A young adult told me that the worst thing that happened for his addiction was that his mother found Al-Anon. He was right. As his mother entered her own recovery, she came to recognize all the ways his addiction and the family dynamic interacted.
Neither addiction nor recovery is a spectator sport. Inevitably, addiction affects the whole family. Ideally, recovery does, too.
When the whole family becomes involved and learns about addiction, everyone gains an understanding of the addict’s brain and how addiction targets free will. Everyone learns why attending 12-step programs and connecting with other people in recovery is so important. Just as an addict needs a sober network of other people who have traveled the same road, their family must find support among others who understand the challenges.
Family members also gain insight into behaviors that inadvertently sabotage recovery. They learn to establish boundaries so as not to enable the disease, to “baby proof” their homes and activities for recovery.
At RiverMend Health Centers family participation is a requirement of the program. If the family lives far away, they can participate by phone. Others visit once a month. Everyone goes through a family orientation that teaches about safe substances, family recovery, and what loved ones experience in treatment.
The goal is to help families begin their own recovery. They talk about their experiences and the challenges of loving someone with an addiction. They learn how lying, hiding and secrets that characterize the addiction have parallels in the family.
Just as the addict is preoccupied with obtaining drug or alcohol, families become preoccupied, too. They constantly ask: “What’s the addict doing? Where are they? What will they be like when they come home?”
In family sessions, some have come to realize they are as sick and caught up in the addiction as their loved one. While primarily working with the “identified patient,” RiverMend finds the program helps all family members heal and move forward with healthier behaviors.Many families arrive feeling powerless. The program provides the tools, insight into the nature of addiction and awareness of family patterns that sap strength. RiverMend’s goal is to assist families that resist participating or are simply worn out from the struggle find participation nourishing and reinvigorating.
Just as addicts learn their usage triggers, families identify their codependency triggers. They walk through scenarios that have previously created challenges: “What do you do if your young adult doesn’t answer the phone?” “How can you be OK, regardless of what your young adult is or isn’t doing?” These situations generate tremendous anxiety and even obsessive worrying. A family member working on their own anxiety not only benefits them, but the patient as well. Often, patients tie their own codependency to a family member’s worry. Family members want to be good parents, supportive siblings and loving significant others, but they realize that they cannot help if they are physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted. They learn to let go but still love, an often difficult concept. Family members may worry that letting go equals detachment. In reality, it is about releasing the illusion of control, finding safer, healthier ways to structure their own lives and supporting the addict in recovery.
One thing that sometimes takes families by surprise is the request that all family members abstain from drugs and alcohol for the first year after the identified patient has entered recovery. Some push back, but reminding family that addiction is a chronic, progressive and fatal disease helps. So can asking, “If a loved one had cancer and the doctor told you to give up broccoli because it would threaten their health, would you?” Educating families about recovery support is a vital piece of multi-disciplinary treatment. Journeying the road to recovery with families is privileged and sacred work.