How Important Is Family In Drug and Alcohol Treatment?

By Suzanne Kane

Let’s face it. Going through treatment for drug and alcohol dependence or addiction is a tough process. Not only is it hard on the individual seeking to get clean and sober, but it is also a difficult experience for family members. Addiction in any form affects the entire family. There’s no way any individual can get through treatment and on to recovery without a lot of support. That support comes from counselors, group meetings, friends you meet in treatment and recovery—and family.

But just saying that family is important in drug and alcohol treatment doesn’t begin to cover how critical their involvement is in the addict’s recovery. Here are some of the ways that family plays an integral role in supporting an individual in their goal to get clean and sober.

Catalyst for Change
For some individuals, the recognition that they need treatment, or even being willing to consider it, doesn’t come easy. In fact, this decision is a very difficult one for any person to make, as it involves acknowledging the pain and suffering we’ve caused not only to ourselves, but to those who love us as well.

When a person addicted to alcohol or drugs refuses to recognize or accept treatment, sometimes an intervention is recommended, and families are integral to this process. It is recommended that a professional interventionist is hired to help prepare for and perform the intervention. He or she will educate the family members about their loved one’s addiction, and then will guide family members through the process of approaching their loved one with their concerns.

Family members and friends are encouraged to write letters to their loved one explaining the harm their addiction has caused. The letters will then be read aloud during the actual intervention. During the intervention, with the help of the interventionist, the family seeks to help the addict understand that they have a problem with drugs and/or alcohol, and that treatment is available that can bring them back to a clean and sober life.

Family members must be supportive and loving but firm during this intervention process, and tell the addict how much they want him or her back—without drugs or alcohol. They must also lay out consequences for not seeking treatment, such as not being able to live there or visit anymore.

Family members don’t know how to do this on their own, which is why the interventionist specialist coaches them on how to deal with their addicted family member’s denial and encourage him or her to get into treatment. Overcoming denial is often the biggest hurdle in getting someone to admit they have a problem and commit to entering a treatment program.

How Families are Affected by Addiction
The ripple effects of one person’s addiction extend far beyond that single individual. They encompass the entire family, as well as friends, co-workers, neighbors, and employers. The effects profoundly impact the immediate family, however, as these are the people closest to the substance-dependent person.

A huge part of any effective drug or alcohol abuse treatment program is counseling family members and significant others on the particular needs of their loved one. Think of all the ways the lives of family members interconnect: through daily routines, behaviors, responsibilities, and interactions. When one person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the healthy family dynamic is disrupted. Family members often try to dismiss or deny the problem as much as the afflicted person does. They may feel embarrassment, anger, shame, pain, and heartbreak over the situation and be unable to deal with it constructively. The fact that they couldn’t stop or control their loved one’s abuse only compounds the problem in their minds.

Many times, family members enter into an unhealthy co-dependency with the abuser. Bribes and attempts to get the abuser to abstain from drugs or alcohol fail as the person continues to use. Covering up the abuse or making excuses to others is also part of co-dependency that has to be dealt with during treatment. That’s because by denying the problem and pretending it doesn’t exist only hampers the possibility that the abuser will ever truly break free of the addiction cycle. It also results in further isolation of the addict/alcoholic and his or her family, and often ends in divorce or abuse.

Other ways family members are affected by addiction include feelings of loss of self-esteem, blame that they may have caused the abuse, stress, depression and anxiety. They may fail to sufficiently take care of their own health and start to neglect their responsibilities to other family members and to their jobs. All of these issues have to be dealt with, or the risk of relapse increases when the addicted individual leaves treatment and returns home.

Types of Family Programs
Whether the affected family member is in treatment or already in recovery, family programs designed to help address critical issues of drug and alcohol dependency may include one or more of the following:

Individual Counseling Sessions with Therapist – Family members may have appointments arranged with the primary therapist on an individual basis.

Family Support Group – This is an ongoing, regularly scheduled (i.e., weekly), and open-ended support group where family members receive support and encouragement and have a safe place in which to share their experiences. Members come and go freely and new members are welcome to join.

Multi-Family Group Support Meetings – A large group meeting, generally once a week (Saturdays, for example), with all patients and their families. The meetings include discussions, films, lectures, experiential exercises, and experience sharing.

Family members are also encouraged to join other support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Alateen, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and others.

What Family Members Learn
Years of built-up hurt, confusion, and shame can be healed as family members learn about the effects of the disease and any accompanying mental illnesses (in dual-diagnosed patients). They also heal as their own issues are addressed. In addition, family members learn how to best support their troubled family member during recovery from addiction.
The fact that family members participate in family treatment programs has a tremendous impact on the individual undergoing treatment. Often this spurs the individual to enter treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, knowing the support of the family is and will be there for them on an ongoing basis.

Family Treatment Can Make a Big Difference
Some drug and alcohol treatment centers say that 90 percent of the family members want to become involved in the treatment of their loved one. Integration of the family members throughout the individual’s treatment is encouraged at appropriate times. During the initial process of detoxification, the treatment centers reach out to the family members and significant others within 24 to 48 hours, to help them transition to the client’s treatment program.

Aftercare and continuing care programs also involve the family, as sometimes marriages and family relationships are under great strain when the loved one returns home. Referrals are made for the family, either to local therapists or to support group meetings.

Many drug and alcohol treatment facilities offer weekly alumni meetings for current and past clients.

In the end, the best summation of the importance of family in drug and alcohol treatment is that it is essential for the overall success of the dependent individual’s recovery. You can’t send a newly clean and sober individual right back into the maelstrom of an untreated family dynamic. Participation in family programs, in concert with the loved one’s treatment and recovery, can make not only a big difference, but the most important difference.