Family matters: Is there hope for families dealing with addiction?

July 14, 2016 | by Terry Ciszek, LCSW, CSADC
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Addiction has devastating effects on everyone it touches. I know this firsthand. Four of my uncles died because of alcoholism (either directly or from complications related to their drinking).

Unfortunately, my family’s story isn’t unique. Addiction wreaks havoc throughout Illinois:

  • The Illinois Department of Human Services attributes more than 5,500 deaths each year to alcohol and drug use
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 2015 Behavioral Health Barometer for Illinois says:
    • About 661,000 people were dependent on or abused alcohol
    • About 267,000 people were dependent on or abused illicit drugs, such as marijuana or heroin

These statistics only tell part of the story. Behind nearly every person struggling with substance use disorder, there are family members — spouses, children, parents, siblings — struggling with their own reactions to their loved one’s condition.

If you’re one of these people — especially if you are in the Chicagoland area — I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone. Help is available, and life can get better.

Addiction: Families take the first step

The problems in your addicted loved one’s life are a result of the time and attention he or she gives the addiction. Over time, alcohol and drugs become the addiction patient’s best friend and worst enemy. Their time goes toward the drug, and their relationship with family members suffers.

Relationships are often a big reason people seek help for addiction in the first place. At our Behavioral Health impatient campus in Naperville, we see a lot of people with substance use disorder who say they’re self-referrals, meaning they weren’t sent by another health professional. But that doesn’t mean they decided to come to us on their own. Family members often prompt – or demand – the decision.

Often, patients with addiction issues come to us in what we call a precontemplative state. They don’t think there’s a problem. Other people in their lives — usually family members — do see the problem, and their influence is strong enough to send the patient to us.

This is part of the decision-making process we call the “locus of control.” An early issue with people struggling with addiction is that their locus of control is external. Family members are often the only ones who motivate such a difficult decision for patients with addiction.

Over the course of the patient’s treatment, we work together to shift that decision-making process to an internal locus of control. It’s critical for the patient’s recovery that he or she takes an honest look at themselves and says, “I have a problem. I need some help. I want to be a good family member.”

Addiction: It’s all about control – and the lack of it

Family members may be the motivating factor for the addiction patient to seek help. But many families come to us not knowing they’re just as in need of help as their loved ones.

The number one question I get from families: “How do I get them to stop?” It’s really hard for them to hear my response: “You can’t. But there are things you can do to help.” One of the most important things you can do is to stop enabling your loved one’s behavior.

Enabling takes different forms, some you may not even recognize. For example, a husband using drugs may tell his wife, “If I came home to a clean, quiet house, I wouldn’t have to use.” So the wife turns herself inside out to make the house as clean and calm as possible.

You may try to control whatever trigger you think causes your loved one’s behavior. But you can’t. For every trigger you see, there are probably five others you don’t. And you can’t control them all.

Another form of enabling is when family members try to shield their loved ones from the consequences of their addiction. If a teenager misses school because of drug use, a parent may call the teen’s school and report him or her as being home sick instead of truant. A husband or wife may call their spouse’s work and report a health issue when the spouse is actually hung over or still passed out from using the night before.

As with the addiction patient, this is a matter of control. You may believe, if you “do the right thing” and try to help your loved one, things can turn around. But this is a myth. You can’t control the consequences of your loved one’s actions. Only your loved one can do that.

Addiction: Help for the family at risk

Understanding what you can’t control is an important step as a family member of someone struggling with addiction. But it’s equally important to understand what you can control.

As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes, family members face some of the following issues when a loved one has an addiction problem:

  • Children taking inappropriate family roles to compensate for parents with addiction
  • Financial trouble
  • Increased risk of substance use for other family members
  • Trust issues
  • Unsatisfactory relationships outside the family unit

We work to avoid or correct these issues through treatment for family members. We educate family members about substance use disorder and about how addiction affects not just the patient but also all the people in that person’s life.

Support groups are some of the best resources for family members of a loved one who struggles with addiction, whether or not the loved one decides to get help. The more you’re with others in similar situations, the more you’re free to share your secret with people who understand what you’re going through. That’s the place where healing can begin.

Some of the best support groups for families include:

  • Adult Children of Alcoholics – a 12-step group for grown children to learn about what others have gone through, what that’s meant for them, and ways to cope each day
  • Al-Anon – if you’re a spouse or significant other of someone struggling with addiction, this is a great place to tell your story
  • Alateen – a 12-step program where teenagers with addiction in their families can talk with other teens about ways to cope and have a life outside the focus on the addicted family member
There’s hope beyond addiction

Support groups let family members focus on themselves for a change, rather than on their addicted family member. It’s really about helping family members realize that there’s more to their lives than their loved one’s addiction.

Support groups help people get their lives back. They realize there are other people out there who understand what they’re going through. They realize it’s not wrong or shameful to fully love someone with addiction and still be angry about their behaviors.

If you have a loved one with an addiction problem, the most important thing I can share is this: There is hope. Your loved one can get help, but it’s ultimately his or her choice to do so. For you, you don’t have to live your life trying to "save" your loved one from addiction or control every bad thing that happens as a result of that addiction.

There is hope beyond addiction. And we’re here to help you get there.

If your family needs help to deal with addiction, fill out this assessment form online, and one of our team members will contact you. You can also call us at (630) 305-5027.

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