Most families I work with have had a long, hard struggle helping their loved one decide to get sober and seek treatment. Many of them are just plain exhausted by the time the addict checks in to the treatment center or program and goes through early sobriety. Although the family members really need some counseling and support as well, they often just don’t have the energy to dive in right away. Some go on vacations to try and de-stress a bit, while others just do their best to get from one day to the next for a while. In any case they inevitably find themselves overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, anger, resentment and confusion shortly thereafter.
Families are sometimes so focused on the addict that they forget how deeply affected family members have been by the addiction process. There are many variables that determine to what extent each family is traumatized; however, there’s usually at least some denial, codependency and enabling of varying degrees in every family. If you have done any amount of research about addiction, you’ve likely already heard the words codependent and enabling. You’ve probably also heard discussion of denial and resistance. Although the circumstances may vary in each individual, the experience leaves pretty much everybody angry, sad, resentful, confused and traumatized to some degree.
The truth is your loved one’s addiction has likely done great harm to your family relationships. Trust has been broken and resentments have built up. Memories of the kindness and sweetness of the loved one have faded away by the time a person enters treatment, and these feelings and memories have now been replaced with negative ones. Some families have disowned the addicted person, and many relationships have been so damaged they sever ties completely. Very rarely do I see a family that hasn’t suffered a significant amount of trauma and grief as result of their loved one’s addiction.
What Can Families Do to Heal?
Most families that I encounter really want to heal the relationships and return to a normal united family but don’t know where to begin. Here are some suggestions on where to start …
Be Honest About How You Feel
As I help families heal, one of the first steps in family or individual therapy is to be honest about your feelings around the whole process since the addiction entered the family. I do not believe that healing can occur without rigorous honesty with your loved ones and yourself.
It Takes a Village
Your loved one will learn in treatment that they need the support of others in order to achieve long-term recovery. That can take the form of support groups with Alcoholics Anonymous or a Sober Coach/Companion. Psychotherapy or a structured support system led by a therapist are also great options. Regardless, they are taught not to tackle their recovery on their own if they want to be successful.
This same principle applies to the family’s healing. It takes a village for a family to identify and heal the hurts that addiction created. While the loved one is in treatment for their own addiction, family members should seek therapy and peer support groups like Al-Anon to help with their healing process.
My belief is that family members play different roles in the addiction process and the problems that substance abuse by a loved one cause. Committing yourself as a family member of an addicted person to individual and/or family therapy is an extremely important part of allowing a village to help you.
You may have heard the phrase “hate the drug, hate the addiction and love the addict.” Allowing others to help you reach acceptance of the addict should be your main goal. Addicts most often lack the life skills required to function in the world, and thus have turned to substance abuse as a coping skill.
A lot of the healing involves becoming able to forgive the person for the damage they inflicted through their addiction. Learning how to evolve into a healthy family unit that supports long-term sobriety for their loved one is equally as important.
Learn Honesty and Assertiveness
Learning how to say “no” to somebody and express how you feel in a respectful way is extremely important. Often in addictive families, things are either said out of hatred or kept secret out of fear. When I teach families to tell the truth during intervention or family counseling, it causes great anxiety at first. Often it seems like it’s against what has been an unspoken “family rule.” These types of rules and how they enabled the addiction need to be re-examined openly and honestly.
Learn About Addiction and the Spiritual Program of Your Loved One
Without investigating solid scientific evidence about addiction, we remain ignorant. Once you as a family member do your due diligence to understand addiction, you become educated. From an educated place you are much better equipped to help your loved one recover.
Take some time to seek out information about the spiritual process that your loved one is learning as well. Talk to other families who are further along in their recovery process for guidance. Learn how they’re being held accountable for the inappropriate things they’ve done at meetings. They are not only learning life coping skills, but also how to hold themselves accountable and develop integrity through the spiritual program. Learn all you can about what they’re doing to heal themselves and make things right.
Do “Normal” Things Together as a Family
Most often the normal activities and quality time for the family have been interrupted by the addiction process – it’s like a cancer in the family that over time shuts down all normal interactions and activities.
Go ahead and begin doing the things that give you joy as a family again - whatever that may be for your family. Eating dinner together, going to the park on weekends, movies or watching your favorite TV shows together. Resume playing sports or going to sports games. Resume personal wellness routines such as exercise, return to hobbies or just hanging out with friends.
Resources for Family Healing
A qualified professional who has experience working with addiction is the best place to start. They are able to assess each person’s level of trauma and prescribe effective treatment plans. For the seriously traumatized, a trauma treatment specialist may be consulted. Other specialists may be recommended as well to help deal with codependency and learning how to set boundaries.
Attending Al-Anon meetings or other peer support groups are always beneficial. Also reading books such as “The New Codependency” by Melody Beattie can really help open minds to each member’s role in the addictive family process.
Always remember to take time to help yourself and other family members heal. It’s essential to the success of long-term recovery in the family system and you’ll never regret that you did!
If you or a loved one may be struggling with addiction, it is very important for you to seek out professional help as soon as possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I may be of assistance to you or your loved ones. My website provides more information on my practice and how to contact me with questions or take advantage of a free 20-minute phone appointment.
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