Addiction: Treating the Whole Family

Updated on November 7, 2013

By Michael Campbell, MS, APR

It is calculated that every alcoholic or drug addict adversely impacts the life of four other people. The simple conclusion would be that if the addicted person achieves sobriety, the lives of five individuals will become immediately better. And while that may be true in appearance, there are often deeper roots in addiction that must also be healed. While responsibility for their actions should never be shifted away from the addict or alcoholic, there are often family patterns that reinforce and sustain addiction. These too must be addressed to create an environment within which sobriety can flourish and be achieved for the long term.

Twenty-five years after establishing Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, the co-founder, began to speak about “emotional sobriety.” He explained that he had come to realize that the end of addiction was not when a person stopped drinking or using, but when the underlying reasons for addictive behavior were addressed and resolved. “If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent unhealthy demand,” he wrote to a friend. Recovery, Bill W. came to realize, was a process of “awakening,” and progressive change during which old habits are exchanged for new.

In the family of the addicted person there are often behaviors that need to change.  Some of these patterns arose in response to the addiction, while others preceded it, and perhaps allowed it to flourish or continue unchecked. Each family needs to look inward and recognize the recovery they need to experience to become healthier and happier.

Co-Dependency. Dr. Alan Berger, a renowned expert on addiction, suggests that “emotional dependency” may be the strongest force behind addictive behavior. The individual makes other people so important in their life that they cannot function well on their own. What others think, how they feel, and the need for approval, become all important. This dependency can cripple the addicted person and can also cripple members of the family. Too often, the family of the addict or alcoholic feels responsible for the addicted person. They try to rescue, protect, fix, or control. Their thoughts can be often be stated as “I want to fix you because it hurts me to see you this way or live like this – and I don’t want to hurt so I have to make you better.” The co-dependent pattern is ultimately destructive for all concerned.

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Enabling. Families often develop the enabling behaviors that allow an addiction to flourish. These must be extinguished if the addicted person is to fully recover and the family to overcome patterns of dysfunction. Enabling behavior is seen in three common actions: standing between a person and his or her consequences; doing for someone something he or she should be doing for themselves; or engaging in actions that ultimately perpetuate someone’s problematic behavior. At St. Joseph Institute we constantly see family relationships which are personally destructive and can lead to a continuation of the addiction. For the person who has been self-medicating, it is often easy to avoid the tough decisions and consequences when someone else is repeatedly “bailing” them out. Often it is only when these behaviors stop that the healing can truly begin.

Forgiveness. Addicted persons and their families are often weighed down with guilt, shame, anger, and resentment. Without forgivene     ss it can be impossible to move forward. However, we must also recognize that forgiveness does not provide a “get out of jail free card.”  Trust must be earned. Addicts and alcoholics have worn out the word “sorry.” Only through determined action to change, restore, and do better, can true healing occur and forgiveness be offered without undue reservation.

Important lessons for families are contained in the 7 “C”s of addiction: I didn’t Cause it. I can’t Cure it. I can’t Control it. I can Care for myself by Communicating my feelings, making healthy Choices, and by Celebrating myself.

In treating addiction it is critically important that we do not ignore the important work that must be done with the families. They must learn about what addiction is and what it does. They must come to realize that the effort to overcome addiction cannot come from them, but only from the addicted person. They must change their behavior to ensure that they do not provide room for addiction to continue its destructive course. And very importantly, they must be helped to change their lives in ways that enable them to enjoy recovery without the destructive and dysfunctional patterns that have kept them from becoming healthier. Life is about constant personal change and growth. Families need to be willing to move forward and change, or all too often they become stuck in patterns that foster relapse and the return to unhappiness.

Michael Campbell is the President of St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, a leading treatment program located near State College in central Pennsylvania.

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