How can a family struggling with addiction seek help?
Addiction is sometimes referred to as a “family” disease as the effects of the illness ripple beyond the individual and spill over directly or indirectly to other family members.
Commonly misunderstood as a form of moral weakness/failure in self-will, the nature of addiction is such that when the condition is active, the individual is often unable to make discerning decisions as the addictive substance or behaviour hijacks the brain and creates a deep-seated and distorted belief that the substance or behaviour is essential for survival.
In addition, some research has shown that this peculiar chronic illness has a higher rate of relapse of 40 – 60% as compared to say, type II diabetes at 30-50%, making the recovery journey particularly arduous.
When addiction strikes, everyone in the family feels the impact in varying degrees and in varying forms.
Some common signs of distress reported by family members include:
- Stress and burn-out trying to get the person into recovery and staying sober
- Anger and resentment as they struggle to understand why the person would refuse treatment
- Frustration arising from financial losses to support treatment/non-fulfilment as a provider
- Broken trust due to the lies and manipulation tactics to access the addictive substance/behaviour
- Neglect of well-being for self and other family members
- Anxiety when the addiction involves the use of illegal substances or behaviours
- Hopelessness and depression when person experience multiple relapses despite several treatment regimes
- Shame as caregivers blame themselves for having failed to prevent the development of or stop the addiction
- Isolation and withdrawal as fearful of moralistic judgement by social groups
When examining the long-term implications of the disease, it has been found that children growing up in a family with addiction, are at a greater risk of developing an addiction later in life, thereby extending cycles of addiction across generations. The risk factors include:
- Genetics – According to the American Psychological Association (APA) research, it has been found that a link exists between a specific dopamine receptor and an individual’s vulnerability to becoming addicted. This vulnerability increases by 40-60% when a parent or both parents have an addiction illness.
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) – The disease of addiction creates a significant amount of distress on the family environment. Young children may experience physical and/or emotional abuse, neglect and/or abandonment from their caregivers, leading to developmental deficits, negative core beliefs and emotional dysregulation. This in turn impacts on their abilities to navigate life’s challenges and the seeking out of a mood-altering substance or behaviour as a coping mechanism.
- Dysfunctional Family Dynamics – From a structural family system perspective, a healthy family unit is comprised of a stable set of rules of interactions, family member roles, boundaries, and power hierarchy of subsystems. The disease of addiction could disrupt the homeostatic state causing family members to scramble to find a new stable norm. In the same vein, an unhealthy family structure can lead to enabling factors and perpetuate the continuation of the addiction.
For the above reasons, healing for the individual with the addiction, would necessitate the healing of family members alongside.
At Visions by Promises, it is recommended that spouse, parents, siblings, or children affected by the individual with addiction also receive individual supportive therapy, couple and/or family therapy.
Notwithstanding that the individual may be in an inpatient rehabilitation centre for treatment, it is imperative that family/caregivers seek therapy to learn how to create a sustainable recovery environment on the patient’s discharge.
Group therapy is also highly recommended to enable family members, especially caregivers, to find social support in the long journey of recovery, learn self-care skills, differentiate between helping and enabling, and develop a healthier family system for longer-lasting sobriety.
Family members may also wish to attend 12-step family groups such as Al-Anon, Al-Ateen, ACoA (with their respective variations for different addictions).
Below are some simple adages to keep in mind, if for some reasons, the family is unable to receive treatment or attend group programmes:
- Learn about the science of addiction.
- Research the range of therapy options available.
- Stay engaged with the individual’s treatment team and be a resource.
- Be patient, non-judgemental and keep healthy boundaries.
- Practice self-care and learn to put on your own oxygen mask first.