Addiction: A Family Affair

Post by guest blogger, Alice Tanner.

We are honored to present a post by guest blogger, Alice Tanner, Addiction Recovery Consultant and Intervention Specialist, founder of Bay Area Intervention. Because more than 60% of individuals diagnosed with a serious mental illness are dual diagnosed with substance use, we know this is a critically important topic for discussion.

Photo Credit: William H. Bender, ca. 1910

Photo Credit: William H. Bender, ca. 1910

Ever heard the saying, “The family that plays together stays together?” Well, here’s a twist: “The family that recovers together discovers together!

As a “family” disease, no longer do clinicians and mental health practitioners believe that “the problem” lies solely with the person who lives with addiction and, or substance use. Today, we know the disease of addiction has an equally strong and destructive counterpart, co-dependency, which is the role families and loved ones play. We now understand that those closest to the person diagnosed with substance use have also unwittingly become unwell in the downward progression of addiction. The maladapted coping tools developed to deal with the behaviors and attitudes of the addiction don’t work. An example of a weak coping tool is when a family member tries to control substance use by getting rid of the chemical, or by nagging, threatening, or pleading for the using to stop. These tactics may work for a while, but soon substance use resumes, often more hidden and escalated. Over time these ineffective and unhealthy coping skills become entrenched. When a family finally seeks professional help, usually through intervention, they begin to learn that addiction is not just Joe or Jane’s problem, that it is a family disease and that recovery must involve the whole family.

Recovery from addiction takes a lot of time and effort. It requires total transformation, changing from the inside out. This transformation is not intuitive, easy, or passive. We are quick to understand the need and desirability for a person who abuses substances to change, however, not so quick to understand or believe the need for the family to change. The source of the constant codependent pull is the belief that, “If John stops drinking and creating all this trouble, I won’t have to be so ______________________ (controlling, watchful, financially helpful, etc). The myth is that if the substance user gets well, the family and friends can get back to a “normal” life because the bad behavior and resulting consequences will stop. Nice idea, but it’s not the way it works. Truth is, without family recovery the codependent coping behaviors continue; they just manifest differently.

Families, blind to their own need for recovery, are content to let their addicted loved one do the recovery “thing” while they get back to “business as usual.”

Families are often challenged to understand that recovery is a family affair. Just as it was once incomprehensible that life could ever get as bad as it did for an addicted loved one, or that family life would be disrupted by the chaos of addiction, families frequently do not quite believe they need their own recovery. They must come to accept the necessity for systemic change in the same painful way they accepted a loved one’s addictions. Families, blind to their own need for recovery, are content to let their addicted loved one do the recovery “thing” while they get back to “business as usual.” At best, this path is a detriment to solid recovery and, at worst, a derailment to it.

How families engage their own recovery is not an easy or simple question to answer or navigate. In general, families successfully do so by addressing unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that were cultivated in order to cope with the addiction that was taking over their family. For example, families learn to stop cushioning the consequences of their loved ones drinking and drugging. Family members willing to learn about addiction and co-dependency can begin the recovery process. When loved ones implement coping tools and behaviors just as their addicted loved one does, it creates supportive relationships in a difficult, but necessary, transitional time. Over time, the whole family changes and grows. The family enters recovery together. And, they all come to understand that recovery is not a spectator sport for the addict . . . or the family!

What does the family that recovers together discover? Hey, go for it and let us know!

More information about Alice Tanner and Addiction Recovery services can be found at: http://www.bayarea-intervention.com.

As always, your comments are valued.

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