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Families Get a Bad Rap When Confronting Addiction

Families Get a Bad Rap

Parents get a really bad rap in our society.  They are pointed to as the cause of a child’s substance problem, accused of enabling if they so much as give the kid a meal, and their own needs are ignored by their friends, employers and other family as they struggle to help their child. “Tough love” has been a resounding failure – too many people have died because they had no hope of a better life and those who loved them most were pressured to kick them out and cut them off.

When Life Matters More Than Substance

families role in addiction

The key to helping an adult child get past addictive behavior is helping them create a vision of a life that is more important than substance.  As Stanton Peele has written many times, a life changing event such as getting a promotion at a job, getting married, or having a child is the most frequent cause of recovery.  This explains natural recovery: the fact that most people recover without treatment, and more than half without complete abstinence.  Abstinence is definitely the best choice for many.  According to addiction expert Kenneth Anderson, MA, and founder and Executive Direct of Harm Reduction, Moderation and Support, “After trying to abstain or moderate, about half of people find that abstaining works best for them.  About half of people with alcohol dependence as defined by NESARC (a large study conducted by the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, well-explained here) find that abstinence is their best choice.”  There are many paths to getting well, and I would argue that abstinence is the best choice for those who choose it of their own free will, not through coercion.  That means that families support a loved one’s recovery when they do not use threats or force any particular path to recovery, are more likely to help their loved one recover.

A Vision for Everyone in the Family

Finding a life vision can’t just apply to the person who suffers from substance use problems, though.  Everyone in a family (or an extended, often called “chosen” family of friends as well as family members) deserves to follow their dreams, without substance getting in the way.

Parents, spouses, and close friends often give up years of their lives trying to help their loved one recover.  In the end, that just leads to more pain and suffering for all.  While some have found they have to eliminate a friend or family from their lives, let’s face it: for some people that is simply not possible.  A mother whose daughter was the reason she decided to live when she faced suicidal depression can not allow that daughter to die if she can do anything to prevent it.  A father who gave up most of his life savings to send his son to rehab will not give up, no matter what.  Partners with children often kick addiction together for the sake of their marriage and their families.  Alexandra, who got well with therapy, a yoga retreat, and healing practices such as meditation, started her journey when her loving daughter found her too sick to go to an important business engagement and took her there.  Some would call that enabling.  I call it saving someone’s career so they can reconnect with the life vision that they lost along the way, often due to traumatic events.  How can a child better pursue her own dreams: by losing her mother or by saving her mother’s life?

Committing Together

Committing means sharing that we have all suffered pain.  I would rather call it coming together.  For example, Janeisha had been abused by her husband and was terrified for her children’s lives.  Like many who suffer from addiction, poverty is a main cause.  Janeisha had no family to lean on and had no money.  She had no choice but to go to a homeless shelter.  One of three children became addicted to heroin.  At first she was taught tough love, but she would never hurt those children she had suffered so much to protect.  So after he almost died of an overdose (he was saved by naloxone, the drug that reverses a heroin overdose), they came together for a long talk.families role in support for recovery

They realized that they had a lot of anger toward each other.  He was angry at their poverty, and he admitted that at times he had blamed his addiction on it.  At times he had blamed her for their homelessness, even though he knew, when he was not high, that she was not to blame.

They cried.  She said she was sorry for not doing a better job of protecting him.  He held her hand and said, “Mom, you saved our lives.  He would have killed us both.  We have each other.  We can face this together.”

They both made some changes.  He got treatment.  She got therapy.  Once he was free of heroin, he helped her get into a community college so she could finally begin the career in healthcare she had always dreamed of. They defeated their addiction by facing their anger: at each other, and at the people who had caused them so much suffering.  They decided together to take action to help others who had suffered the way they had, and they made the biggest decision of their lives: “We are a team!  We are in this together!”

Every family has a different path

No family is the same.  There is no one-size-fits-all treatment and no one path for every family.  Too often, the way we look at addiction has made family members see each other as enemies.  Parents felt they had to control their children, and children felt resentment.  Coming together, creating a vision that allows the family to work together, not against each other, is a key to breaking the cycle of pain, addiction, and loss of life.

I’ll give Janeisha and her son the last word:

“We have each other.  We can face this together.”


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