobriety monitor.” The family should provide encouragement and compassion that can help their loved one feel supported and understood.
Family can be an instrumental part of each step of the recovery process from getting a loved one into treatment, being a support system to them during treatment, and providing a safe-haven for when they return home. By working together — the addict, the treatment team, and the family — recovery is possible for everyone.
Dr. Stephen Odom, Ph.D. is President, CEO and Chief Clinical
Officer of New Vista Behavioral Health, the parent company of
Simple Recovery, Infinity Treatment Centers, and Avalon by the