When the behavior of a loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol leads to conflict, the family’s first instinct may be to “send them away somewhere” to get rid of their addiction. Although a change of scenery may be a step in the right direction, recovery is not so simple that we can send someone off and expect them to return fully healed. Recovery is a group effort, and family support is an indispensable resource for those healing from substance abuse. Not only is family involvement necessary for the recovering addict to feel supported, family bonds and relationships often need to be evaluated and mended. Strained, enabling, or otherwise damaged family relationships can directly contribute to addictive behaviors, and therefore must be addressed. It may come as a surprise to some, but addiction is presently viewed by experts as a family disorder as well as an individual mental health condition.
Relational problems in the immediate family are one of the leading contributors to the development of a drug or alcohol addiction. Growing up in a family environment where there is hostility, neglect, the presence of another addict, or the presence of an abusive individual can leave a child with deep, long-lasting wounds. The cumulative trauma associated with growing up in such an environment can cause symptoms such as depression, anxiety, deflated self-esteem, and even PTSD . These painful conditions can cause a growing individual to desire an immediate escape from his or her internal pain, which can be achieved with intoxication by drugs or alcohol.
Studies have shown that substance abuse often begins as young as the age of 13, which is a time in our lives when we are learning how to adapt to the social world and cope with the normal struggles of daily life. If at this age our loved one was learning to cope by using drugs or alcohol, substance abuse most likely developed into a deeply engrained habit and then eventually a full blown addiction. The immediate release of intoxication conditions us to repeat this behavior over and over again. It is absolutely necessary for the recovering addict to become aware of the ways that they have been traumatized by dysfunctional relationships, and to work on repairing those wounds. Family involvement in treatment will help everyone, including the therapists and coaches involved in the recovery process, to become aware of these relational problems that may have been invisible before so that we may begin the hard work of repairing them.
Addiction, like other mental health disorders, can strain family relations leading to all sorts of relational dysfunction including: estrangement, codependency, enabling, and conflict. If you have ever been close with an addict, you know that he or she is not the only one suffering; the family and friends of an addict suffer greatly from these dysfunctional relationships too. Addressing these relational issues will not only help our struggling loved ones to get better, it will help us too. We will, as the recovering addict’s family, learn to be a better support group and we will also learn to recover from our own traumas we experienced while seeing our loved go down the path of addiction. It is common for treatment programs to include educational workshops for the family of an addict to better understand this complex disorder. Understanding and familiarizing oneself with addiction fosters feelings of sympathy and can abet the resentment and anger which leads to conflict by breaking down the myths surrounding this illness, which include the belief that addiction is a choice or caused by some sort of character flaw.
During the weeks, months, or even years of substance abuse leading up to the initiation of a treatment program, relationships within the family can be damaged and enabling behaviors may develop. It is important to break these patterns of enablement to prevent relapse once the recovering addict returns to his or her family environment. Although it will be difficult learning to say ‘no’ to your loved one, it will ultimately be best for everyone that we do. Attending workshops and training within the treatment program our loved one has entered will help us to leave the enabler role behind and become truly supportive.
With the involvement of family members during treatment, the recovering addict is more likely to restore, or even build a new support group that will sustain him or her throughout the life long journey of recovery. Addiction, unfortunately, does not just go away after detoxification nor after a treatment program is completed; relapse can occur at any time. Therefore, to truly overcome their addiction, our loved ones must continuously work on self-care, avoiding triggers, and protecting their mental health for the rest of their lives which is no easy task, especially alone. Incorporating family members in treatment will help prepare the family unit as a whole for this lifelong journey.