Addiction Treatment: The Importance of Family Recovery

Alcoholism is a family disease. The disease affects all those who have a relationship with a problem drinker. Those of us closest to the alcoholic suffer the most, and those who care the most can easily get caught up in the behavior of another person. We react to the alcoholic’s behavior. We focus on them, what they do, where they are, how much they drink. We try to control their drinking for them. We take on the blame, guilt, and shame that really belong to the drinker. We can become as addicted to the alcoholic, as the alcoholic is to alcohol. We, too, can become ill. —Al-Anon

If you have a loved one with an addiction problem, you know that they aren’t the only one suffering. In a family struggling with addiction, every family member is affected in some way. Needs are not being met, relationships become strained, and everyone is in danger of adopting maladaptive coping mechanisms that can have long-lasting consequences. There is no simple fix for addiction. It is an insidious disorder that finds its way into every aspect of a person’s life, and successful long-term recovery requires addressing all of these aspects. Addiction impacts the entire family, and the most successful recovery provides everyone with the chance to heal—not just the addicted individual.

An Addict in the Family
When an individual is suffering from an addiction, it throws their entire family into upheaval. Family members often focus on the addict, believing that everything would be fine if only they could “fix” the addicted individual. But the truth is that the addict is responsible for their own recovery, and the addict’s family members are responsible for theirs. Although there are important ways you as a family member can help your addicted loved one, you can’t change them; you can, however, change yourself.

By definition, an individual who is addicted to a substance or behavior is driven to continue despite negative life consequences. These consequences commonly include financial difficulties, health problems, and neglected relationships; addicts sometimes cope with these problems by resorting to lying, violence, denial, or absence. For family members, these actions lead to a number of complex emotions that won’t simply disappear if their loved one receives addiction treatment. Trust has been broken, intimacy has been lost, and in some cases financial ruin is imminent. These are serious issues that result in feelings of anger, resentment, fear, and loneliness for family members of addicts.

As a family member of an individual suffering from addiction, addressing these issues helps both you and your loved one heal. If the addict is in recovery, he or she is working hard to address all aspects of their addiction—and many of those aspects also have an impact on family members. Involvement in patient and family support groups has been shown to be an important component of successful addiction treatment. Even if your loved one is not receiving addiction treatment, family recovery can still offer your family the chance to heal and become a strong support structure for a struggling addict.

Family Therapy Options
Choosing to take part in family therapy is an important step in the recovery process. Some types of family therapy are primarily educational, helping you to understand the disease of addiction. These programs offer classes, discussions, lectures, activities, and/or group meetings to help family members of addicts develop a deeper understanding of the causes, effects, and treatment of addiction. Other options for family therapy are counseling for the family or couples or participation in a support group for family members of addicts. While a particular program may focus mostly on one of these aspects, many include some level of educational, counseling, and supportive assistance.

Al-Anon is a well-known and widely available family recovery resource, dedicated to supporting family and friends of alcoholics. Founded over 55 years ago, Al-Anon is a free group where members can share their personal experiences with others who have lived with and loved an alcoholic. Although Al-Anon was established and designed for family and friends of practicing and recovering alcoholics, many loved ones of people suffering from substance abuse also participate.

Al-Anon offers a recovery program designed specifically for younger family members, called Alateen. Much like Al-Anon, Alateen offers free meetings, literature, and support to older children and adolescents who have a family member or close friend who is suffering from an addiction problem. Although the focus is on alcohol addiction, family members of people who abuse other substances may also participate in Alateen. Young people in Alateen learn about the three C’s of a family member’s addiction: You didn’t Cause it, you can’t Control it, and you can’t Cure it.

Nar-Anon is an option for family and friends of drug users. Similarly to Al-Anon, Nar-Anon is a free support group available to anyone affected by a relative or friend’s addiction. It is a Twelve-Step program that offers peer support and literature on addiction.

Other groups that offer family recovery services include the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), Adult Children of Alcoholics, Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), and SMART Recovery. In addition, your local community may offer support groups for family and friends of addicts, perhaps through a community center or church. Other options are psychologists or counselors who specialize in addiction recovery—you can arrange to meet individually, as a family group, or both. Finally, if your loved one is in addiction treatment, their program may provide and even encourage family recovery services.

Even if only one member of a family is an addict, addiction causes all family members to suffer. Receiving family therapy provides every family member with the chance to recover from the effects of addiction and build a stronger family unit. Recovering as a family allows healing, encourages forward movement, and provides the recovering addict with a support structure that is essential to his or her success.