It is not surprising that the disease of addiction affects families too. They don’t sleep. They don’t eat. They become ill. They blame themselves. They feel rage, overwhelming worry, shame. Many people keep their suffering to themselves. If your child had cancer, the support from your friends and family would flood in. Because of the stigma of addiction, people often keep it quiet. Their friends and family may try to be supportive, but they may also communicate a subtle or unsubtle judgment.
Imagine the family of an addict as a mobile hanging from a ceiling. In the center is a paper-doll figure, which represents the addict. Smaller dolls float around the central figure. These smaller figures dangling off to the side represent siblings of the addict. They’re on the periphery, helpless, but inextricably tied to the moods and whims and drug-taking of the central figure. Two other figures hang precariously between the addict and his or her siblings. These are the parents. Sometimes, one of the parental figures hangs closer to the addict, seemingly between the addict and the other parent. This is the enabling parent, propping up what the addict does; making excuses; bending over backward. Yet trying to keep everyone all connected to one another.
The first thing for the parent to understand is it’s not their fault. There are addicts who were abused and addicts who, from all accounts, had ideal childhoods. Yet still many family members blame themselves. Another thing they do is try to solve it. They hide liquor bottles and medication and search for drugs in their loved one’s clothes and bedroom, and they drive the addict to AA or NA meetings. They try to control where the addict goes and what they do and who they hang out with. It’s understandable, but it’s futile. You cannot control an addict.
An addict can take over the family – take all of the parents’ attention, even at the expense of other children and of one’s spouse. Family members’ moods become dependent on how the addict is doing. People become obsessed. It’s understandable, but it’s harmful. They become controlling in ways that they never were before, because they are so afraid. People lose their identity because nothing matters except their addicted spouse or child or parent or whoever it is. There is no joy left in their life.
For all their tears and heartache and desperately good intentions, most families of addicts are defeated in the end. Addicts persist in their self-destructive, addictive behavior until something within themselves – something quite apart from anyone else’s efforts – changes so radically that the desire for the high is dulled and ultimately deadened by the desire for a better life. This was truly the situation in my family. Despite being able to quit drinking, smoking marijuana, and snorting cocaine, I struggled with an addiction to opioid painkillers. My family tried everything, including holding a family intervention. When I relapsed twice following a 21-day stay at a rehab facility, they washed their hands of me.
This does not mean that families have no role to play in the miraculous process of recovery. On the contrary, families can have a powerful impact on their addict’s struggle for recovery. Studies have shown that addicts who feel connected to a family that supports their recovery (even if that family is just one person) have a better chance of staying clean than those who believe that no one cares. However, there is a catch. The families themselves must be healthy if they hope to have a positive influence on their loved one. Although this may seem self-evident, it is easy for families to lose sight of this truth as the disease of addiction threatens their own mental health.
The process of addiction creates an alternative reality in the addict’s mind. Thinking becomes distorted and values get twisted as the search for the next high takes precedence over every other consideration. To this day, I find it hard to believe how I lost complete touch with God and with right behavior. I rationalized stealing and abusing narcotic pain medication because of the level of physical pain I was suffering, but I failed to see that I wanted to control my addiction. I wanted to have mastery over my pain. I didn’t want to “feel” anything, let alone constant physical anguish. Of course, as I sought to justify my continued drug use, I essentially put my pain under a magnifying glass.
The more enmeshed family members become in their addict’s life, the more twisted their thinking is likely to become. As a result, their efforts to help the addict grow increasingly futile, and their own well-being is compromised. A relationship that many professionals call co-dependency is established, harming both the addict and his or her family. To prevent this unhealthy relationship from occurring, or to extricate themselves from such a relationship, families must arm themselves with as much knowledge about addiction as possible. They must understand what they can do to support the recovery process and learn successful strategies for coping with addictive behaviors. They must recognize common mistakes that may actually prolong addiction and avoid getting trapped in unhealthy patterns.
I realize none of this is easy. Not for the addict. Not for the family. Addicts’ families walk an unhappy path that is strewn with many pitfalls and false starts. Mistakes are inevitable. Pain is inevitable. But so are growth and wisdom and serenity if families approach addiction with an open mind, a willingness to learn, and the acceptance that recovery, like addiction itself, is a long and complex process. Families should never give up hope for recovery. Nor should they stop living their own lives while they wait for that miracle of recovery to occur. For me, I have to be just as patient and understanding of my family’s need to pull away, recover, and heal as I need to give myself, if not more. Ultimately, both the family and the addict have to accept the things they cannot change, as well as courage to change the things they can.