Active addiction severely strains our relationships with our loved ones. Addicts often engage in many behaviors that cause serious discord within families. We may lash out at others, or withdraw and cut off contact from loved ones. We may steal money from family members. Certainly, most addicts will lie about their addiction to their families. During active addiction, the addict may seem like a completely different person, and one that we do not want to associate with at all. When things finally go too far to be tolerated, families may simply cut off the addict, refusing to speak to them or support them until they make a commitment to get clean and/or enter treatment.
When the addict finally does begin the journey toward sobriety, their relationship with their family is often in ruins. Trust has been lost, parents may be heartbroken, residual anger may linger at the addict’s behavior or words. The family may be terrified that the addict will die or will not get better, and that they will have to live with the pain of taking care of someone who is actively using substances forever. This mix of heartbreak, anger, and fear can linger for a very long time. Many say they will not trust that the addict is truly sober until they get a few years of continuous, healthy sobriety under their belt.
Families may spend vast sums of money for in-patient treatment, IOP, PHP, therapy, sober living, and other addiction recovery services, which can put a strain on the family finances and even lead to some degree of resentment toward the addict. And things can be even more difficult after a relapse that follows a period of sobriety--the family may think that the addict is simply “not trying hard enough” or “not being serious.” This can further fuel anger and resentment.
Rebuilding from all of this is a tough, long-term process. Often, outside resources are necessary. A family therapist and/or work with a recovery program for family members of addicts (such as Al-Anon) can be invaluable. Family therapists especially can work with both the addict and their families on things like setting boundaries, communicating meaningfully and effectively, navigating issues fraught with emotion like finances and living situations, and understanding what exactly the journey toward sobriety entails. Other important concepts like enabling, shaming, family member roles, or excessive “helicoptering” by parents are also explored and addressed by family therapists. For those who are married, a therapist who focuses on marriage counseling is also helpful.
Obviously each family is unique and each recovery process is different--but there are some similarities. Attending a 12-step support group like Al-Anon can help you see that you are not alone and that many families and loved ones are going through similar struggles. Being involved in a social circle that supports and understands the difficulties of helping someone with addiction is a wonderful way to feel better and more hopeful. You will hear plenty of wonderful, encouraging success stories during an Al-Anon meeting, and receive guidance and wisdom from those who have gone before you. Other families may have a history of alcoholism or dysfunction, in which case the addict and the family might benefit from a group like CODA--Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families. CODA can help you learn to love yourself and others in a forgiving, courageous way that reduces codependency, anxiety, anger, and other destructive emotions that often arise during family conflicts (especially when the conflicts stem from addiction).
The bottom line is that family relationships are deeply affected by a loved one’s battle with addiction. Addicts who are actively using can behave horribly, and can break the hearts of loved ones in the process. And family members may not act appropriately with regards to the needs of the recovering addict, usually out of anger or fear. Therapy and 12-step programs can go a long way to helping rebuild family dynamics. And there is lots of hope--there is a wealth of experience and evidence that shows that recovered addicts and their families go on to live joyous, loving lives together!