Families In Recovery
The Family of an Addict
Every family includes someone who is either suffering through an addiction, is currently in a rehab facility, or has, at some point, been actively addicted but has successfully completed rehab. Some may say that no one in their family is an addict, but that depends on your definition of family. For all, this includes immediate family and extended family, close friends, trusted friends, mentors and, for some, even fringe supports. Family is that large group of people who care about you and know you well enough that they are more than just casual acquaintances.
But, you may say, you still don’t know anyone who is an addict. Unfortunately, there are a great many more individuals who are addicted to something than are willing to admit it. Addiction is a physical and emotional response to some substance or action that the individual is completely powerless over. It can be alcohol, a drug, food, sex or any number of other things. It is a mental disorder and it is not helpful to think of addiction in terms of morality or willpower. People become addicted to substances and actions because they develop an obsession. They are not morally weak, nor do they generally speaking lack the willpower to just quit. It is an unhealthy means of coping with life’s pressures.
That being said, family groups very often include individuals who are addicted to some action or substance and the other members of the family group either do not acknowledge it or they are completely unaware of what an addiction is. However, if you have an addict in your family, whether you know it or not, the group will be affected in adverse ways. How do family members deal with the addiction and recovery for that person?
The Family of an Addict Prior to Rehab
Prior to admitting that he or she is powerless, the individual may experience many of the negative aspects of an addiction. How can you recognize an addiction?
- Work and/or financial issues: the individual has trouble keeping a job or they are constantly having financial issues.
- Relationship disruptions: Whether with other family members or significant others, the individual is constantly involved in relational strife.
- Family distress: people recognize something is wrong and it causes them to act differently around this individual.
You may have seen these signs, but did not comprehend what they indicated. But, there are other, more obvious responses to addiction that you may have noticed taking place. They are termed the phases of family member response to an addict. In the first phase, the family is either unaware of the problem, are confused about why the individual is acting this way or they are just concerned about neglected responsibilities. After they are made aware of the issue (phase two) many attempt to solve it or take on the addicts responsibilities. The family will then try to avoid the problem, blame the user or themselves and experience guilt and shame during the third phase. Finally, the addict leads to bad feelings within the family, separation, hopelessness and the establishment of unhealthy rules for the addict.
When a family member is addicted, it will come out and people will start acting differently around the addict. It begins with care and enabling, but family members will end by distancing themselves from the addict until they seek help.
Another means of recognizing addiction is to look at the people closest to the addict. Immediate family members will often fall into patterns of typical behavior. Their behaviors center on the addict and are dominated by six common roles that may be played by members of families whose lives have been impacted by addiction.
- Addict: The individual who copies the inappropriate behavior of the primary addict.
- Hero: This person does whatever needs to be done to “fix” the problems and keep everyone as happy as they can be under the circumstances.
- Scapegoat: This person distracts attention from the addict and attracts attention by behaving badly. The scapegoat is usually acting out of misdirected (perhaps even unconscious) anger at the pain that addiction has caused.
- Mascot: The family jester. Mascots divert the family’s attention from the pain and drama of their dysfunction by telling jokes and doing whatever else is necessary to keep other family members smiling.
- Lost Child: This person may also be referred to as the invisible child. The lost child is often overlooked to the point of being forgotten in the family of an addict.
- Caretaker: Also referred to as primary enablers, caretakers define themselves by their ability to “protect” the addict.
How addiction effects a family may vary, but there are always far-reaching consequences of addiction. Until the addicted individual realizes that he or she is powerless over the substance or action and seeks help, the family members will be caught in the circle of addiction also.
The Family of an Addict During Rehab
The first step in recovery is admittance. The addict has to admit that they are completely powerless over the substance or action and that they need help to begin recovery. Some addiction recovery placements do not believe that involving extended family members is helpful, but research proves that family involvement provides a host of positive outcomes.
For one, the addict has better treatment compliance. The family can: gain a clearer understanding of recovery; recognize that addiction is a medical condition; work to support recovery; recognize and discontinue triggering interactions; begin to find ways to enrich own lives; practice healthy communication skills; accept limitations of living with a person in recovery; develop a more balanced lifestyle; monitor for relapses to former behaviors; and, gain patience. The family of an addict is a key piece of the recovery puzzle. But it is not only the addict who is helped by interaction with treatment staff. The family heals when they are able to go through recovery with the addict.
The Family After Rehab is Complete
Unfortunately, rehab is not a cure. Just because your family member has been through the rehab process on their way to recovery doesn’t mean that he or she will not fall back into addiction or, at the very least, addictive behavior. An addiction is a chronic, or lifelong, condition.
What this means is that even after the individual completes rehab they will often cause problems within the family. These include (but are not limited to): tension, fear and waiting for relapse; feelings of guilt; awkwardness and self-consciousness with each other; unclear “rules” for living in recovery; a set of unspoken rules may spring up; resentment about such things as having to go to meetings; resorting to old negative behaviors in order to achieve balance; spying on the addict; starting arguments; making decisions without including the person in recovery; recognition for accomplishments or respect for person in recovery to the exclusion of others in the family.
These are just some of the problems that family members can face after a loved one has completed rehab, but there are ways to heal.
- Join a support group: You are not the only family going through the same exact thing.
- Attended family therapy sessions: to focus on improving relationships and sustaining sobriety, help with direct communication
- Abstain from drinking or doing drugs: for at least the first 3 months of recovery to avoid triggering a relapse. If you do not want to stop, ask family member in recovery if this decision is upsetting.
- Don’t put addict under surveillance.
- Talk about experiences: Give the addict encouragement such as
- I’d be interested in hearing about your meetings if you feel like talking about them.
- Are the coordinators helpful? Do they give good advice?
- Are there things we can do in the family to make it easier for you to attend sessions?
Unfortunately, these changes are not always easy. Even when a family wants to help the addict as much as possible, they are sometimes not able to. Families need support too and that is why there is Al-Anon. This is a group for families of addicts and Al-Anon helps families in recovery by:
- Help families learn to keep an open mind about the ability to improve
- Groups can help families realize that it is okay not to trust the person with addiction in early months
- Attended Al-Anon groups to show support
- Find understanding
- Accept that this is not your fault
- Remove guilt and shame
- Figure out relapse plans
What Else Can You Do?
Recovery for your family member, and your family, is an ongoing process on which you have a direct impact. The family can aid in recovery by helping the addict, but the end goal is to recover as a family. Focus on helping the addict to follow treatment recommendations, to comply with their aftercare plan, by actively listening, by talking about how much you care, by helping them form a peer network of sober friends, and by helping them build healthy coping strategies. By doing this, you are helping recreate a closeness that was broken by addiction and that is overcome with proper stress management techniques, the confidence in your own ability to manage life’s unexpected moments will grow. Take a deep breath, remember that recovery is a time of renewal, and when you are renewing yourself from the inside out, expect some stressful times. What you can’t do, is let stress overwhelm you and set you on a course for relapse.