Families suffer too

Signs of Addiction and How They Affect Your Family

You don’t have to be addicted to a substance or behavior to suffer from addiction. Any family that includes a member who is addicted will know the truth of that statement. It is a very stressful situation for everyone. Furthermore, it isn’t only families and family members that are affected. Workplace colleagues and close friends can also suffer in very similar ways.

Addiction takes over a person’s life, determining their thinking, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. It does so in spite of the many harmful consequences that intensify and multiply the longer it continues. This includes the damaging impact it has on family relations. Addiction has rightly been characterized as an all-consuming relationship with a substance or behavior. That’s because it doesn’t just consume the individual diagnosed with an addiction. It consumes everyone else close to them also.

A useful (if simplistic) way to think about families is to imagine a mobile toy. These are the ones often dangled from a ceiling and comprise spindly vertical and horizontal arms with small colorful objects at the end of each arm. They all but float in the air. The point for this discussion is that move one individual part of the mobile, and the rest of it moves too. It can’t not do so. What happens to the whole is affected by what happens to a part and vice versa. In other words, it is a system.

Addiction and Family

This helps us understand not only the impact of addiction on families but provides a perspective on what has to be taken into account to achieve recovery. It helps us recognise also that the way those family members relate to the addicted individual will have an impact for better or worse. Because addiction can be quite an alarmingly dramatic condition we tend to think more about the addicted person’s effect on the rest of the family and less about the effect of family behaviour on that individual. We need to look at both.

The person who has fallen into addiction may experience and show very obvious signs of a problem. In clinical terms they are often described as “the identified patient.” The natural tendency is therefore for them to become the focus of family attention. In fact, so powerful is addiction, it frequently ends up becoming the organising dynamic in the family, using up time, energy and resources. It resets the norms of behaviour within the family as everything begins to revolve around that problem and how best to deal with it. The mobile is no longer in balance; no longer easily able to reset itself in a healthy way

Family, Addiction & Feelings

Family members generally experience a range of emotions in reaction to one of the family developing an addiction, including the emotional volatility, dishonesty, the unmanageable approach to life, and personality change that comes with it. Family members often begin in a state of denial. Unable to acknowledge, face up to, or comprehend what is happening, they may cover up or collude in the addiction, which is often referred to as “enabling”. It helps no one. This denial may, in part, be due to stigma by association. They may feel guilt and shame and a sense of failure. As the reality breaks through, fear and desperation, anger and frustration, hopelessness and despair become the norm, as does a loss of self-esteem. They feel rejected, abandoned, or punished as their family member is increasingly lost to the condition. They are haunted by the possibility it could prove fatal. They feel utterly disempowered.

In their desperation, individually and collectively, family members become ever more preoccupied with how to get the addicted person to stop the addictive behavior. They embark on an obsessive struggle with this goal as their exclusive purpose. As a result, they live in a state of chronic stress which has been shown to have a measurably damaging effect on their mental and physical health. Symptoms include loss of mental capacity and the ability to concentrate; nervous tension and involvement in conflict. They may suffer from a variety of aches and pains, lose energy, experience stomach upsets or injuries, and find their immune system compromised.

The struggle of the family with their addicted member often seems to mirror the addicted person’s relationship to their drug or behavior of choice. An addiction is characterized in part by the person’s narrowing focus on the use of a substance or behavior. The increasingly futile struggle to get its use under control becomes a full-time preoccupation. The family can become similarly obsessed with controlling the addicted family member, either by enabling (effectively giving or allowing them what they want), trying to inhibit or manage their consumption, or threatening and manipulating. Both the addicted person and the family are trying to regain control; one of the use of mood-altering substance or behavior, the other of the addicted individual and so the family’s equilibrium. In their parallel worlds, driven by fear, neither wants to let go and give up.

"How Are You?" = Help Me

The trouble for families is that this way of going about trying to get their loved one to change often only contributes to making the problem worse and increases their own distress. Furthermore, many healthcare professionals have similarly tended to focus exclusively on the person with the addiction and, as a result, are not as helpful to families as they could be.

Family members are often surprised when asked, “How Are You” rather than how is the addicted person. Family members need to be helped in three ways: as people suffering in their own right, as part of the treatment of the addicted individual, and as members of a whole family. So used to focusing exclusively on the person with the addiction, we often find that family members have lost sight of themselves and their own needs. They are no longer in touch with themselves. They have become bent out of shape in the struggle to get someone else to change; an outcome on which their peace of mind, indeed sanity, has become dependent. (Note the term). In a real sense, they too have become lost to addiction.

One of the challenges in helping family members to give up their overwrought investment in the change of the other person is a tendency to feel they are going to be blamed for that individual’s addiction. To avoid responsibility for their recovery, the addicted individual may encourage this idea. Of course, that only postpones recovery. One way to address this is a change of perspective for everyone; one that disarms stigma. It can help to present a family with the neutral, non-judgmental idea that addiction is simply a condition that has emerged in the family and happens to have done so in a particular family member. The addiction is a clear signal of distress and that change is called for. The family can now individually and collectively work to recover. Everyone is encouraged to take responsibility to deal with their own issues individually, while collectively the family shares the responsibility for improving the welfare of the whole.

Clinic Les Alpes

At Clinic Les Alpes, families are not treated as peripheral to the person admitted for treatment. Their needs are fully recognised, validated and separately responded to. While they will have a very important part to play in the treatment of their loved one, it will be just as important for them to receive help in their own right. They will be supported to let go of their obsessive, co-dependent struggle to achieve change in another person and improve their self care. While it cannot be self-consciously engineered and there is no guarantee, when family members step back and shift to improving their self-care, the addicted person often finds it easier to seek and accept help. When no longer under intense pressure from others with an emotional investment in them changing, they may find the time and space they need to take responsibility for their own recovery. This doesn’t mean that family members should stop caring about the addicted person. It means they begin to care in a different way; one that finds time needed for self-care too. The mobile (i.e. the family system) is given a chance to establish a new, healthier equilibrium — to everyone’s benefit.

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