Confronting the problem of addiction is almost always daunting and exhausting. The layers of complexities increase tenfold when the family system is also trying to preserve its stability and normal functioning despite the disruptions that addiction brings.
Family members are often exasperated that the usual admonishments of “how could you do this to…?”, “why can’t you see that you are hurting…?” or “how long do you think you can keep doing this…?” seem to bounce off the walls.No amount of shaming, guilt-laying or threats seems to wake the affected person up to see the realities of the wreckage that has been inflicted on the family.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviours that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
Addiction is a disease.As a family member, it is important to recognise that “you did not cause the disease, you cannot cure it and you cannot control the outcome of the disease”. The person affected needs to learn to manage their own recovery and family members need to learn effective responses towards the affected person to support the recovery of the family system.
Recovery is a life-long process that may and often include a series of relapses both on the part of the individual and on the family system.
How Does One Know When Addiction Strikes?
Symptoms of addiction are manifested by:
Compulsion – an absolute and overpowering urge towards substance use or behaviour.
Craving – an increase in usage and/or frequency to a point of necessity for survival.
Control – loss of ability to manage manner of use, to reduce or to stop.
Consequences – the use or behaviour continues despite relationship, work, school, legal and money problems.
The first step to bringing the affected person towards professional help can either motivate or unsettle the recovery process.
As professional therapists working in this field, we witnessed many instances where one of the first steps by family members would be to call the authorities.This is a painful first step that often inflicts hurt on both the affected person and the family member.The outcome could turn out to be a sharp wedge between family members which may take a long time for repair and reconciliation. Many a time, the affected person may attempt to run and hide, taking them even further away from the treatment help that they need.
The next most common first step is an intervention. This is a meeting convened to confront the person affected and interventionists may include family members, close friends and/or religious leaders.Each member shares with the person about their observations of specific negative behaviours and how these behaviours have affected them.The group then presents options to the target person and encourage the entry into rehab immediately.
An intervention is a double-edged sword. When done well, members expressed their love and care for the target person, while maintaining an uncompromising position about the person’s problem with addiction and need for treatment.When executed poorly, the target person receives a shock and feels a deep sense of betrayal from the group. The feelings of bitterness and resentment towards the whole intervention experience wipe out the initial good intentions. This, in turn, makes for poor motivation to accept and adhere to treatment. Trust towards the family system is broken which would likely take a long time to mend.
A 3rd strategy is known as CRAFT – which advocates for positive communication, positive reinforcement and allowing for natural consequences to happen. This approach takes a longer time to implement and focus on identifying actions by the affected person which are helpful towards recovery, expressing empathy towards the person’s suffering and offering to work with the person to find a solution.An example of positive reinforcement could be to engage the person in activities within the family system that the person still values. The 3rd aspect is counter-intuitive; to allow the person to bear the natural consequences of their actions, instead of covering up for them or trying to make everything “all right”.In so doing, the realities of the consequences of the addiction is experienced fully by the affected person which can create the turning point to seek treatment.
Is the Family’s Job Done When They Ship Off the Affected Person?
Addiction is a life-long recovery process and parallel to the individual’s recovery is the family system’s rebalancing process.
In broad terms, the individual’s stages of recovery are as follows:
Withdrawal – Detoxing
Honeymoon – Addiction Stops
The Wall – Protracted Abstinence
Adjustment – Working through Underlying Issues
Resolution – Acceptance of lifelong Abstinence
What is the Parallel Journey for the Family System?
Pre-treatment and Withdrawal
At the initial stage, the affected person will test the limits of the system by engineering and re-engineering their way to get to their addiction.A person in active addiction is usually not rational, nor are they conscious of the effect of their actions on others.There may be many false promises made in order to get to the addiction or manipulation of family system dynamics to garner support for their continued addiction.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Get an Accurate Understanding of Addiction.
Create Unison in the Family Approach.
Relinquish Control of Outcome of Addiction.
Self-Care and Emotional Coping for Shame, Anger and Blame.
Learn How to set and Communicate Boundaries.
Find Family Support Groups to Brainstorm Strategies – Link to Visions Programme.
During this stage, the affected person would have stopped the active addiction. The person reverts to their pre-addiction persona that the family was used to and readily embraced.There is a delusion that all is victorious, and the person is cured.Some people would even deny that there was ever an addiction in the first place.Family members and individual alike start to make wonderful plans for a new future, unaware of the undercurrent of the recovering person’s vulnerabilities to triggers, anxieties, and relapses.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Adjust Family Life to Reduce Triggers.
Rebuild Trust and Learn To Discern Through Observations.
Learn About Adjustment Process and Strategies with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
By the time the recovering person reaches this stage, his/her body is trying very hard to stabilise and find its new baseline. The struggle without their past go-to coping mechanism manifests in depression, irritability, and inability to find pleasure in the usual activities. Family members may take things personally when their overtures to reintegrate the person into their lives are rejected. Some family members may start to prefer the “happy” person who was previously addicted or start being highly suspicious that the person has relapsed.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Maintain Unison in The Family Approach.
Learn Emotional Coping to Rejection, Anxieties and Tolerance for Uncertainty.
Share and Validate Family Experiences with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
When the recovery process reaches this stage, both the individual and the family have crossed some major milestones (It is typical that some 6 months would have passed from the start of journey.).The most daunting challenges are now bubbling up in the horizon.Family relationships, lifestyles and values may be examined at a fundamental level and permanent changes may need to be made for recovery to be sustainable over the long haul.Past hurt and traumatic experiences would need to be resolved for both individual and family to move forward to a new way of interaction.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Commit to Family Approach Without Complacency.
Address the Emotional Well-Being of Other Neglected Members.
Learn Emotional Coping on Forgiveness, Grieving, Acceptance and Letting Go.
Learn Goal Setting and Strategies to Create a New Family Life Experience with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
The last stage is not a phase per-se but a continual process for the lifetime of the individual and for the family system that has learnt and grown alongside him/her.The individual is practicing commitment to his/her sober life free from addiction every single day.The family system has likely been permanently transformed by the recovery process and is now reintegrating the member into its new dynamics.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Embrace the New Family System, Lifestyle, Values and Norms.
Celebrate Successes and All Learning Experiences as A Family Unit.
Offer to Be a Supportive Family System to Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
Caregivers with a family member affected by addiction problems are often exhausted, drained dry of their empathy and compassionate capacities.
They recount countless cycles of suspended hope followed by just as many broken promises as they watch the affected person return time and again to their compulsive addiction despite a seemingly obvious trail of destruction behind them.
Caregivers learn to cope with the endless demands on their energies by blending the words uttered by the affected persons as a cocktail of lies, manipulation and attention-seeking antics to get what they want.In time, the cries for help from the affected person turn into cries for help by the boy who cried wolf and eventually fading into indistinguishable white noise.
Professor Lisa Firestone of the Glendon Association observes that there is a natural tendency for caregivers to minimise any suicide expressions in general.Responses such as, “Well, his past attempts weren’t serious.” or “He is just manipulating to get something.” are commonly observed.There is also a general tendency to not want the expressions to be true.In the case of addicts, words such as “I want to die” or “I am going to end my life” no longer convey the same meaning or gravity of their sense of desperation.
Why should we want to pay attention to an addict’s cry for help?
In Singapore, we lose 1.1 lives every day to suicide.It is still the leading cause of death for youths aged 10 to 29.While direct correlation evidence is still being researched on, studies in America have shown that more than 90% of people who kill themselves suffer from depression have a substance abuse disorder or both. Suicidality and addiction share a high concordance relationship.
When we overlay the statistics with a physiological lens, we note that both groups of persons have been observed in studies to have a dysfunctional hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which essentially controls our body’s response to stress.
In a person with a normal functioning HPA axis, on the reception of a stressor, the hypothalamus in our brain instructs the secretion of the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and vasopressin to stimulate our pituitary glands to produce the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).The ACTH, in turn, stimulates glucocorticoid synthesis and release (commonly referred to as cortisol) from the adrenal glands.This chain reaction provides a person the increased energy to handle the stress event and to do so without suffering from the pain and fatigue.When the stress event is gone, the body produces a negative feedback loop which then brings the body system back to homeostasis.
In a person exposed to a persistent or extreme level of stress, or in a person who frequently activates the HPA axis through substance use, the body starts to blunt the sensitivity of the HPA axis and blunt cell receptivity to cortisol in its efforts to return to and maintain homeostasis.This alteration to the sensitivity of the HPA axis affects our ability to tolerate physical and mental stresses and creates a need for a much bigger stimulus to activate the HPA axis (which may mean higher dosage of substance use); and when the HPA axis does react, produces a much bigger and exaggerated response (which may translate to more aggressive behaviours).
What Does This Mean In Practical Terms?
Many suicidal persons described having a voice in their head which is constantly there; telling them how much they need to seek fulfilment and comfort by reaching for the desired stimulus, whether it be a substance or a behaviour, of which one is killing themselves.Their mind starts to command them to constantly plan, to seek out and to take actions to soothe the unbearable lack that they are feeling.Eventually, the voice in the head goes from coaxing and persuading to being more intensive and aggressive towards the self to take immediate drastic actions.
The relief of death, a final refuge, becomes alluring and pleasurable and the fear of dying eventually transforms into the fear of not dying and becoming the loser, disappointment, and burden that they already believe themselves to be to their caregivers.This dual push towards drastic action and the need for an ever-increasing amount of substance in addicts leads to an increase in the risk level of suicidality.
What Can We Look Out For?
How then does the caregiver separate the wheat from the chaff amid the chaos that addiction has already wrought onto the family system to detect the risks of suicidality?
Below are some, though not exclusive, common markers to look out for. It is particularly useful to note changes in the content of the affected person’s expressions and any escalation or sudden extinction of intensity.
Intense Emotional Outbursts
Extreme Isolation or Withdrawal
The feeling of Being a Misfit in Every Way
Researching or Procuring Means of Suicide.
Self-Harm, Including Risky Substance Use or Behaviours.
Planning of Affairs.
Presence of Trigger Events
Loss of Primary Relationship.
Physical or Mental Health Conditions That Debilitate.
Abuse or Trauma Events.
What Can Caregivers Do On Observing The Signs?
Ask the Suicide Questions:
In the past few weeks, have you ever wished that you were dead?
In the past few weeks, have you felt that you or your family would be better off if you were dead?
In the past week, have you made plans about killing yourself?
Have you tried to kill yourself?
If the answers are yes to any or to all the questions, caregivers are encouraged to take the following first steps:
Be empathetic towards the suicidal wish.
The objective is not to agree with the act of suicide but to understand what has happened to lead the affected person to the conclusion that suicide is the only solution.
Find a genuine connection with the affected person.
However difficult that person might have been in your life, express what this person means to you personally and how the loss of this person would affect you.
Make a safety plan.
Ask the affected person to agree to not take or delay any action to harm themselves until they get to or you get them to professional help.
Professor Lisa Firestone observes that suicidal persons are generally ambivalent: a part of them wants to die but a part of them wants to live as well.There is often a process of the dividing up of the self within the person, between an aspect which is life affirming and engaging with the outer world; and the anti-self, which is self-critical, self-hating and ultimately suicidal.The key to recovery is to connect with and help strengthen that part of them that wants to keep on living.
6 Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine, 44(16), 3361-3363. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001299
Ever since people first crushed and fermented grapes, the dark hand of alcoholism has been present. When the first games of chance and competition were born – so too was the addiction to gambling.
We can well imagine that abusing cannabis came, even as it was used for medicinal and religious purposes in the 3rd millennium BC.
And breathing in the toxic smoke from burning tobacco was a daily human habit, well before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492 and brought it back to Europe.
But now, in our digital age, technology has accelerated our addictions.
And the stress and isolation brought to us by COVID-19 have pushed many to addictions they never thought they had.
Alcohol and cigarettes can be delivered to our doors from digital orders placed on mobile phones. The Dark Web and chemistry have conspired to create hazardous new psychoactive substances that pose as cannabis, available with a few keystrokes on a laptop. An Internet poker or roulette game can be found 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The Internet has sped us down the path of over-shopping, over-eating, and over-playing competitive games.
Ever adaptable and flexible, the Internet has even created new addictions – such as Internet pornography and anonymous sex “dating”.
If we are unlucky enough to fall down these digital “rabbit holes”, what are the results? Alice’s Wonderland? Or: failing health and finances; anxiety; depression; isolation, fractious and failing relationships, lost schooling and jobs; self-harm; and suicidal thoughts. “Jails, institutions and death” – as Alcoholics Anonymous warn us. A life without meaning, purpose or dignity.
But just as addictions have been accelerated by technology and new ones invented, technology has also enabled us to make recovery more convenient, available, cheaper, effective, and timely.
The longest journey for people suffering from addictions has been from the “bottle” to the therapy room. Any number of “barriers” stood in the way. Not enough time, not enough money, not enough knowledge of which therapist to see or what recovery involves.
But the biggest barrier of all to entering recovery was shame.
Now, therapy can be done on the Internet: information about therapists can be Googled; prices compared; social service agencies offering low-cost therapy or even free therapy can be found, and rich information and video testimonies on the recovery journey can be reviewed.
Best of all, Zoom therapy can be conducted with a therapist “once removed” from the personal space of the client by computer screens – and in the comfort of the client’s own living room or bedroom. Clients could even maintain much of their anonymity. In this safe space, shame may deign to take a back seat.
With digital recovery free from barriers, even if the sufferer is still reluctant to seek help, they may be more inclined to reflect on why they remain reluctant to get and receive help. If they do start to reflect honestly – they have started their first step on their recovery journey.
But more can be done with digital recovery.
I would submit that the next significant step in using the Internet to accelerate recovery is to bring the therapist to the clients where they are – on the sites that feed their addictions and perpetuate their suffering.
A therapist could join as a “player” in Animal Crossing, Fornite, a poker or roulette game. They can then engage suffering players in unthreatening and therapeutic conversations. Perhaps PornHub will produce an avatar “ambassador” – a therapist who guides users through a porn compulsiveness assessment? Perhaps the GrabEats avatar therapist will help customers with alcohol and calorie counts, consumption and portion control, alcohol use and dietary information – and motivational conversations to help customers build their resolve.
Engaging suffering people in their digital space opens a whole new avenue for the helping professional to guide someone towards a path of meaning and purpose.
Therapists may wish to think “Digital” – and harness the power of technology to enrich people’s lives – even if technology can also impoverish them.
What comes to mind when someone mentions alcohol? For many, alcohol is often associated with the temporary avoidance of daily struggles. Whether or not we have the habit to drink, it is a known fact that people may tend to have “blackouts” whenever they’re really drunk – and are unable to recall anything during these periods of time. As for young adults, perhaps it could also be attributed to their keen desire to look “cool” and to show off their high alcohol tolerance to their friends. However, alcohol can be addictive, and frequent heavy drinkers run the risk of becoming alcohol-dependent and hence developing alcohol use disorders. But what actions can we take if we find ourselves constantly wanting to submit to such an altered state of being, and seeing the appeal in losing control of ourselves as a form of escapism?
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.;
DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), an alcohol use disorder is essentially characterised by “a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within a 12-month period”:
Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, or home.
Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
Recurrent alcohol use in situations where it is physically dangerous.
Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
In regards to the disorder’s severity, it is safe to say that an individual categorised under the ‘mild severity’ category would display two to three of the above symptoms, while those under ‘Moderate’ would display four to five. For persons who develop six or more of such symptoms, they would, unfortunately, be diagnosed to be severely alcohol-dependent.
In the development of alcohol abuse, we need to recognise that the physiological and psychological reward system in our brains are what contributes to the clouding of negative consequences and effects associated with alcohol dependence and addiction. In other words, the possibility for change is tough, and the learnt habit can be hard to kick. Positive and negative reinforcements play a major role, especially in the beginning stages of alcohol abuse. Positive reinforcement occurs when the chances of an individual performing an activity (in this case, drinking) is heightened due to his previous experience of feeling rewarded by the “high” he or she obtains when getting drunk. On the contrary, negative reinforcement occurs when the probability of alcohol-seeking behaviour increases upon allowing the drinker to avoid certain situations or negative stimuli. Therefore, it can be said that alcohol abuse is fuelled by the physiological and psychological reward system, thus increasing one’s motivation to consume more alcohol, though sometimes a little too much.
Alcohol addiction can be greatly detrimental to our lifestyles, as well as to our physical and mental health. Known to be a depressant, alcohol can have a significant impact on our brain’s activity. If you’re drinking unhealthy levels of alcohol in an attempt to manage other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, stop it immediately! Alcohol affects neurotransmitters in your brain, potentially worsening your pre-existing condition. As such, it is crucial that we help people with alcohol use disorders to move past their addiction to a more fulfilling lifestyle.
What forms of treatment can I consider?
Alcohol abuse can be treated with psychiatric or psychological intervention, sometimes a combination of both.
When it comes to psychiatric medications, psychiatrists may prescribe medications used primarily to treat alcohol withdrawal by targeting the GABA neurotransmitters in the brain, allowing the brain to restore its natural balance when the person abstains from alcohol. Another common medication prescribed mainly affects the individual’s alcohol metabolism. The drug increases the concentration of acetaldehyde, a product formed when alcohol is broken down. The buildup of this acetaldehyde induces undesirable effects such as vomiting, hence holding the person back from consuming large amounts of alcohol. However, despite these drugs being the commonly prescribed medications, it is extremely dangerous for one to source and consume them without first consulting a professional psychiatrist. Everyone’s case is different, and people may have differing medication needs.
Another form of treatment one can consider is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is an effective method which focuses on helping one identify and uproot negative or irrational thoughts and/or behaviours. Being highly solution-focused, such forms of therapy can include trying to help these individuals to recognise situations in which they are inclined to drink, and how they can better repress themselves. As such, the main goal would be for these people to recognise their problematic behaviour, and subsequently cut down on and adhere to healthy alcohol consumption levels. Since the impact of alcohol abuse is usually not limited to the individual, family therapy may also be recommended at times, especially if the individual’s alcoholic behaviour causes others distress.
With economic growth and increased globalisation, alcohol consumption generally increases as it gets more affordable and popular as a drink for celebratory or social occasions, and even for stress-relief. This same trend has been observed in Singapore – where the per capita alcohol consumption in Singapore has nearly trebled from 2005 to 2015, and a study released in 2016 estimated the prevalence of binge drinking in Singapore to be 9.6 per cent of the population. Among young adults in the recent decade or so, the number of alcohol-related incidents including verbal abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, as well as property damage and vandalism have also increased. According to the Institute of Mental Health, a nation-wide study in 2010 found that one in 19 of those aged 18 to 34 struggle with alcohol dependence, abuse and disorders. The study also highlighted that the chances of alcohol-use disorders in this age group were twice that of age groups above 35. In this article, we will thus explore why drinking is becoming more prevalent, and the types of alcohol-related harm that young adults are increasingly vulnerable to.
For sure, individuals don’t become an alcohol addict overnight – they usually start with binge drinking, which is the worrying trend among young adults. Binge drinking is defined as the heavy consumption of alcohol within a short span of time with the intention of being inebriated. Binge drinking can be classified under mainly two categories: extensive drinking on a single occasion, or continuous drinking over days or weeks. It isn’t a rare sight to see youths gathering on a Friday night or weekends to go clubbing – places where most drinks have high alcohol content. Even with the COVID19 pandemic at present, young adults can still be seen to gather in small groups to drink and socialise. As a matter of fact, more people have turned to drinking in order to cope with the COVID19 situation. On a global scale, studies have shown that alcohol sales and consumption has risen. As an example, according to a recent study conducted by the USA Nielsen Company, there has been a 240% increase in internet alcohol sales, including hard liquor. Needless to say, it is not surprising that more Singaporeans would pick up drinking in order to cope with their unpleasant emotions and distress as well.
Frequent binge drinking may lead to alcohol dependence or addiction, especially when these individuals start consuming larger amounts of alcohol in order to obtain the same “high”. So why are more young adults exposed to alcohol drinking? Firstly, Singapore’s progress and prosperity have brought about lifestyle changes of youths and young adults compared to their parents’ generation. The increasing independence and thrill-seeking behaviours of these younger people might also include experimenting with alcohol. Secondly, globalisation has undermined many of the traditional controls on alcohol, making it widely available and aggressively marketed and promoted throughout society.
People who begin drinking early in life run the risk of developing serious alcohol problems, including alcoholism, later in life. They also are at greater risk for a variety of adverse consequences and poor performance in school or at work.
Overall, alcohol-related harm doesn’t merely include alcohol poisoning or eventual liver failure. Rather, it can also refer to:
Other related long-term diseases due to chronic heavy drinking
Unintended sexual behaviours, including sexual assault
Accidents such as those caused by drunk-driving
Crime, including violent crimes and homicide
To reiterate, binge drinking can very well lead to alcoholism and it shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Identifying people at greatest risk can help stop problems before they develop. Young people are at greater risk of alcohol-related harm than adults. Excessive alcohol drinking as a teenager can greatly increase the risk of damage to the developing brain and also lead to problems with alcohol later in life. For those of you that find yourselves increasingly inclined to drink high amounts of alcohol, do consider taking proactive steps to reduce your intake. It may require strong willpower and determination initially, but things will be easier once you take the first step. Go for alcohol addiction treatment therapy or counselling, if it can give you the push you need to counter your drinking habits, or connect with like-minded people through peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. By curbing and reducing your alcohol consumption to safe levels, you will be doing both your physical and mental health a favour.
Dr. Barry L. Jackson, 2016, Drinking & Alcohol-Related Harm Among Young Adults, video recording, Mental Health Academy
Chodkiewicz J., Talarowska M., Miniszewska J., Nawrocka N. (2020) ‘Alcohol Consumption Reported during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Initial Stage’, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(13), 4677; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17134677 (Accessed 22/08/2020)