Ask anyone who loves someone with an addiction what addiction is like. If they feel safe to share, they will tell you about their loved one’s struggles, the consequences their loved one has faced, and how their loved one behaves, speaks, and looks differently than they once did. They may tell you about the times in and out of treatment. The highs and lows of recovery and relapse.
They can tell you so much about their loved one but what they will likely neglect to share is what addiction looks like in them. They may not tell you about the unbearable fear that they caused it all. Or how the stress of their loved one’s addiction impacted them to the point that they stopped sleeping or eating. That their job performance is suffering, or that they’ve had to take time off work to deal with situations due to their loved one’s addiction. That they haven’t been on a vacation in years because they worry that the second they leave something terrible may happen. That they are taking money from their retirement and are in financial distress. That every time the phone rings their heart is in their throat and their stomach drops. That at any given moment they know their needs and feelings will be put aside to manage whatever their loved one needs and feels. They may not tell you how angry, sad, scared, confused, ashamed and alone they feel.
They aren’t telling you this because part of the toll addiction takes on families is that it does not allow the family members even one second to consider their own feelings and needs. Their loved one’s addiction has trained them to serve the needs of the addiction at all costs, and the cost is always the family’s health, sanity and, at times, safety.
Loving someone who has an addiction is an immensely challenging, and very frequently traumatizing, experience. The truth is the family members who have a loved one in active addiction are experiencing trauma. As with any type of trauma, the person going through the experience has to learn new ways to survive the moment. They learn and develop coping skills and mechanisms in an attempt to protect themselves or to just simply survive the experience. For family members of addicted individuals, they are doing their absolute best to keep their loved one alive and keep themselves functioning. As well-meaning and lovingly intentioned as family members are, the coping tools they develop during these times often allow the cycle of addiction to continue. What we in the addiction treatment or behavioral healthcare world refer to as “enabling” behaviors are often behaviors that are born from this traumatic experience. “Enabling” is what we do when we are driven by fear, guilt or anger. “Enabling” is not meant to be used as judgment, but rather a description of the behaviors that the family members of an addicted individual cultivate in order to function, but that often have a negative impact on both them and their addicted loved one.
A frequent question that comes up from families is “What does recovery mean for me? I don’t have an addiction.” Simply put, recovery for a family member can be best summarized by the C’s of Al-anon: Family members did not Cause the addiction, they cannot Control the addiction and they cannot Cure it. However, they can learn how to contribute to the recovery process by identifying their own needs and boundaries so that they can show up with love but not fall back into the roles they developed as a result of trauma. When we speak of addiction as a “family disease”, what we are referring to is that the addiction is so powerful, it negatively impacts not just the person drinking or using drugs, but the entire family system. Therefore, family recovery is vital because just as the addicted person receives treatment, learns healthy coping mechanisms and approaches to live life sober, so must the impacted family members get their own help, learn to undo the behaviors that were created to survive the active addiction of their loved one, and find new and healthy ways to support their emotional health and the ongoing recovery of their loved one.
At MARC, we firmly believe that addiction is a family disease because it impacts every single person in the family system. When individuals enter treatment at MARC, we immediately connect with their family members to offer them support and start them on their own journey of recovery, too. For some family members this can feel like a welcome relief but for others it can feel scary and even like they are being put in the hot seat. It can feel that way because they are so accustomed to focusing on their addicted loved one and not on themselves. However, once they are able to recognize that this support is not about blaming them, judging them, or criticizing them, they can start to experience true support and move into their own recovery. We believe every family member deserves support and healing, so they are no longer operating from a place of trauma and are, instead, working from a place of health, growth and recovery.
Family recovery helps all members of the family move from a place of shame, anger, resentment, blaming, justifying, excusing, and enabling to a place of interdependence, honesty, support, boundary setting, and accountability. Family recovery can include different facets. Here at MARC, that includes engaging the stakeholders in the family in the recovery process through education, therapy and counseling. It includes, for some time, separation from their loved one, so that their loved one can begin to engage in their own treatment and recovery process while the family members begin to engage in their own, before bringing them together. It includes our Family Recovery Program (FRP), an intensive therapeutic experience for families. It can also include outside of the treatment at MARC family members seeing their own help and support through mental health providers such as a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, and/or family support group.
Through treatment and clinical support, family recovery at MARC helps the individual patient dealing with the addiction, the family members of the addicted loved one, and the entire family system:
- Examine the expressed and unwritten rules that influence family dynamics.
- Explore the ways that these unwritten rules and behaviors keep the individuals and the family system unhealthy.
- Undertake the deep work and commitment to develop new, healthy family rules and dynamics.
- Better understand how and why family members react to the symptoms of the illness and identify negative behaviors and coping skills that have been developed.
- See how good intentioned behaviors often fuel the dysfunction of the family system and can unintentionally support active addiction.
- Move the family system from denial and delusion to awareness and clarity.
- Move the family system from compulsive reacting to conscious choosing.
- Move the family system from undifferentiation to differentiation.
- Move the family system from blaming to self-responsibility and accountability.
- Move the family system from dependence to interdependence and independence.
- Set goals that lead to experiencing life as manageable, meaningful, and dignified.
So, when a family member asks why they need recovery because their loved one is the one dealing with the addiction, the answer is because they also have been negatively impacted. Recovery is meant to be a journey of health and wellness, and family members impacted by a loved one’s addiction also need to find peace, emotional security, health, and wellness. Therefore, recovery is a journey for the entire family system to undo the negative attitudes, emotions, behaviors, and coping mechanisms developed during the trauma of active addiction, and learn new ways of loving, communicating and supporting one another. It is also important to recognize, regardless of if the person in active addiction gets well, the other members of the family unit can find their own recovery, and that individuals in active addiction have better outcomes and a chance as recovery when their family members do their own work and find their own recovery path.
If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual-diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (866)-929-4318 or email our team at [email protected].