Why Can’t I Just Turn Up and See My Family Member in Treatment Whenever I Want?

Visiting, especially by family members, is a very important part of the treatment and recovery process. Visitors are most definitely welcome. However, visits arranged haphazardly or on the spur of the moment without regard either to the treatment centre’s schedule and smooth running, or the real interests of both parties, will certainly not help in this regard. A positive outcome for all is much more likely if visits are properly organised, prepared for and supported.

While the desire of family members to be in contact with each other as often as possible and without restraint, is understandable, it is vital for everyone to keep their eye on the ultimate, though potentially elusive prize: recovery. This will mean setting aside some expectations around social norms for a short while. There will of course be time for informal and relaxed socialising as well as more treatment-oriented gatherings.

Implicit in seeking admission to treatment is a recognition of the benefit that comes from allowing someone else, albeit temporarily, to assume an element of control over your life.  While letting go — a process so critical to recovery more generally — you still retain the option to leave at any time. The treatment centre has no interest in being controlling for its own sake. That would inevitably set up a struggle which would waste time and energy.  It is instead all about getting the best for you out of the limited time available.

One characteristic of addiction is a life that becomes unmanageable and possibly chaotic. Weakened boundaries or even a lack of them in behaviour and relationships typically features. Things tend to happen as and when people want without restraint or much, if any, thought to consequences. In the throes of addiction, adults, without realising it, often come to behave a bit like toddlers or teenagers who feel they must have what they want when they want it. Equally, without any intention of doing so, families can come to endorse and even assume attitudes common to the psychology of addiction.

It is easy to forget that addiction isn’t solely about overt behaviours such as taking drugs, drinking alcohol, placing a bet or viewing pornography. It includes invisible mental and emotional processes that support these behaviours and are often the trip wires for relapse.  Many of these processes remain covertly active and influential long after the outward signs of addiction have gone.  We know that to recover it is vital that we recognise these mindsets, thought patterns and impulses.  We then stand a better chance of preventing them from steering us towards unhelpful decisions, actions and reactions. This is as true for the family member as it is for the individual in treatment.

As everyone knows, change isn’t easy. It can be a source of much anxiety for family and individual in treatment alike. For instance, no one is quite sure how relationships are going to turn out in future.  It is important, therefore, not to allow conditions to develop in which anxiety will flourish. A treatment centre aims to create and maintain a safe, contained space in which change is possible. The structure, routine, order and focus provided by a well-managed centre all helps in this regard. It is certainly not about being rigid, oppressive or obstructive. It is rather to place a sensitively clear boundary around the space where a life may hopefully begin to be restored and to provide the very best chance of achieving that goal. To permit unscheduled access would risk disturbing the centre’s efforts to restore some equilibrium to lives disrupted by addiction.

Interactions with families and others close to a patient invariably stirs up a variety of powerful emotions; some arising from the past, others more recently. At some point these will have to be carefully addressed. For everyone’s sake it is best done in a well-managed way so as to make sense of and resolve them as far as possible. Not doing so could well bring recovery to a halt.

So the alternative question might be: Why don’t I (whether patient or family member) let go and, for the period of treatment, allow the treatment centre the opportunity to provide the best possible help it has to offer, in the way it knows best?  I have everything to gain and nothing but addiction’s harmful, self-perpetuating attitudes to lose.