Addiction is a progressive, chronic illness that’s unique compared to other diseases. One of the characteristics that makes addiction so unusual is that it’s both a physical and psychological disease, which is why overcoming it can present such a challenge. Those who become addicted to mood-altering substances invariably suffer from many severe effects — physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual — but addiction is a disease that also profoundly affects an addict’s loved ones. With the destructive force of a tidal wave, a substance abuse problem can cause unimaginable damage to the family unit, straining relationships and impeding communication, from which a family may require professional help to heal.
Why Is Addiction the Family Disease?
It’s often said that one person’s problem, whether it be an illness or otherwise, will have some level of effect on his or her loved ones. This is especially true when it comes to addiction. In fact, addiction is often referred to as “the family disease” 1 due to the extreme consequences that an individual’s substance abuse problem has on his or her family, wreaking havoc on the family dynamic and even risking each family member’s mental and emotional well-being.
When a family member becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs, despite the individual’s efforts to keep the self-destructive habit a secret, it will inevitably begin manifesting and interrupting the family’s routine, resulting in growing stress levels. The individual might be questioned about irregular behavior, and he or she will often respond with dishonesty to the consternation and frustration of others. With the passage of time in this state of stress and disruption, a family can lose the ability to communicate and relate to one another while feelings of resentment mix with worry, causing confusion and further distress. At a certain point, it becomes incredibly difficult for a family to find their way back to a state of peace, understanding, respect and love.
Alternately, codependency 2 is common in families affected by substance abuse. When an addict and a loved one are codependent, the loved one frequently enables his or her substance abuse behavior, which can occur either knowingly while in denial or unknowingly while oblivious to the addiction. Enabling behavior is usually due to being afraid that the addict will reject or abandon the loved one. Enabling the addict’s substance abuse ensures that one is needed or useful to the addict. Unfortunately, this perpetuates an addict’s addiction as the loved one serves as a buffer between the addict and the many consequences of addiction. Moreover, codependency is also an unhealthy relationship for the loved one as it tends to sap them of their physical, mental, emotional and even financial resources.
Families Can Heal from Addiction in Family Therapy
In many cases, family members, friends and other loved ones are involved in an individual’s choice to begin a treatment program after staging an intervention. However, family therapy allows loved ones to heal as a family alongside the addict. In short, family therapy refers to conducting assessment and intervention at a family level, but family-level addiction therapy often has a focus on the addict’s treatment and recovery goals specifically. Another unique feature of family substance abuse therapy is that it considers the effects 3, whether positive or negative, that a patient’s relationships with his or her family members might have on him or her and on the development of addiction. Therefore, a family therapist will usually assess the dynamic between family members to infer whether codependency has been an issue and, if necessary, teach them how to overcome codependency and enabling behaviors.
The concept of family therapy is based on a systems perspective wherein damage or healing in one part of a system will also affect other parts of the system accordingly. As such, it’s appropriate for a family to become involved in the healing journey 4 because they were affected by the individual’s alcoholism or drug addiction. Moreover, family support can be an asset to addiction recovery, but it’s essential that loved ones become knowledgeable about addiction and learn how to help rather than hinder an addict’s recovery. With knowledge comes another important goal, which is prevention. Given that alcoholism and drug addiction have been shown to run in families, helping a family learn how to promote the addict’s continued sobriety will make it less likely for the disease to appear later in the family line.
Over the course of active addiction, one’s relationships with family can accumulate some complicated emotions. When feelings of worry conflict with resentment or anger, it can become confusing and difficult to communicate. Therefore, re-establishing communication is another goal of therapy and an important focus in most family therapy sessions. Communication facilitates honesty, and both are vital ingredients in loving relationships.
Find Freedom and Health at Black Bear Lodge
The journey from addiction to recovery is different for everyone. However, since family is a central part of life for most people, family therapy offers individuals a way to include their loved ones on a journey of physical, mental and emotional healing. For more information about family substance abuse therapy or other types of treatments we offer, contact us at Black Bear Lodge. We know just how devastating the disease of addiction can be on both an individual and a family level. Call Black Bear Lodge if you or someone you love would benefit from learning more about our comprehensive programming.
Written by Dane O’Leary