By the time someone battling an alcohol or substance use disorder begins the process of recovery, they and their loved ones will have been nearly devoured by the addiction. The tentacles of addiction reach into every corner of familial relationships as those in recovery struggle with a disease that may kill them, and their loved ones go through a conflagration of their own.
For the families of those suffering from alcohol and substance use disorders, the need to protect, rescue, and save their loved one is a natural, reflexive, instinctive act. They try to move heaven and earth to prevent their loved ones from experiencing pain and suffering, from enduring the ravages of addiction, and from the real-life consequences of addiction. In an effort to prevent catastrophic outcomes to their loved one’s well being and future—from threats to their health, education, profession, and finances to legal repercussions—families may exhaust themselves, compromising their own safety and security in an effort to help their loved one.
A review of best practices in addiction treatment suggests that the fervent, overzealous impulse of families to protect, save, and rescue is often detrimental to the recovery of their loved one, as well as destructive to their own wellbeing. The consensus is that a person who is battling addiction cannot be saved or rescued without their own desire to treat their addiction, or their own commitment to recovery and sobriety. It is the volition and agency of the addicted individual alone that will define, determine, and guarantee a successful recovery, and establish a solid foundation to prevent relapse and maintain sobriety.
The support of families, however, is crucial to recovery as their loved one navigates through the maze and vortex of recovery. Mindful accompaniment requires new ways of interacting, engaging, and supporting loved ones through recovery. It allows families to redefine the relationship with their loved one into one that is no longer about rescue. It helps reshape the relationship from one of codependency into one that is loving and supportive. Mindful support allows families to surrender the role of enabler and empowers their addicted loved one to assume full responsibility for his/her addiction. It encourages families to cultivate their own development as individuals, parents, and spouses who can thrive and flourish while supporting their loved ones through the complex chronic disease of addiction.
They may have meltdowns, gaslight family members, deny their addiction, and be the cause of stress, worry, and pain to the entire family. During drug-induced episodes, they may verbally, emotionally, or physically abuse family members, steal from them to feed their drug habit, or get into legal trouble, and cause accidents, hurting themselves and others. A loved one cycling through addiction is suffering in ways similar to those suffering from chronic and terminal illness.
The effects of a loved one’s addiction increase over time as the addicted individual goes through the addiction cycle. Where before each member in a family had defined roles in the family ecosystem, with individuated and distinct relationships with each other, addiction changes the ecosystem.
The addicted individual is unable to function in the family ecosystem and the whole network may fray and eventually collapse without intervention. The strain of the addiction affects all members of the family, erasing harmony in the household, and infecting every member of the household with negative emotions ranging from anger and depression to shame and guilt.
Parents may harangue, nag, shame, or threaten the addicted loved one to give up the addiction. Fathers and mothers may fight with each other over the addicted child, blaming each other. Parents may question their own parenting and blame themselves for their child’s addiction. Siblings of the addicted will also suffer from their loved one’s addiction, experiencing stress, fear, and trauma. A teen suffering from opioid addiction may frighten their siblings during drug-induced episodes of rage and mania. An addicted sibling may show physical decline and mental illness, or disappear or run away. In worst cases, a sibling may have a life-threatening drug episode, or die from an overdose.
All these events have an adverse effect on the whole family. The drama of pronounced changes—high highs, low lows, high lows, and low highs—can destabilize the family as a whole, harm them individually, wreck their relationships with each other, and damage their collective and individual relationship with the addicted family member. It is no surprise then that families of addicted loved ones are vulnerable to a host of trauma-related maladies including PTSD, complex PTSD, anxiety, guilt, and depression. They are also vulnerable to a condition called chronic sorrow, also known as living loss. This affliction is unique to parents caring for children with chronic illness and disabilities. The deep ties and bonds that hold a family together can sever if things continue as they are.
In one Gallup survey of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and spouses of those suffering from addiction, a majority admitted that their loved one’s addiction had a negative effect on their own mental and emotional health. Fifty percent of those polled said the addiction affected their relationship with other members of the family. Spouses and parents of addicted loved ones were the most affected by a loved one’s addiction, with more than half admitting to adverse effects on their emotional health. A majority of spouses, children, and parents of addicted loved ones were emotionally affected by the addiction. In addition, they were affected financially due to medical, legal, and other expenses related to their loved one’s addiction.
The number of parents suffering from drug and alcohol addiction continues to increase. An estimated 20% of American children are growing up in households where a parent suffers from an alcohol or substance abuse disorder. Such children suffer from adverse childhood experiences including witnessing domestic violence. They frequently suffer from physical or emotional abuse and neglect. Instances of sexual abuse are also reported in such households. The prognosis for these children is troubling. Many are at risk of developing substance use disorders themselves, and all are vulnerable to stress and trauma of domestic violence that affects learning and childhood development.
When addiction sinks its claws into a family, few parents or spouses know how to respond. The natural inclination is to respond emotionally, viscerally, to the problem, to protect their loved one.
In a definitive expose about addiction’s impact on families, (Kristen Bahler, Money Magazine 2018) a number of families, eventual members of Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL) narrated their initial and early responses to their children’s addiction. Their experiences serve as an instruction manual and blueprint on how not to help a loved one in the grips of addiction.
For the better part of a decade, the Humpreys desperately tried to save their two sons from addiction. “We begged, we cajoled, we tried everything we could to get them help. And everything backfired.” They led the teenagers through a revolving door of hospitals, programs, and rehab. “They paid for cars, medical bills, and legal fees. They handed their sons cash for food, gas, and clothes, and when they realized it all went toward drugs, they tried giving them gift cards instead. (It turns out, thanks to a grocery store’s gift card redemption machine, those could be turned into drug money too.)” All told, exclusive of health insurance coverage, the couple spent $50,000 in a failed attempt to save their kids. The emotional cost alone of constantly worrying about their children took a toll on the couple, almost debilitating them.
Ms. Buxton’s high schooler, a football player, became addicted to opioids after a sports injury that introduced him to painkillers. Over the next decade, as the teenager’s friends went off to college, got married, and began families, he was deeply mired in his addiction and living at home. Ms. Buxton “spent more than $70,000 on eight rounds of rehab, outpatient counselors, and miscellaneous expenses that ranged from putting gas in her son’s car to paying for his lawyer. After eight years, nothing had worked.”
The parents of a 56 year old man attending a PAL meeting told the group about the ways in which they helped their son, a heroin user. “They rented and paid for an apartment for him, bought him a car, and paid for his car insurance. Every week they made sure his fridge was stocked with fresh groceries.”
The couple spent “more than six figures trying to combat their son’s heroin addiction—starting with a $6,000 debt to drug dealers they paid off.”
Taken together, the stories of PAL members show the DNA of parents unlimited love for their children. “parents who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, emptied out their 401(k)s, and declared bankruptcy on account of a child’s addiction. A mother who had lost her home; a father who had replaced his daughter’s car eight different times. A couple who couldn’t bear to kick their son out of the house but, because he’d stolen so much of their money and disrupted so much of their lives, had resorted to letting him stay in their garage—and feeding him meals through a doggy door.
Addiction Treatment and Recovery is an opportunity for the whole family to reimagine and reinvent the family unit, while their loved one receives treatment for their addiction. Rather than viewing treatment as a solution to the cure of their loved one, families should view recovery as a space to also heal themselves and to learn new skills that serve the whole family.
The notion that everything will be fine if only the addicted individual fixes his/her addiction needs to be dismissed. Parents and spouses should be open-minded about the ways they may unconsciously be affecting their loved ones and triggering or kindling their addiction. A willingness to see recovery as an opportunity to change, learn, and develop themselves and acquire new skills will be helpful in the long run for themselves individually, for the family as a whole, and for the loved one in recovery. Just as the loved one endures pain and suffering and setbacks in rehab, the family too will have their emotional and psychological lives exposed. While their loved one is recovering from addiction, the family will be able to develop into fully resourced individuals educated in their knowledge of addiction in the context of family.
By keeping an open mind and reserving judgment, families can be a part of the recovery process. They too can take an active role in healing themselves, learning, growing, and flourishing. The family broken by addiction can be reinvented and reshaped into a happy, thriving, functioning family.
A person suffering from an alcohol or substance use disorder and a person suffering from a chronic or terminal illness are not very different from each other. Yet, the person battling addiction is viewed and treated differently. He or she is subject to an array of emotional responses, perceptions, judgments, and biases by others as if addiction were a moral failure or character flaw rather than a mental disorder.
The addicted individual needs as much support and compassion as a person suffering from a chronic or terminal illness. Loved ones of those suffering from an alcohol or substance use disorder can help in a number of ways. But supporting a loved one through addiction and recovery is a delicate matter that requires both grace and strength. Being overly supportive can create the undesired effect of enabling a loved one, and being too deeply enmeshed in the person’s addiction and recovery can result in an unhealthy codependency.
Families often feel alone and don’t know where to turn for help. The stigma attached to addiction may prevent them from seeking assistance. The addiction epidemic is so advanced that a whole network of support systems is available for families of addicted loved ones. Notably, Al-Anon which serves families of alcoholics and Nar-Anon, which serves families of those addicted to narcotics offer extensive and critical peer support to families.
With 12-steps and AA as their foundational and organizing principles, these programs that value anonymity teach families essential behavioral tools to help them and their loved ones on a path of health and healing. They teach families how to engage with their addicted loved ones. Many families harbor a meta-narrative and narrative of enabling their loved ones without even being aware of it. It is a dysfunctional love, a relationship without boundaries, that can prolong their loved one’s addiction.
Enabling is defined as familial behavior that permits addicted individuals to continue using without suffering any negative consequences. Often parents equate love with money and give their addicted loved ones money and things when asked. An irrational addicted brain invariably monetizes everything given to them to buy drugs. Other parents slip into caregiver roles, infantilizing their grown children by paying all their bills, settling debts with drug dealers, setting their own alarm clocks to wake up to prepare their addicted loved ones for school or work. Therapists refer to this dysfunctional relationship as “co-dependence.”
Data reiterates that those who do best in recovery are those who had something to lose—their spouses and children, their career, their education, their freedom, their health, their very lives. Stories abound of addicted individuals who committed to their recovery only after getting into legal trouble including the likelihood of prison, or after career suicide, or the loss of their spouses and children, or financial or health catastrophes.
At New Leaf Detox & Treatment, we are committed to meeting the needs of our patients with the most advanced best practices in addiction medicine and treatment and evidence-based standards of care, while always mindful of each client’s individual needs. After extensive patient-provider engagement, careful screening, and medical and psychological evaluation, our clinicians design individualized plans to meet each patient’s specific needs. The plans are comprehensive in scope using a variety of treatment modalities from our cornucopia of specialized care plans that include Medication Assisted Treatment. New Leaf’s Medication Assisted Treatment plans for best client outcomes, featuring three of the four FDA Approved MAT drugs: Buprenorphine, its extended-release injection Sublocade, and Naltrexone. These three MAT regimens and protocols have high success rates for clients when complemented with counseling and psychosocial support.
The patient begins cognitive-behavioral treatment with an individual therapist as well as in groups with a counselor to address the whole host of issues afflicting the patient, including anxiety disorders. Psychotherapy plans and specific treatment modalities tailored for the patient include individual counseling, group counseling, anxiety focused therapy groups, and process groups and activities. The primary clinician and individual therapist and group counselor work in concert to treat the patient by resolving the underlying issues that led to addiction, followed by a variety of custom treatments that fortify the patient, clinical assessments throughout the process, and a considered discharge plan. Peer support, onsite medical assistance, family involvement, and post-treatment follow up support are part of New Leaf’s standard of care. Learn more here: nldetox.com For more information please contact us at 949 617 0719 or email us at [email protected].