Family Addiction: Transformation and Healing Are Possible
Several years ago, I made a startling discovery about recovery from addiction – one that would shape my life and also benefit others. If someone you love is struggling with any kind of addictive behavior, this information will be important for you to know.
Not only am I a recovering addict with over 30 years clean and sober, I have also been an Addictions Therapist for 25 years. When I first began working in this field, it was because I really wanted to give back what I had been given. Without the compassion and care that had been shown to me, I might have actually killed myself – which had been my plan 30 years ago. I also knew that if I could get clean and stay that way, virtually anyone could. And yet, when I first started working with the addicts and alcoholics I saw in sessions, I found that they consistently relapsed. Only a small handful of people made the choice, early on, to remain abstinent.
As time went on, after I’d worked with a great many addicted people, an interesting thing began to happen: I started getting calls from my clients’ loved ones. “We’re at the end of our rope, we don’t know what to do to get him/her to stop using, drinking, gambling, watching porn, spending money excessively… Is there anything we can do? Can you help us?”
Vital Knowledge for Loved Ones
At first, I had no idea of what to tell them. No other counselor I knew was working with the families of addicts. There were no books about it, no courses about it that I could find. I didn’t know who I could go to for professional supervision, to help me learn how to assist them. So what I did was – listen to them.
They would all invariably give me the same story of what was going on in the lives of the addicts they loved and worried about incessantly. Sometimes the details were different, depending on the actual addiction, but I soon became aware that the underlying dynamics were the same.
Mostly, their addicts often wanted money from them, and the loved ones would give them the money they demanded. These family members would allow their addicts to live with them in their homes, allowing them to use or drink, or gamble or watch TV all day, or spend all the money they’d given them on themselves – and not being required to help around the house or contribute in any real way. In fact, many of the addicts who were allowed to be in this situation would go out at night (sometimes even being given the car keys which led to driving under the influence) and then sleep all day. And when they were challenged on this behavior, they would become enraged – they would yell and blame and punch holes in the walls – or, even worse, cause physical bodily harm to a family member.
It quickly became clear to me why these family members did not confront this offending behavior very often. Often with good reason, the loved ones were scared of saying “No” to their addict – and as a result, this unhealthy behavior pattern generally went on and on for a very long time.
The Road to Healing
The beginning of their healing was when they finally reached out for help for themselves – that’s when they started to see their family heal and transform.
One of my first ‘family’ clients back then was a well-known Canadian performer whose younger brother simply refused to stop using drugs. Their parents had allowed him to live in their home until the mother finally became ill from the stress and told him he had to leave. That was when he showed up on his sister’s doorstep at 2 o’clock in the morning, demanding to be let into her house. He made it clear that he expected to stay with her, now that Mom had thrown him out. She had no idea what to do – and it was the middle of the night – so she let him in. That happened about a week before she called me for an appointment, and her brother was still there, refusing to leave. Her life was becoming unbearable with him there. She knew she wanted him out of her house, but she didn’t know how to get that to happen.
What I gradually came to understand, as I worked with the loved ones who called me, was that they were basically contributing to the addiction continuing because they were not setting any boundaries.-Candace Plattor
If you’re a loved one, this story may sound familiar to you. The details of your situation may be different, but the feelings are probably very similar – you could be feeling guilt, shame, confusion, anger, resentment, fear, or exhaustion – and it’s usually a combination of all of these. When nothing healthy is done about a situation such as this, the toxicity of it all can cause loved ones to become depleted or even ill. And when addicts of any kind are allowed to get away with behaviors like these, it’s not good for anyone. It is truly the quintessential lose-lose.
What I gradually came to understand, as I worked with the loved ones who called me, was that they were basically contributing to the addiction continuing because they were not setting any boundaries. They had set the bar very low for the addict in their lives, not expecting much from them. Whenever this happens, things generally stay the same for a long time.
The truth is that an addict who is still making the choice to remain in active addiction isn’t going to approach their family and say, “Please challenge me on this. Please make staying in this addiction uncomfortable for me so that I’ll stop. Please hold me accountable for my actions and decisions.” But the reality is that when an addict isn’t challenged, or held accountable, or made to feel uncomfortable, that means they’re being enabled to remain in addiction. And how can that be a loving act toward them?
Changing the Dynamic by Changing Your Behaviors
As time went on, I began to see that even though the loved ones of the addicts were not responsible for the addiction, there were definitely behaviors that they themselves needed to change if they wanted the dynamics in their family to heal. I knew that most rehab centers were not teaching them how to do that – I quickly discovered how incredibly little help there was out there for the people who loved their addicts so much, but who were at their wits’ end without a clue about how to proceed in a healthy way. That was when I decided to specialize in working with the family and other loved ones of people with addiction – and I’ve been doing that for the past 25+ years.
As loved ones begin to respect themselves more by making the changes they know they need to make, they become stronger. They know that what they’ve been doing hasn’t really been ‘love’ – not in the healthy sense. Many loved ones are codependent or people-pleasing, and they want to avoid conflict at any cost – which is completely understandable, especially when the addict in their life becomes enraged when appropriate boundaries are set. I teach them how to identify their boundaries, how to language them to the addict and – perhaps most importantly – how to maintain them. It isn’t easy being the loved one of someone in active addiction, but the truth is that amazing shifts can occur in families that reach out for help and receive treatment that actually works. In my work with loved ones, I have assisted them to heal and achieve transformations they never thought could happen. I feel blessed to be able to do this work – it is an honor every day.
As the loved one of an addict, it will very likely fall to you to change your own enabling behaviors first and learn how to do things differently. I also know that working with an addiction counselor one-to-one can be cost prohibitive. That’s why I created the Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself Online Support Program where you will find the tools, the strategies, and the warm, welcoming support you need to come off that ongoing roller coaster of chaos – and finally put an end to the cycle of addiction your family has been stuck in. Click here for program details and registration.
If you would like to talk with me about how I might be able to help your family and take you to that amazing place of healthy transformation, feel free to connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images Courtesy of iStock